It’s 29 May 1913 and, in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is producing one of those splendid scandales in which the city specialises. In the midst of the uproar, with the aristos in their boxes shouting, hooting and blowing on their hollow door keys, a stentorian voice breaks through: ‘Taisez-vous, garces du seizième!’ ‘Shut your gobs, you posh sluts!’

It is the voice of the composer Florent Schmitt – and not the first or last time it will be heard sowing discord and aggravation. Of course, this sort of behaviour is not recommended if you want to make friends and influence people, and in Schmitt’s case it has undoubtedly gone some way to marginalising him in the field of French culture. So if his name is unknown to you, no shame is attached.

Who was Florent Schmitt?

Florent Schmitt was a fascinating French composer who spanned the late 19th and 20th centuries. In 1900 he won the Prix de Rome. He is famous for producing rich, colourful and dramatic scores

When and where was Schmitt born?

It all started quite normally. Florent was born on 28 September 1870 in Blâmont in the Vosges, near the border with Germany that would be agreed the following year after the Franco-Prussian War. His father, a haberdasher, was also an amateur organist and both parents encouraged Florent’s interest in music, although the boy’s independent spirit was already demonstrated in his complaint that ‘organists are people who always play in 4/4’ (signs of things to come).

Where did Schmitt study?

Music he wrote between the ages of 14 and 17, already showing his love for complex textures, was enough to gain him a place in the Nancy Conservatoire. In 1889 his piano teacher recommended him to Théodore Dubois, the director of the Paris Conservatoire, and in September of that year he moved to the capital. Even if Dubois was unhappy with Florent’s addiction to chromaticism, Massenet recognised his ‘nature exceptionnelle’.

Massenet resigned in 1896 to be replaced soon afterwards by Fauré, and it was under the latter’s tutelage that in 1900, in his last chance as a 30 year-old, Schmitt won the Prix de Rome with his cantata Sémiramis (his typically vivid response being ‘if I hadn’t hit the bull’s eye this year, I’d have had to jump in the lake !’). So off to Rome he went.

Arriving at the Villa Médicis on 30 December on the stroke of midnight, he had to climb over the fence into the garden. Similar physical activity then marked his four years there, during which he actually spent most of his time travelling round Europe, the Near East and North Africa, imbibing ‘exotic’ music that was soon to mark his own.

The other major influence was César Franck, and in particular his Piano Quintet which, said Schmitt, ‘contains more ideas and emotions than the complete works of five members of the Institut, including Saint-Saëns’. In Schmitt’s own Quintet, begun but not finished in Rome, the double-dotted rhythms proclaim their allegiance.

His last two years in Rome produced his first two works now in the repertoire. The symphonic study Le Palais hanté of 1904, on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, depicts the mysterious, fear-ridden atmosphere of the ‘evil things, in robes of sorrow’ that assail the king’s palace. Spooky tritones on bass clarinet begin the piece, after which unease is, as often with Schmitt, painted by a series of crescendos and diminuendos. His friend Ravel wrote to him after the premiere to say how much he’d enjoyed it, while admitting ‘that our tendencies are not exactly the same’.

What is Schmitt's most famous piece?

This is certainly true of Schmitt’s last work from Rome and one of his most famous, a tumultuous, triumphal setting of Psalm 47 (known as Psaume XLVII). He extended the original text to about three times its length through internal repetitions, most notably of the opening invocation ‘O clap your hands, ye people’, in which the hard, percussive sound of ‘frappez’ is dominant.

Altogether it’s a very exciting work, much recorded, whose reception in 1905 by the French Academy the contrarian Schmitt no doubt savoured: ‘violent methods, a horror of the simple and natural, noisy orchestra, almost impossible choral parts, these are the features one notes in this work full of talent, but whose tendencies the Academy is unable to approve.’

Given how vast Schmitt’s output was – when he died in 1958 at the age of 87, his last work, a four-part mass, bore the opus number 138 – its standard was, not surprisingly, variable. The Academy’s verdict was one often echoed over the years, French critics quick to sense Schmitt’s tenuous relationship with the hallowed national virtues of lightness, clarity, elegance and wit – sarcastic remarks on the lines of ‘he never uses one note where five will do’ are rife.

Schmitt the critic

In some ways, he reminds one of Berlioz and, like him, Schmitt made enemies through his many articles and reviews in which he wrote without fear or favour. That loud voice could also deliver stinging remarks at lesser volume. In 1932 the Paris Opéra, putting on Milhaud’s opera Maximilien, found itself saddled with one of its most resounding flops (it lasted seven performances).

After the premiere, friends gathered in a café where, Poulenc recalls, ‘we said nothing about the music’. Even if difficult for Milhaud, it was, after a fashion, polite. Not so Schmitt. Meeting Milhaud in a corridor during the interval, he asked the composer ‘Are you staying ?’ Half a century later, when Schmitt’s name came up in the presence of Milhaud’s widow, she was heard to mutter ‘Stupid man!’

What else did Schmitt compose?

With so many works to choose from, it’s only sensible to describe just a few of the best. Schmitt was an excellent pianist and Alfred Cortot had good things to say about his music for the instrument, admiring its ‘magnificent combination of enthusiasm and disrespect, of sensitivity and brusqueness’.

But, as someone not really in tune with modern music, his real love is for the first volume of Musiques intimes Op. 16, published in 1900 but containing pieces written throughout the 1890s. Here Schmitt is not trying to impress, simply taking Fauréan patterns and giving them a slightly new twist. Volume 2, from 1904, is more complex and harder to play.

Also from 1904 are the wonderful Op. 53 Three Rhapsodies for two pianos – waltzes, in fact, dedicated to three of his ‘gods’, Chabrier, Chopin and Johann Strauss (though the modulations in the third might have made its dedicatee choke on his Sachertorte). In 1905, Schmitt got married and his sense of humour surfaced again in the nickname given to their son Jean – ‘Raton’ or ‘Little Rat’, despite which father and son remained very close.

The light-hearted Schmitt does reappear occasionally in his music, as in the delightful Suite en rocaille of 1934 for flute, harp and strings (Rockery Suite – or possibly Rubble Suite?) which puts Baroque clichés through the mincer. But he’s heard at his finest and most impressive in three orchestral scores written from 1907 onwards: La Tragédie de Salomé, Antoine et Cléopâtre and Salammbô.

Originally, in 1907, La Tragédie de Salomé was a long ballet score. Either in that form or the shorter version for larger orchestra he made in 1909, it was danced successively by Loïe Fuller, Tamara Karsavina and Ida Rubinstein and remained in the Opéra repertoire until the 1950s.

This is Schmitt in exotic vein, with sparkling orchestration, chromatic harmony, trills and Middle-Eastern melodies, often with a long initial note flowering into melismas of shorter ones. The work ends with two dances for Salomé, a ‘lascivious dance’ before she seizes the severed head of John the Baptist and hurls it into the sea, followed by a ‘dance of fear’, in 5/4, as the palace is engulfed in flames. As in much of Schmitt’s orchestral music, he does wonders with repeated short phrases, varied simply through changes of key and orchestral colour.

Ida Rubinstein was also the moving spirit behind the ballet Antoine et Cléopâtre put on at the Opéra in 1920. It suffered from being too long – Cleopatra didn’t die until 2am – and from her spoken dialogue with Antony being inaudible, but the music is dramatic in the extreme, ranging from the magical Impressionism of the ‘Night in the Queen’s palace’ to the wild energy of ‘The Battle of Actium’: here the chaos of warfare, leading to Antony’s defeat by the emperor-to-be Augustus, is depicted in Schmitt’s favourite smorgasbord of metres, successively 3/8, 9/8, 6/8, 3/4, 3/2, 4/2, 5/2.

Finally, Schmitt’s exotic interest was assuaged in 1925 by writing music for the film Salammbô, inspired by Flaubert’s 1862 novel about the Carthaginian princess. Again, Impressionism and modernist barbarism rub shoulders, and Schmitt’s reduction of the two-hour score to three orchestral suites has rightly been praised as ‘a worthy match for Flaubert’s impassioned prose’.

Schmitt was rarely afraid to make his presence felt. A story goes that some poor pianist, engaged on disentangling Schmitt’s counterpoint, had to cope with the composer’s voice from the back of the hall shouting ‘It’s a C SHARP !’ Yes, life around him was never dull. And his music likewise – now mercifully free of the composer’s fortissimo exhortations.

When did Schmitt die?

In 958, two months after travelling to Strasbourg to hear Charles Munch conduct the premiere of his Second Symphony, Schmitt died aged 87 at home in Neuilly-sur-Seine, to the west of Paris


Roger NicholsJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine