Psalm 47, Op. 38 (1904)

By Robert McColley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Written for the concert Against the Grain: The German Influence in French Music at the Turn of the Century, performed on April 13, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Igor Stravinsky knew and greatly admired the pathbreaking Psalm 47, Op.38, which Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) completed in 1904 and first heard in a highly successful public performance in December, 1906. Some supposed its bold harmony and powerful display of brass and percussion influenced Stravinsky’s celebrated Sacre du Printemps (1912). More to the point, however, is its undisputed place as first in a series of great twentieth-century compositions based on the Old Testament, breaking with the generally restrained and devotional tradition in European sacred music, and capturing in imaginative re-creation the vigor, exaltation, and passionate intensity of the ancient texts. One thinks especially of Lili Boulanger’s masterful setting of Psalm 130, Du Fond de l’Abîme (1917), Arthur Honegger’s Le Roi David (1921-3), and William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1931).

To be sure, oriental and specifically Turkish elements had appeared to fine effect in scores by Mozart and Beethoven, and in the “modern music” of Florent Schmitt’s youth: works of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov eagerly imported from Russia, and French masterpieces such as Samson et Dalila (1877) by Camille Saint-Saëns, and Hérodiade (1881) by Jules Massenet. But Schmitt had evolved a musical orientalism which was more than decoratively exotic; in Psalm 47 it seemed to express a veritable cultural soul foreign to the late Romantic sensibilities of 1906, and in the composer’s next masterpiece, La Tragédie de Salomé, Op. 50, a luxuriant eroticism equally foreign.

Schmitt would return to his oriental style from time to time in his extraordinarily long career, perhaps most notably in the extensive score he composed for the silent film based on Flaubert’s Salammbô (1925). But he was far to eclectic to be content with a single style. Many of his piano pieces in the 1890s reflected the influence of Gabriel Fauré, one of his teachers at the Paris conservatory. His next great success after Salomé was a Quintet for Piano and Strings, Op. 51, that he had started in Rome in 1901; it was very much in the style of César Franck’s great piece for the same group of instruments. Schmitt would go on to work in virtually every musical form except opera; one of his later successes was a Symphonie Concertante for piano and orchestra, first performed in 1932 by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with the composer as soloist. Devoted to travel, Schmitt absorbed cultural influences from near and far, and regularly published trenchant criticisms of the classical music of France and the world.

A native of Lorraine, Schmitt was a favorite in the city of Strasbourg, with its Alsation blend of French and German cultural elements. There, his Symphony No. 2, Op. 137, had its world premiere, a few months before the composer’s death, under the baton of the venerable Alsation conductor, Charles Munch. Schmitt was present, and enjoyed a standing ovation from the audience. Henri Dutilleux composed a memorable epitaph for the durable and prolific composer: “Florent Schmitt was the last of that great family to which Ravel, Dukas, and Roussel belonged. He remains one of them who, by a happy assimilation of German and central European influences, recalled the French school to certain notions of grandeur.”