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Schmitt is one of the most fascinating of the French composers active in the first half of the 20th century. Brought up firmly in the "establishment" of the Paris Convervatoire (his teachers included Fauré, Massenet and Gedalge), he won the Prix de Rome after several attempts, and proceeded to travel not only to Italy, but also to Turkey and North Africa. Upon his return to Paris, his monumental score Psalm 47 (for soprano, chorus, organ and orchestra) was premiered in 1906. This was to be the only epic choral score from a French composer until Honegger wrote Le Roi David 20 years later. Several other important scores followed: the ballet La Tragedie de Salomé, premiered in 1907, later refashioned into a symphonic poem with expanded orchestra; and the Piano Quintet, a 50 minute work with a particularly moving slow movement. The Salomé score has proven to be the most enduring of Schmitt’s compositions, having been recorded by such luminaries as Dervaux, Martinon, Paray, and Coppola. In the U.S., it was championed by Mitropolous. More recently, it has been performed by Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra on that ensemble’s U.S. tour in the mid-1980s. Schmitt continued to compose up until the day he died (at age 88 in 1958). His catalogued compositions number 138, the last being the Symphony no. 2, premiered in April of 1958 by Charles Munch in France, with the composer in attendence. Most of Schmitt’s works have been published by Durand (some earlier ones by Salabert). His music is turning up more frequently on CD. Best ones to sample include the Psalm 47 on EMI with Martinon; La Tragedie de Salomé in the 1912 re-work on Mercury Living Presence with Paray; the Piano Quintet with Rudolf Bartshi on Accord; the Symphonie Concertante for Piano & Orchestra with Sermet on Valois; the great film music to Salammbo on Ades; and the Trois Rapsodies for two pianos with Paik and Sermet on Valois.
In addition to his composing, Schmitt was very active in the music scene of Paris, a critic for several publications, and later director of the Lyon Convervatory (succeeding Dukas). He was a decorated citizen of France, a member of l’Institute, and a recipient of the Legion of Honor. Having been a good friend of the youthful Igor Stravinsky in the early 1900s, the two had a falling out in later years. The two met one last time at an American Embassy function in Paris in 1957. A photo from that occasion shows the two old gentlemen with Vera Stravinsky, and published in several of the Stravinsky books that are currently on the market.