Florent Schmitt

Picture of Florent Schmitt

The name of Florent Schmitt is little known in South Africa: yet many of his compositions were highly successful; his dramatic ballet, "La Tragedie de Salomé," a symphonie concertante for piano, and, in particular his quintet for piano and strings which in many ways, is probably his masterpiece. This quintet is conceived on an enormous scale, lasts about an hour, and occupied the composer for eight years. It was the central piece in the programme of Schmitt's works we gave in Glasgow, 14th March 1933.

Schmitt was born in 1870, and died 88 years later in France: he began as a disciple of Berlioz, and later was bracketed, along with Roger Ducasse, Paul Ladmirault, Paul Dukas and Charles Koechlin in the French Conservative group; which perhaps bears more affinity to German solidity than French Impressionism. Schmitt was a French impressionist composer, with his head in the clouds and his feet on the ground. When our usual reception committee met Schmitt at the station on his arrival for our Glasgow concert, we found he spoke no English. We slowly perambulated down the platform with our two French speakers - Guy McCrone and H.K. Wood - trying their best to keep up a running commentary with an anything but benign looking Frenchman. Out of the tail of our eye, we became aware that a very plain, dowdy-looking Frenchwoman was trailing after us: she looked like a cross between a prison warden and a female Maigret: somehow we sensed there was a connection between the mysterious female and our new arrival. Looking from the rear window of our taxi, I saw the Grand Hotel and as he didn't appear to need either us or our company, beyond the portals of the hotel, we made arrangements with him for tomorrow’s rehearsals and said our polite "au revoirs" but not, however, before we had duly noted the arrival and reception of Madame Maigret - with Mr. Schmitt looking everywhere except at the unprepossessing lady, whom we now suspected had travelled with him, perhaps to ease the strain and tension of an unpredictable professional engagement. The following morning, we assembled at the house of H.K. Wood - 116 Pitt Street, Glasgow - for rehearsal: "we" included members of the string quartet which individually and collectively were to cover the whole Schmitt programme with Schmitt, of course, as pianist. The leader, Edward Dennis, possessed remarkable finger dexterity on his instrument, which allowed him to play almost anything written for the violin; as a duo-team we had previously performed really tough sonatas like Bartok (there are still few violin sonatas more difficult than Bartok No. 1), Hindemith and Bloch. Unfortunately, his tone was small, inclined to be sugary, and being a one-time leader of movie orchestras, allowed his pronounced inferiority complex to ruffle him somewhat, when involved in performances of upper-crust chamber music; in short he was a very touchy customer.

We introduced the four players to Schmitt, who seemed none too pleased at the sight; he shrugged his shoulders and followed Mr. Dennis and his boys rather sulkily into the music room. The first work to be rehearsed was his Sonate Libre en Deux Parties Enchaines.

At a first rehearsal, particularly between a noted guest-artist and our local players, we had found the best policy was to leave them to get acquainted with each other - personally and musically without what might prove - remembering the van Dieren fiasco - the embarrassment of an audience, however small. Straining our ears through the closed door, we could hear the opening strains of the Schmitt sonata, which - after a couple of bars or so - came to a sudden halt: the composer saying something we couldn't catch, then playing the opening bars on the piano, obviously showing his partner the correct tempo. The music started again and went on - so far as one could judge - for several pages. We heaved a sigh of relief - Mr. Dennis was behaving himself. The first part of this sonata, as I remember it - for I haven't seen a copy for 25 years - is rhapsodic in style, with many tempo changes and calling for much rubato playing and subtle co-operation from the performers. Suddenly the music broke off; and we could hear the tone, if not the words of Schmitt's voice, speaking heatedly to his partner: he sounded anything but amiable. Dennis replied in his conceited, staccato voice - a moment's silence, and Schmitt burst excitedly through the door - "Ah! mon Dieu" he squeaked - "Quel violiniste!" Guy McCrone, our spokesman, tried to smooth him down - the work was somewhat strange to Mr. Dennis: if the Master would only have a little patience, he would find him - we could assure the maestro - a very experienced player. Schmitt looked sceptical, but agreed to return to the music room and the music commenced again. Five minutes later, Dennis stormed out to us: "This damned Frenchman is impossible. He insults me. Why should I stay here to be insulted? It’s a lousy sonata anyway, and he can't even play his own music. I’m off home" and he started to pack his fiddle. With persuasion, flattery and a whole string of lies, we eventually persuaded Dennis to return to the now red-hot music room; and again the rehearsal began. Some really beautiful music sailed through the closed door for the next ten minutes or so; we relaxed and smiled at one another happily. Thank heavens that temperamental crisis was over. Suddenly, there was an unpleasant crash; the sound of the piano lid being banged shut; and there was Schmitt in our midst, his face purple with rage, fuming and spluttering wildly "Ce'st impossible de jouer avec un idiot comme ca! Vous m'insultez en demandant que je joue avec ce violoniste. Quel imbecile! Quel idiot! Je refuse." in his Gallic excitement, he even grabbed one of our committee, Ernest Boden by the coat collar and waded into him good and proper for having the impertinence to provide him with such an incompetent, block-head of a violinist. He would not play. There would be no concert! He was going home!!!

Not being able to follow Schmitt's explosive outburst in a foreign language, it was only later I discovered he had mistaken Boden for me, hence the attack. I got Guy McCrone the only one of our committee who knew what Schmitt was talking about (though it wasn't difficult to guess!) to say that Dennis and I had rehearsed Schmitt's violin sonata together, and as we understood one another, and had played many times as a duo, we would not involve the Maestro in this particular performance, but would give it ourselves. He calmed down a bit at that, and after giving him tea, slyly laced by me with a tot of cognac, he perked up sufficiently to agree to play the piano in the other two works.

The first rehearsal of the quintet went comparatively smoothly, with only an occasional outburst from the composer, and it was noticeable, that after two further rehearsals, Schmitt lost something of his glum looks and became almost human. When it came to the actual performance, however, he kept up an almost uninterrupted running commentary of disapproving grunts including a few "Allez vite" exclamations. This vocal counterpoint may have reached me (who was turning pages for him) more forcefully than it did the alas small audience, which received the performance with great enthusiasm. The irrepressible D.C. Parker wrote that "Rarely, if ever, had he heard a piano made to sound so loudly for such long stretches!" Obviously Mr. Parker has never heard Ronald Stevenson playing his Passacaglia!

Later that year, with the same string players and myself at the piano, we repeated the quintet, a work which, in my opinion, would be placed among the first six piano quintets ever written; but mind you, there aren’t so very many. The piano part is real concerto stuff, and it is difficult to get string players with sufficiently strong tone to hold their own. There is behind the work, even in the lyrical passages, a feeling of inescapable vitality.

The Schmitt concert was repeated the following evening in the University Music Class Room, Edinburgh. The Scotsman critic wrote of the composer’s characteristic impetuosity (we could answer for this!) and the concert as an unusual one for Edinburgh, but very interesting one, and which provided much material for thought! (whatever that may mean). At both concerts, Mr. Schmitt asked the management if he could have a complimentary ticket for a friend: said "friend" was never introduced to any of us by Schmitt, nor did he ever betray that he was even aware of her existence, except once: just as the London train was about to pull out of Waverley Station, Schmitt leaned out of the window and in a confidential whisper to Guy McCrone said "Monsieur Crone, when you come to Paris to see me, please do not mention to my wife anything about my English girl friend".