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Florent Schmitt

born: 28 September 1870
died: 17 August 1958
country: France

The son of a cloth manufacturer, Schmitt was born in 1870 in Blâmont, Meurthe-et-Moselle, in the province of Lorraine, which within the first year of his life came to be only a few miles from the redrawn border with Germany. The close intermingling of French- and German-speaking populations in Lorraine and Alsace, which were mostly lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, accounts for his German-sounding surname. Something of a late starter, he had his first musical education in Nancy. In 1889 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied with Dubois, Lavignac, Massenet and Fauré, whom he greatly admired and whose influence may be heard in his very early work Soirs (1890), originally a set of piano preludes which he later arranged as a suite for small orchestra. The same work discloses an affinity to Schumann. After military service as a flautist in an army band, Schmitt won the Prix de Rome in 1900 with his cantata Sémiramis, and his reputation was soon after confirmed by the appearance of his major choral work Psaume XLVII (Psalm 47), scored for soprano solo, mixed chorus, organ and large orchestra. This was composed in 1904 as an ‘Envoi de Rome’ while Schmitt, as customary for a Prix de Rome winner, was working at the Villa Medici, the French Institute’s headquarters in Rome. In fact he was seldom in residence, and spent much of his time travelling throughout Europe sampling the contemporary music on offer. The music of Muslim countries, especially the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey), fascinated him, and its influence can be felt in Psaume XLVII.

Throughout a long and highly productive life, Schmitt continued to compose a host of stage, orchestral, vocal, chamber and piano works. During his career he was President of the Société nationale de musique, and a member of the Société musicale indépendante. In 1914 he was enlisted into military service, and sent to serve in the front line at his own request. After the war, from 1921 to 1924 he was Director of the Lyons Conservatoire, and in 1929 became music critic for Le Temps, a position which he occupied in the manner of a high arbiter of national taste. In 1936, as mentioned above, Schmitt was elected to the Institut de France and the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Schmitt remained, on the whole, true to the compositional ideals which had brought him his early successes. And, as sometimes seems to happen with artists who were ranked among the leaders of the avant-garde of their youth, Schmitt began to feel increasingly disenchanted with the direction that music was taking between the wars. Always a passionate French nationalist, his political leanings took an ever more pronounced rightward turn. He became increasingly vocal when he attended performances in his critical capacity, abusing new works or their performers from his seat in the hall—or, contrariwise, berating the audience when he felt they were not sufficiently appreciating some new work that he approved of. The most notorious incident occurred in November 1933, when Schmitt led a pro-Hitler and anti-Semitic protest against the performance of numbers from Der Silbersee by Kurt Weill (who had recently escaped from Nazi Germany) at the Salle Pleyel, resulting in a newspaper scandale. Weill’s French publisher, Heugel, called Schmitt an irresponsible lunatic. During the war, Schmitt remained in Vichy France and accepted honours from Pétain’s government. Such behaviour was sufficient for him and his music to fall into comparative obscurity after the war, though he continued to compose. In 1952 he was awarded the Légion d’honneur, and in 1957 he received the Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris, less than a year before his death.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2007


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