The French composer Florent Schmitt was born on 28 September, 1870; he died in 1958. Marking the anniversary of his birth, this week’s blog presents a small selection of his compositions. If you’re unfamiliar with his works, we hope our choice will tempt you to explore further this intriguing composer’s output. For now, we’ll let the sizzle for the scene be set by one of Naxos’ most recorded artists, the conductor JoAnn Falletta:
“Much of my conducting career has been devoted to performing and recording little known works of the past, unjustly neglected jewels, inexplicably forgotten treasures. But once in a while the musicians of the Buffalo Philharmonic and I discover repertoire of such astonishing originality and depth that it is a complete mystery as to why it has languished, rarely heard.
Such is the case with French composer Florent Schmitt. His music, quintessentially French, moves beyond impressionism into a lush and tangled world of dark poetry and sumptuous story-telling. Rhapsodic, brooding, startlingly beautiful, Schmitt’s language is deeply personal – passionate yet extraordinarily detailed, sophisticated and elusive.
His incidental music for Antony and Cleopatra (8.573521) amazed us with its rough strength and sweeping lyricism, its subtlety and its extravagance. The tale of the doomed lovers is set as a fresco of six scenes that encompass a glittering, dusky, disturbing poem of love and death. In music that can only be described as a masterpiece, Schmitt fashions a complicated kaleidoscope of emotional turmoil, and in the final analysis preserves a heartrending nobility and grandeur for the protagonists.”
Here’s an extract from JoAnn Falletta’s recording of that music with the Buffalo Philharmonic: Cleopatra’s tomb.
Antony and Cleopatra:
Schmitt originally composed La Tragédie de Salomé to accompany a ballet in seven scenes; it was first performed in 1907, but remained unpublished. That hour-long version (8.223448) was scored for reduced orchestral forces, and Schmitt decided to revisit the music two years later and produce a second version, half the length, but now arranged for full orchestra. It was premiered in 1911. At the other end of the spectrum, he also prepared a version for solo piano (8.572194) that was published in 1913. Schmitt, a gifted pianist, realised the piano reduction himself, thereby giving it due authenticity. The final section of the symphonic poem version (CD93.223) which we play here is titled Danse de l’effroi (Dance of Fear). It’s in 5/4 time and features apocalyptic chromaticism and savagely hammered-out chords. Igor Stravinsky, the score’s dedicatee, wrote to Schmitt in a letter dated 23 February 1912, “Dear God it’s beautiful! It’s one of the greatest masterpieces in modern music.”
La Tragédie de Salomé:
Following his studies in piano and harmony at the Nancy Conservatoire, Schmitt’s mentors in Paris included the composers Théodore Dubois, Jules Massenet and, after fulfilling his required military service, Gabriel Fauré. In 1900, after four previous attempts, Schmitt won the coveted Prix de Rome composition competition which allowed him four years of untroubled artistic growth. Rather than staying in Rome to compose, as expected to, he travelled extensively to the Mediterranean countries, Islamic Turkey, western Asia, northern Europe, and back to the fertile creative atmosphere of Paris, gleaning influences along the way. He continued an inveterate traveller later in life and produced two volumes of Feuillets de voyage (Travel Pages) (GP623) for piano duo that marked this love of travel. From Volume 2, here’s the Mazurka.
Feuillets de voyage (Travel Pages):
Schmitt, a composer, pianist and a critic, viewed himself as an artist unfettered by any particular school. Yet, having studied under Fauré and felt the influence Debussy, his work does reveal links to the tradition of Impressionism, not least in one of his later works, the Suite en rocaille (8.570444) for flute quintet, in which vigour, elegance and passion combine. The work was presented on 21 June 1937 at the fifteenth Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music, and was listed by the Russian-born American conductor, author, pianist and composer Nicolas Slonimsky as “a work in an elegant rococo style by the dean of French modernists, Florent Schmitt.” We can listen to the work’s final movement.
Suite en rocaille:
We’ll end this amuse-bouche of Schmitt’s varied and ever-tasteful output with more music for the stage, this time a collaborative work that featured a set of stylised dances for a children’s ballet, L’Éventail de Jeanne (Jean’s Fan) (8.573354). ‘Jeanne’ refers to the Parisian hostess and patroness of the arts, Jeanne Dubost, who ran a children’s ballet school. She was at the centre of a group of musicians and writers for whom she would organise musical soirées. In the spring of 1927 she presented ten of her composer friends each with a leaf from her fan, asking them to write a short dance for her pupils. The list included Pierre-Octave Ferroud, Jacques Ibert, Alexis Roland-Manuel, Marcel Delannoy, Albert Roussel, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, and Florent Schmitt.
Schmitt provided the final, and longest movement, writing not original music, but resurrecting a Carnival Waltz he had written some twenty years earlier to conclude the ballet with a danse générale. Practical considerations were clearly not a top priority for Schmitt, since his Kermesse-Valse requires considerably larger forces than for the previous dances. Nevertheless, the expanded scoring affords a truly grand finale, which effectively combines a romantic waltz with the fun and frolics of a carnival, and provides a suitable full-stop to our short introduction to the music of this colourful, captivating composer.
L’Éventail de Jeanne (Jean’s Fan):