Setting the Apocalypse

Some critics think composers should be seismic devices. Music should not only reflect its time, but foretell things to come. In fact, it should even help usher in the new age. However, both politically and artistically, the cultural revolution is now over, and so too should be this view of music as a revolutionary muse. The failure of the revolution has caused great confusion among the intelligentsia, who, at a loss to explain what has happened, have labeled our period “postmodern.” Thanks to this confusion, it has become possible to look into the heretofore forbidden cracks of history and see what has been overlooked.

One of those cracks appears between the Second and the Third Reichs, the First and the Second Viennese Schools (in music), and the First and Second World Wars. In those interstices one makes a most interesting find: Franz Schmidt, an Austro-Hungarian composer who lived from 1874 to 1939. His work is finally receiving major attention in a spate of recordings.

The way Austrians talk about him, you would think he was a major composer, only waiting to be rediscovered like Gustav Mahler. In fact, it may be the ascendancy of Mahler that has kept Schmidt in the background. Whereas Mahler’s music could be fit into the progressive, revolutionary view, Schmidt’s could not. In Mahler, one can sense the imminent loss of any sense of scale and control, that music will soon come crashing down in a deflated heap of despair once the hope Mahler tenaciously clung to is removed from it.

Franz Schmidt was born in what is now called Bratislava. In his Autobiographical Sketch, he reports that “music first entered my soul through the Church.” His most important music education came from a Franciscan monk, Father Felician Josef Moczik. Father Felician, trained as a painter, was not a musician by vocation. Schmidt said, “He possessed nonetheless a fundamental knowledge particularly of the theory of music and was an excellent organist, deeply serious about art and religion.”

In 1890, Schmidt went to Vienna to study with Anton Bruckner, who was unfortunately too ill to give him more than a few lessons. Schmidt was graduated in the cello and soon was playing first chair at the Vienna Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic under Mahler, with whom he had a stormy relationship. Schmidt’s First Symphony won Vienna’s Beethoven prize in 1899 and was used by the local critics to denigrate Mahler’s symphonic efforts. Schmidt’s own appraisal of Mahler’s symphonies was not kind: he called them “cheap novels.” As head of the opera, Mahler listened to a piano reduction play-through of Schmidt’s first opera, the rapturously lyrical Notre Dame, but refused to produce it, declaring it, of all things, “deficient in melody.” Schmidt terminated his nerve-wracking tenure at the opera in 1914 and devoted the rest of his career to teaching and composition.

Schmidt’s music does not look ahead. It can only be understood by looking back. Unlike Mahler or Arnold Schoenberg, Schmidt’s exact contemporary, Schmidt stayed Franz Schmidt within the Viennese tradition of Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, and Bruckner, of which he was probably the last expression. He broke down no walls, forged no new idioms. He understood Schoenberg’s radical break with tonality but did not follow him into the Second Viennese School. Yet Schmidt’s voice was distinctive. If he was the end of a tradition, he brought it to a close with a burst of autumnal radiance and an outpouring of gorgeous lyricism rivaling that of Richard Strauss.

Schmidt employed an extremely sophisticated and rich harmonic palate that included his trademark use of side-slipping modulations—a technique that induces a momentary state of musical vertigo. Though luxuriating in sensual orchestral sonorities, he retained a sense of form and delicacy, even when deploying huge forces, at which he was expert. He was particularly adept at the variation form, brilliantly displayed in his last three symphonies and in Variations on a Hussar’s Song, as well as in his organ music.

The terraced dynamics of organ playing are heard in his spacious string music. His wind and brass writing is particularly inspired. An infectious Viennese lilt can often be detected in his melodic style, along with occasional hints of the waltz. Like his progenitors, he is grounded in song and dance as the source of music. Schmidt’s flowing lyricism is very late-Romantic, his nearly bitonal harmony early twentieth-century, his forms classical and even at times baroque. That this amalgam sounds completely natural and even compelling is confirmation of his individual genius.

For all his natural ability and fluency, Schmidt was not prolific. First his work at the opera and the Philharmonic interfered, and then he had to cope with serious health problems. His main production consists of four symphonies, the Hussar Variations, two piano concertos, two operas, a good deal of organ music, five major chamber works, and, his final work, a massive oratorio called The Book of the Seven Seals.

Schmidt said that this oratorio, based on the last book of the New Testament, was his “legacy to the world.” By 1933, his work had taken on additional gravity and weight after the death of his daughter, in whose memory he wrote his Fourth Symphony as a threnody. Schmidt had lived with the fear of death through his years of heart trouble and must have felt its approach when he undertook this gigantic task in 1935.

As he noted in his introduction to the work, he was the first to attempt such a comprehensive setting of St. John’s Book of Revelation. Even in abbreviation, setting the apocalypse and the millennium to music was a supreme challenge. Schmidt said, “My approach to the work has always been that of a deeply religious man and of an artist. . . . If my musical setting of this unparalleled work, which is as relevant today as it was at its creation eighteen and a half centuries ago, should succeed in bringing the hearer spiritually closer to it, then that will be my greatest reward.”

The Book of the Seven Seals was premiered in 1938, several months after the Anschluss and less than a year before Schmidt’s death. It was his greatest triumph.

Like the text itself, The Book of the Seven Seals requires close attention. The subject naturally leads to overwhelming expectations. Working with those expectations, but also against them, Schmidt creates a number of surprises. At the sight of “Him that sat upon the throne,” one would expect a musical outburst of Mahlerian proportions. Instead, the Four Beasts sing an exquisite solo vocal quartet: “Holy, holy is God the Almighty.” Schmidt draws upon the great oratorio tradition going back to Haydn, if not further, but, within classical restraints, adds every element of his individual genius to dramatize the Ultimate. The confidence, ingenuity and subtlety with which he proceeds through such a huge text in a nearly two-hour work is astounding.

A work on the scale of The Book of the Seven Seals is hard to capture on recording. An Orfeo CD [C 143 862 H] with the Chorus of the Vienna State Opera and the Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra comes close. Though not the heldentenor Schmidt asked for, tenor Peter Schreier sings the role of St. John beautifully in a clear, declamatory style. The other soloists are a mixed bag. On newly released Sony CDs [SM2K 68 442] of a 1959 Salzburg performance conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos, Fritz Wunderlich shows a more dramatic approach to St. John. He gets inside the role and sings with great expressivity. Mitropoulos complements this approach by conducting with more dramatic grip than Lothar Zagrosek on Orfeo. Unfortunately, there is the expected sacrifice of sound quality on the mono Sony.

With respect to Schmidt’s other works, begin with the Second Symphony. Neeme Jarvi sweeps all before him with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a magnificent reading of this superb work on Chandos [Chan 8779]. With Schmidt’s beautiful themes, the temptation is to dwell. Jarvi does not succumb and reveals much more of the music’s dramatic impact than have previous recordings. Listen to the extraordinary way in which Schmidt weaves three unrelated themes together in the first movement in an orchestral tour de force with a shattering climax.

The Third Symphony is a subtle, finely graded, highly lyrical work of gentle beauty and mystery. The first movement is a mesmerizing treatment of a fairly lengthy tune that is stated, in various forms—some thirteen times—without fatigue. The cumulative effect is utterly beguiling and magical, and the movement is passionately powerful in its culmination. Jarvi’s urgent performance of the Third Symphony on Chandos [Chan 9000] with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is slightly handicapped by a distant sound perspective. Libor Pesek brings out the delicacy of the piece in a more leisurely, relaxed approach on Supraphon with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra [CO 1688]. The Fourth Symphony has suffered from several recordings with slow tempos. Franz Welser Most’s new EMI release shows how much the work benefits dramatically from tempos closer to those of the composer. The release includes a beautiful rendition of the Hussar Variations.

For Schmidt’s chamber music, try the entrancing Clarinet Quintet in A Major on Marco Polo [8.223414] or the equally fine Piano Quintet in F Major on London mid-price [430 296 2]. You can hear the soaring melodies of Notre Dame, which contains Schmidt’s famous Intermezzo, in a decent performance on Capriccio [10248/9]. These recordings are a good beginning. Let us hope there will be more.

Could it be that Franz Schmidt’s time has come at last?


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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