The close intermingling of French and German-speaking populations in Lorraine and Alsace, which were mostly lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, accounts for Florent Schmitt’s German-sounding surname. Within the first year of his life, his birthplace (Blâmont in Lorraine) found itself only a few miles from the redrawn border with Germany. The son of a cloth manufacturer, he was something of a late-starter as a musician. After lessons in Nancy, in 1889 he entered the Paris Conservatoire. There ensued military service as a flautist in an army band, after which Schmitt won the Prix de Rome in 1900; his first public success was his major choral work, Psalm 47, composed at the Villa Medici, the French Institute’s headquarters in Rome.
In fact Schmitt 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 Turkey, fascinated him, and its influence can be felt in Psalm 47, whose monumental and exotic aspects led to him being dubbed ‘the new Berlioz’ by the French musical press.
A stream of ambitious and forceful compositions followed which confirmed Schmitt as the French composer most directly influenced by German late-Romantic music, and by the Russian nationalist composers. Schmitt was an ardent champion of new music and was an early advocate for Stravinsky, an attitude which (for a time) attracted Stravinsky’s friendship and praise, especially for Schmitt’s most famous work, the ballet La tragédie de Salomé.
Throughout a long and highly productive life, Schmitt continued to compose a host of highly-coloured 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 Independante. 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 Schmitt was elected to the Institut de France and the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
He remained, on the whole, true to the compositional ideals which had brought him his early successes, but he began to feel increasingly disenchanted with the directions that music was taking between the wars. Always a passionate French nationalist, his political leanings took an ever more pronounced rightward turn. 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.
Profile © Calum MacDonald