Franz Schmidt

Franz Schmidt

Franz Schmidt (December 22, 1874 – February 11, 1939) was an Austrian composer, cellist and pianist.


Schmidt was born in Pressburg, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (this is now Bratislava, Slovakia). His earliest teacher was his mother, an accomplished pianist, who gave him a systematic instruction in the keyboard works of J. S. Bach. He received a thorough foundation in theory from brother Felizian Moczik, the outstanding organist at the Franciscan church in Pressburg. [Biographical note in insert to Amadeo recording AVRS 5004-5005.] He studied piano briefly with Theodor Leschetizky, with whom he clashed. He moved to Vienna with his family in 1888, and studied at the Vienna Conservatory (composition with Robert Fuchs, cello with Ferdinand Hellmesberger and theory (the counterpoint class) with Anton Bruckner), graduating "with excellence" in 1896.

He beat 13 other applicants in obtaining a post as cellist with the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra, with whom he played, often under Mahler, until 1914. Mahler habitually had all the cello solos played by Schmidt, even though Friedrich Buxbaum was actually the principal cellist. Schmidt was also in demand as a chamber musician, playing in the string quartet led by Arnold Schoenberg’s close friend Oskar Adler, who also became Schmidt’s doctor: Schmidt and Schoenberg maintained cordial relations despite their vast differences in style. In 1914 he took up a professorship (in piano) at the Vienna Conservatory, which had been recently renamed to Imperial Academy of Music and the performing arts. In 1925 he became Director of the Academy, and from 1927 to 1931 Rector.

As teacher for piano, cello, counterpoint and composition at the Academy he trained numerous musicians, conductors and composers who later became famous. Among his best-known students are above all the pianist Friedrich Wührer and Alfred Rosé (son of Arnold Rosé, the legendary founder of the Rosé Quartet, Konzertmeister of the Vienna Philharmonic and brother-in-law of Gustav Mahler). Among the composers should be mentioned Theodor Berger, Marcel Rubin and Alfred Uhl. He received many tokens of the high esteem in which he was held, above all the Franz-Josef Order, and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Vienna. [This paragraph taken from German Wikipedia.]

Schmidt's private life was in stark contrast to the success of his distinguished professional career, and was overshadowed by tragedy. His first wife was, from 1919, confined in the Vienna mental hospital Am Steinhof, and three years after his death was murdered under the Nazi euthanasia laws. His daughter Emma died completely unexpectedly after the birth of her first child. Schmidt experienced a spiritual and physical breakdown after this, but achieved an artistic revival and resolution in his Fourth Symphony of 1933 (which he inscribed as "Requiem for my Daughter") and, especially, in his oratorio. His second marriage, to a successful young piano student, for the first time brought some desperately-needed stability into the private life of the artist, who was plagued by many serious health problems. [This paragraph re-worked from German Wikipedia.] Schmidt's worsening health forced his retirement from the Academy in early 1937. In the last year of his life Austria was brought into the German Reich by the Anschluss, and Schmidt was fêted by the Nazi authorities as the greatest living composer of the so-called Ostmark. He was given a commission to write a cantata entitled "The German Resurrection" which, after 1945, was taken by many as a reason to brand him as having been tainted by Nazi sympathy. However, Schmidt left this composition unfinished, and in summer and autumn 1938, a few months before his death, set it aside to devote himself to two other commissioned works for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein (brother of the philosopher Ludwig), for whom he had often composed: the Clarinet Quintet in A major and the solo Toccata in D minor. (Wittgenstein, being a Christian of Jewish descent, had been banned from public performance after the Anschluss and escaped to the U.S. in 1938.) Schmidt died on 11 February 1939. [This paragraph from German Wikipedia.]

Œuvre (commentary)

As a composer, Schmidt was slow to develop, but his reputation, at least in Austria, saw a steady growth from the late 1890s until his death in 1939. In his music, Schmidt continued to develop the Viennese classic-romantic traditions he inherited from Schubert, Brahms and his own master, Bruckner. He also takes forward the exotic ‘gypsy’ style of Liszt and Brahms. His works are monumental in form and firmly tonal in language, though quite often innovative in their designs and clearly open to some of the new developments in musical syntax initiated by Mahler and Schoenberg. Although Schmidt did not write a lot of chamber music, what he did write, in the opinion of such critics as Wilhelm Altmann, was important and of high quality. Although Schmidt's organ works may resemble others of the era in terms of length, complexity, and difficulty, they are forward-looking in being conceived for the smaller, clearer, classical-style instruments of the "Orgelbewegung", which he advocated. Schmidt worked mainly in large forms, including four symphonies (1899, 1913, 1928 and 1933) and two operas: "Notre Dame" (1904-6) and "Fredigundis" (1916-21). A CD recording of "Notre Dame" has been available for many years, starring Dame Gwyneth Jones and James King.


However no really adequate recording has been made of the far more interesting "Fredigundis", for which there was but one "unauthorized" release in the early 1980s on the Voce Label of an Austrian Radio broadcast of a 1979 Vienna performance under the direction of Ernst Marzendorfer. In it, among numerous "royal fanfares," (Fredigundis held the French throne in the 8th Century) are some of Schmidt's most wonderful and glorious pages. [ A reasonable assumption would be that Jerome Kern was in the audience for its Berlin premier in 1922, because the hit song, "The Way You Look Tonight," featured in the film Swing Time, and which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1936, bears a striking resemblance to the main theme from Act II of "Fredigundis" (the main difference being that the theme in Fredigundis, which goes through a whole series of transformations, is usually heard in march time). Credits went to Jerome Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, the latter of whom claims to have heard the theme for the first time when Jerome Kern played it for her her on the piano, and there is little reason to doubt her. Kern himself may well have been unconscious of the borrowing.]

The "New Grove" states flatly that "Fredigundis" was a failure as Opera, but that is more likely attributable to the fact that Queen Fredigundis herself was "anything but" a "lovely lady," making the title character of Berg's "Lulu" seem like a princess in comparison. By the time Act III rolls around, things are pretty dismal and dark, and Schmidt is by this time harmonically on the threshold of "Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln". Despite some possible faults with the libretto, this is musically a wonderful opera which deserves a modern and fair hearing. It is unfortunate that Marzendorfer's 1979 performance wasn't better recorded, because the performance-- offstage choruses and brass fanfares and all-- was veritably stupendous.

"The Book with Seven Seals"

"See article The book with seven seals (oratorio)"
Schmidt's crowning achievement was the oratorio "Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln" (1935-37), a setting of passages from the Book of Revelation. His choice of subject was prophetic: with hindsight the work appears to foretell, in the most powerful terms, the disasters that were shortly to be visited upon Europe in the Second World War. Here his invention rises to a sustained pitch of genius. A narrative upon the text of the oratorio was provided by the composer. [F. Schmidt, Einige Bemerkungen zum text des Oratoriums (Written for the original production). Reproduced in insert booklet to recording, Amadeo LP set AVRS 5004/5005 St, cond. Anton Lippe, Munich Philharmonic, Grazer Domchor, Franz Illenberger (organ), with Julius Patzak (Evangelist), Otto Wiener (Voice of God), Hanny Steffek, Hertha Töpper, Erich Majkut, Frederick Guthrie. Recorded Stephaniesaal, Graz, January 1962.]

Schmidt's oratorio stands in the Austro-German tradition stretching back to the time of Bach and Handel. He was the first to write an oratorio fully on the subject of the Book of Revelation (as opposed to a Last Judgement in a "Requiem" like that of Verdi). Far from glorifying its subject, it is a mystical contemplation, a horrified warning, and a prayer for salvation. The premiere was held in Vienna on 15 June 1938, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Oswald Kabasta: the soloists were Rudolf Gerlach (John), Erika Rokyta, Enid Szantho, Anton Dermota, Josef von Manowarda and with Franz Schütz at the organ.

Schmidt's premiere was made much of by the Nazis (who had annexed Austria shortly before), and Schmidt was seen to give the Nazi salute. His conductor Kabasta was apparently an enthusiastic Nazi who, being prohibited from conducting in 1946 during de-nazification, committed suicide. These facts long placed Schmidt's posthumous reputation under a cloud. His lifelong friend and colleague Oskar Adler, who fled the Nazis in 1938, wrote afterwards that Schmidt was never a Nazi and never anti-semitic but was extremely naïve about politics. Hans Keller gave similar endorsement. Most of his principal musical friends were Jews, and they benefited from his generosity.

This work provided the only "actual" model for the "fictional" oratorio "Apocalypsis cum Figuris" described by Thomas Mann in his 1947 novel Doctor Faustus. Mann invests his fictional oratorio and its composer with the demonic conflicts in German society leading to the catastrophe of the Nazi ideology and the Second World War. That was indeed the context in which Schmidt's oratorio appeared, but his private character and artistic motivations (as distinct from the society in which they existed) are not to be construed, in "reality" or in sum, through the lens of Mann's "literary" formula, which was assembled from a very wide array of Germanic themes and personalities.


Schmidt is generally, if erroneously, regarded as a conservative composer (such labels rest upon yet-to-be-resolved aesthetic/stylistic arguments), but the rhythmic subtlety and harmonic complexity of much of his music belie this. His music is modern without being modernist, combining a reverence for the great Austro-German lineage of composers with very personal innovations in harmony and orchestration. The considerable technical accomplishment of his music ought to compel respect, but he seems to have fallen between two stools: his works are too complex for the conservatively-minded, yet too obviously traditional for the avant-garde (they are also notoriously difficult to perform). Since the 1970s his music has enjoyed a modest revival which looks set to continue as it is rediscovered and re-evaluated.

*Symphony No. 1 in E Major.
Written in 1896 at age 22. The scherzo of this precociously accomplished symphony (which shows a mature absorption of Bruckner and Richard Strauss) is especially noteworthy, while in the Finale, Schmidt demonstrates his contrapuntal skills.

*Symphony No. 2 in E Flat Major.
Written in 1913 in a style strongly reminiscent of Strauss and Reger. This is Schmidt's largest symphony in terms of duration and employs a huge orchestra. The central movement (of three) is a highly ingenious set of variations, which are grouped to suggest the characters of slow movement and scherzo. The complex scoring of this magnificent symphony renders it a considerable challenge for most orchestras.

*Symphony No. 3 in A Major.
A sunny, melodic work in the Schubert vein (although its lyricism and superb orchestration do much to conceal the fact that it is one of the composer's most harmonically advanced works). Winner of the Austrian section of the 1928 International Columbia Graphophone Competition, it enjoyed some popularity at the time (1928).

*Symphony No. 4 in C Major.
Written in 1933, this is the best-known work of his entire oeuvre. The composer called it "A requiem for my daughter". It begins with a long 23-bar melody on an unaccompanied solo trumpet (which returns at the symphony's close, "transfigured" by all that has intervened). The Adagio is an immense ABA ternary structure. The first A is an expansive threnody on solo cello (Schmidt's own instrument) whose seamless lyricism predates Strauss's "Metamorphosen" by more than a decade (its theme is later adjusted to form the scherzo of the symphony); the B section is an equally expansive funeral march (deliberately referencing Beethoven's "Eroica" in its texture) whose dramatic climax is marked by an orchestral crescendo culminating in a gong and cymbal crash (again, a clear allusion to similar climaxes in the later symphonies of Bruckner, and followed by what Harold Truscott has brilliantly described as a "reverse climax", leading back to a repeat of the A section).

Listing of Works

*"Notre Dame", romantic Opera in two acts, text after Victor Hugo by Franz Schmidt and Leopold Wilk; composed: 1902-4, 1st perf.: Vienna 1914
*"Fredigundis", Opera in three acts, text after Felix Dahn by Bruno Warden and Ignaz Welleminsky; comp.: 1916-21, 1st perf.: Berlin 1922

*Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln for Soli, Chorus, Organ and Orchestra, Text after the Revelation of St John; comp.: 1935-37; 1st perf.: Vienna, 1938

*"Deutsche Auferstehung" a Festival Song for Soli, Chorus, Organ and Orchestra, Text by Oskar Dietrich; comp.: 1938-39, unfinished, prepared for performance by Dr. Robert Wagner; 1st perf.: Vienna, 1940

*Symphony Nr.1 E-major; comp.: 1896-99, 1st perf.: Vienna 1902
*Symphony Nr.2 E flat major; comp.: 1911-13, 1st perf.: Vienna 1913
*Symphony Nr.3 A major; comp.: 1927-28, 1st perf.: Vienna 1928
*Symphony Nr.4 C major; comp.: 1932-33, 1st perf.: Vienna 1934

Piano Concerti
*Concertante Variations on a Theme of Beethoven for Piano (left hand alone) with orchestral accompaniment; comp.: 1923, 1st perf.: Vienna 1924; Two-handed arrangement by Friedrich Wührer (1952)
*Piano concerto in E flat major (for left hand alone); comp.: 1934, 1st perf.: Vienna 1935; Two-handed version by Friedrich Wührer (1952)

Various Orchestral Works
*Carnival music and Intermezzo from the Opera "Notre Dame"; comp.: 1902-03; 1st perf.: Vienna 1903
*Variations on a Hussar-song for orchestra; comp.: 1930-31; 1st perf.: Vienna 1931
*Orchestral Chaconne in C shapr minor; comp.: completed 1931; Manuscript)

Chamber music
*Four little Fantasy-pieces after Hungarian national melodies, for Violoncello with piano accompaniment; comp.: 1892; 1st perf.: Vienna 1926 (three pieces)
*String quartet in A major; comp.: 1925; 1st perf.: Vienna 1925
*String quartet in G major; comp.: 1929; 1st perf.: Vienna 1930
*Quintet for piano (left hand alone), two violins, viola and violoncello in G major; comp.: 1926; 1st perf.: Stuttgart 1931; two-handed arrangement by Friedrich Wührer (1954)
*Quintet for clarinet, piano (for left hand alone), violin, viola and violoncello in B major; comp.: 1932; 1st perf.: Vienna 1933
*Quintet for clarinet, piano (for left hand alone), violine, viola and violoncello in A major; comp.: 1938; 1st perf.: Vienna 1939; two-handed arrangement by Friedrich Wührer (1952)

Music for Trumpets
*Variations and Fugue on an original Theme in D major (King's Fanfare from "Fredigundis"); 3. Arrangement for Trumpets alone; comp.: 1925, 1st perf.: Vienna 1925

Music for Organ and Trumpet
*Variations and Fugue on an original Theme in D major (King's Fanfare from "Fredigundis"); 4. Arrangement for 14 Trumpets, Kettledrum and Organ; comp.: 1925, 1st perf.: Vienna 1925
*Choral overture "God preserve us" for Organ with "ad libitum" processional Trumpet-chorus; comp.: 1933, 1st perf.: Vienna 1933
*Solemn Fugue (Fuga solemnis) for Organ with Entrance of 6 Trumpets, 6 Horns, 3 Trombones, Bass Tuba and Kettledrums; comp.: 1937, 1st perf.: Wien 1939

Piano music
*Romance in A major
*Christmas pastorale in A major (= Organ work, arrangement)
*Intermezzo F sharp minor (2nd movement of the A major Quintet)
*Toccata in D minor (for left hand alone); comp.: 1938, 1st perf.: Vienna 1940 (two-handed arrangement); two-handed arrangement by Friedrich Wührer (1952)

Organ works
*Variations on a theme by Chr. W. Gluck (then lost)
*Variations and Fugue on an original theme in D major (King's Fanfare from "Fredigundis"), 1. Arrangement; comp.: 1916
*Phantasie and Fugue in D major; comp.: 1923-24, 1st perf.: Vienna 1924
*Variations and Fugue on an original theme in D major (King's Fanfare from "Fredigundis"), 2. Arrangement; comp.: 1924, 1st perf.: Vienna 1924
*Toccata in C major; comp.: 1924, 1st perf.: Vienna 1925
*Prelude and Fugue in E flat major; comp.: 1924, 1st perf.: Vienna 1925
*Chaconne in C sharp minor; comp.: 1925, 1st perf.: Vienna 1925
*Four small Chorale preludes; comp.: 1926, 1st perf.: Vienna 1926:"O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort" (O Eternity thou Thundrous Word), F Major:"Was mein Gott will" (What My God Wills), D major:"O, wie selig seid ihr doch, ihr Frommen" (O How Happy Are Ye Now, You Blessed), D minor:"Nun danket alle Gott" (Now Thank We All Our God), A major
*Fugue in F major; comp.: 1927, 1st perf.: Vienna 1932
*Prelude and Fugue in C major; comp.: 1927, 1st perf.: Vienna 1928
*Four little Preludes and Fugues; komp.: 1928, 1st perf.: Berlin 1929:Prelude and Fugue in E flat major:Prelude and Fugue in C minor:Prelude and Fugue in G major:Prelude and Fugue in D major
*Chorale Prelude, "Der Heiland ist erstanden"; comp.: 1934, 1st perf.: Vienna 1934
*Prelude and Fugue in A major, Christmas pastoral; comp.: 1934, 1st perf.: Vienna 1934
*Toccata and Fugue A flat major; comp.: 1935, 1st perf.: Vienna 1936



*Thomas Bernard Corfield - "Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) - A Discussion of His Style With Particular Reference to the Four Symphonies and 'Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln" (Garland Publishing, New York, 1989)
*Harold Truscott - "The Music of Franz Schmidt - 1: The Orchestral Music" (Toccata Press, London, 1984)
*Wilhelm Altmann - "Handbuch für Streichquartettspieler" (Handbook for String quartet performers) (Hinrichshofen Verlag, Wilhelmshafen, 1972)
*Otto Brusatti, "Studien zu Franz Schmidt" (Studies of Franz Schmidt) (Universal Edition, Vienna 1977)
*Andreas Liess, "Franz Schmidt" (Böhlau, Graz 1951)
*C. Nemeth, "Franz Schmidt" (Leipzig 1957)
*Walter Obermaier (Ed.), "Franz Schmidt und seine Zeit (Franz Schmidt and his time): Symposium 1985" (Doblinger, Vienna-Munich 1988).
*Carmen Ottner, "Quellen zu Franz Schmidt" (Sources for Franz Schmidt), Parts 1 and 2. (Doblinger, Vienna-Munich 1985-1987)
*Carmen Ottner (Hrsg.): "Franz Schmidt und die österreichische Orgelmusik seiner Zeit (Franz Schmidt, and Austrian Organ-Music of his time): Symposion 1991 " (Doblinger, Vienna 1992), ISBN 3-900695-24-5
*Norbert Tschulik: "Franz Schmidt" (Österreichischer Bundesverlag, Wien 1972)

External links

* [ Franz Schmidt String Quartet No.1 sound-bites and information about the work]

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