I was at a party recently, celebrating a friend’s 60th birthday. There was plenty of Bollinger chilling, popping and fizzing to set the amiable mood that soon took hold. But the birthday boy and one if his guests were soon sounding a little exasperated by the way in which their conversation kept hitting the buffers. They were discussing the same composer, of whom they were both big fans, but were beset by discrepancies over his style and output. I then realised that they were talking about not one, but two composers: Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) and Florent Schmitt (1870-1958), an easy surname-difference to spot visually – a ‘tee’ or a ‘dee’ — but not aurally.
Regular visitors to the Naxos blog may remember a piece we published by way of an introduction to the French composer Florent Schmitt a few months ago. Today, then, it’s the turn of the Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Schmidt. I’ll post a link to the Florent Schmitt blog at the end of this post, together with the audio clips, so that any readers who are curious enough can hear with a few clicks how the two compare and contrast.
Before we get under way, here’s an extract for you to have a go at identifying as music by a French Schmitt or a non-French Schmidt. The answer will be revealed later.
The musician and musicologist Hans Keller once wrote: “As a composer, conductor, piano virtuoso, chamber-music pianist, and string-quartet cellist, Franz Schmidt was the most complete musician I have come across in my life”. As a composer, Schmidt’s posthumous reputation has been somewhat overshadowed by such names as Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner along with other Romantic symphonists. Perhaps some of the greatest damage to his standing, however, came as a result of being lauded by Nazi authorities as a composer of distinction after the 1938 annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany, with subsequent accusations of being a Nazi sympathiser — an allegation now largely discredited.
Schmidt was born in 1874 in the Hungarian town of Pressburg, now Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. In 1890 he enrolled at the Vienna Conservatory in Bruckner’s harmony class and as a cello student; it was as a cellist that he began his career. Leaving the Conservatory in 1896 he won a place in the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra, thus automatically becoming a member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and performing frequently under the direction of Gustav Mahler.
Income from a number of teaching posts enabled Schmidt to abandon the orchestral ranks so that he could concentrate on composing, to which he was a late starter and a slow developer. But develop he certainly did, and his final output comprised four symphonies, two piano concertos for the left hand, two operas, chamber music, a few piano pieces and a number of organ works. The difference between Schmidt’s first and last compositions is quite arresting, a progression I hope you’ll come to appreciate after hearing the following extracts.
Written in 1899, his First Symphony received a prize from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, but wasn’t given its premiere in Vienna until January 25th, 1902, when it was conducted by Schmidt himself. The work was well received, which needled some supporters of Mahler, who was at that time also struggling to gain a symphonic foothold in Vienna. The influence of Wagner, Brahms and Bruckner can be heard, but Schmidt’s own personal voice is already established. Let’s hear how the work ends.
First Symphony (8.570828)
Schmidt had even longer to wait for the premiere of his opera Notre Dame, based on Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre Dame de Paris; written in 1904, it wasn’t performed until 1914. We can hear Asyl! Asyl! from Act II, a dramatic interlude for chorus that features the element of counterpoint that makes frequent appearances in his output.
Asyl! Asyl! (C10248-49)
Schmidt wrote his Symphony No. 2 between 1911 and 1913; it was published in Vienna the following year. It’s scored for a large orchestra of piccolo, three flutes, two oboes and cor anglais, E flat clarinet, three B flat clarinets, a bass clarinet, two bassoons, a contra-bassoon, eight horns, four trumpets, two tenor and one bass trombone, a contra-bass tuba, four timpani, a bass drum, side drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tam-tam and a large body of strings (each section divided into six at one point). This expansiveness is reflected in the music’s confidence and colour. See if you agree, while listening to this extract from the first movement.
Second Symphony (8.570589)
Written in 1927-28 and dedicated to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Schmidt’s Third Symphony was premiered in the year of its completion. It was written in response to a competition organised by the UK’s Columbia Graphophone Company (an offshoot of the American Columbia Phonograph Company) for a symphony ’in the spirit of Schubert’ that would suitably mark the centenary of that composer’s death. Schmidt’s submission didn’t succeed in becoming the overall winner, but it did capture the prize for the Austrian section. In contrast to his Second Symphony, it’s scored for a more traditionally sized orchestra and, although Schmidt never descends into Schubertian pastiche, the work sounds restricted by its more conservative orientation. Perhaps you might agree after listening to the finale’s closing stretch.
Third Symphony (8.572119)
What a difference the following five years made to the style and substance of the Fourth Symphony. I was reading an online article about Schmidt recently, and one entry in the Readers’ Comments section caught my eye: “Definitely an unfairly neglected composer. Schmidt’s haunting, exquisite, profound 4th Symphony is, for me, the Viennese symphonic tradition’s true swansong.”
While the harmonic language of the last extract may have left you satisfied, but hardly sizzling (Schmidt has often been observed as a tonal conservative), that of The Fourth is far less predictable, witness the opening of the work that goes on an extensive harmonic meander before a definitive perfect cadence.
Fourth Symphony, Movt. I (8.572118)
Taking a second bite at this symphonic cherry, we can listen to the end of the scherzo third movement; note the presence of counterpoint again.
Fourth Symphony, Movt. III (8.572118)
Finally, we visit Schmidt’s last work, his oratorio The Book with Seven Seals, in which biblical texts from The Book of the Apocalypse coincidentally reverberated with the horrors of war that were brewing at the time of its composition. Composed during the period 1937-38, it struck a chord with the Hitler regime that saw it as a projection of their own, absolute, destructive force of power. Unfortunately for Schmidt, the regime arrogantly appropriated its 1938 premiere. Maybe in some way fortunately for him, he died the following year, never to see the havoc the Nazis wreaked, including the murder of his mentally ill wife as part of their forced euthanasia programme.
Simone Young, the conductor on our extract, neatly sums up The Book with Seven Seals:
“This highly demanding work requires, from all the participants, the sensitivity of a Bach Passion and the radiant power of a Lohengrin performance. Schmidt’s finely wrought harmonic complexity is a completely independent musical language — it is more or less the last word in German Romanticism, but remained audible during the period of Expressionism as well. Above all, the way Schmidt leads the text from recitatives through lyrical passages to the great fugal complexes offers a narration that is simply overwhelming.”
I’ve chosen the conclusion of Part I of the oratorio to stand as Schmidt’s epitaph for today: Und ich sah, dass das Lamm der Siegel sechstes auftat.
The Book with Seven Seals (OC1840)
And, very finally, the teaser extract from the start of our blog was again by Franz Schmidt – the closing section of his Fuga Solemnis for organ, 16 wind instruments and percussion.
Follow this link for the blog about Florent Schmitt.
And here are the audio extracts used in that post.
Antony and Cleopatra (8.573521)
La Tragédie de Salomé (CD93.223)
Feuillets de voyage (Travel Pages) (GP623)
Suite en rocaille (8.570444)
L’Éventail de Jeanne (Jean’s Fan) (8.573354)