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September 22, 2009

Music we've been missing (Part 11): Franz Schmidt

I noticed that when I went out into left field and advocated programming music by Heiner Goebbels earlier in this what-we've-been-missing series, I got nary a comment. Must have scared too many folks. This time, I figured I'd venture into right field (speaking tonally, not politically, of course), and try the much-neglected Austrian composer Franz Schmidt.

He played cello in the Vienna State Opera when Mahler conducted there and went on to direct a major conservatory. Schmidt, who died in 1939, wrote in a late-romantic style that he held onto even as his famed contemporaries, Schoenberg and company, were doing their best to turn the music world upside down.

Every time I hear Schmidt's music -- this usually means by accident on radio, or by slipping a CD into the changer -- I'm

impressed with its technical quality and expressive warmth. I think he deserves more of a hearing in our concert halls.

His third and fourth symphonies, in particular, would be most welcome. And, although I don't expect any opera company around here to revive his "Notre Dame," the Intermezzo from that work was once much admired and would make a great filler on concerts. (For that matter, why doesn't anyone bring out all the great opera intermezzi out there and put them together to form a juicy program half?)

Here's just a sampling of Franz Schmidt's distinctive music, that "Notre Dame" Intermezzo and a movement from his Symphony No. 1, to offer a taste of we've been missing:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:02 PM | | Comments (6)


The great Schmidt work is that politically incorrect masterpiece, "Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln." Also, on the web it is mentioned that his more interesting opera is not Notre Dame (which can be listened to via recording) but Fredigundis whose recordings only exist in the archives of the Austrian Radio.

Another delightful work by Schmidt is the Variations for Orchestra on a Hussar's Song.

I think conductors are to be blamed for being so timid. For example Zubin Mehta made one of the best recordings of the 4th Symphony yet he never programmed it with the New York Phil (Franz Welser-Most finally did it during Masur's tenure.) At least we did listen to the work last season with the NSO, and Welser-Most also programmed Das Buch in Cleveland. I also remember a performance of the 2nd from Sawallisch and Philly.

Thanks for the overview. TIM

OK, this is not Schmidt, but has to do with "music we've been missing". When this series started, I have declared myself "an Enescu nut". I just found out about an Enescu-Brahms recital at Kennedy Center on December 9 featuring violinist Remus Azoitei and pianist Eduard Stan.

Since the musicians are unknown, I will mention that Remus Azoitei is the youngest ever violin professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and that they recorded for the Hanssler label the integral of Enescu's violin work, featuring some of the finest ever performances of this music; trust me on this one (yes, Enescu does remain unsurpassed in his own music, but Azoitei and Stan are perhaps the best of the rest.)

The program is made of works by Enescu and Brahms; logical, since Enescu played under Brahms' baton in Vienna. And while the 3rd violin Sonata is not exactly unknown - I recall recent performances in this area by Hilary Hahn and Midori - and I would have perhaps prefered the marvelous "Impressions d'enfance" (and Azoitei and Stan are wonderful in the recording), the novelty in the program is the Torso sonata. Plus, I would be curious to hear what the musicians do in Brahms.

I hope this is not spam; I am not associated with the organizers nor with the musicians; I am simply a fan who believes in them. And of course, Tim, you have the option not to publish this - and believe me, I will get it, and apologize for it.

Not spam at all. This is what the blog is for. Would that more folks were as passionate and inquisitive as you. Besides, I have a hard time keeping up with all that is going on, so it's great to have someone pointing out interesting events on the calendar. TIM

One reason for Schmidt's neglect is that he told the young Karajan that he has no business and no future in conducting. This has to be one of the greatest blunders in the history of music - although cinics may well say that the old man was right!

Of course, the vengeful von Karajan never forgot this insult and did not conduct in concert any work by Schmidt - although he did record the Intermezzo from Notre Dame. With Karajan's promotion, his fate would have been different.

For what it's worth I am a "selective admirer" of von Karajan. I don't like most of his stuff, but the best ranks with the greatest ever (the live Bayreuth Tristan for example.)

I've got some issues with von K myself, although I almost always end up admiring the craftsmanship. A fascinating case, to be sure. TIM

This is a great series, and I look forward to future installments. For better or worse, one could sit at home and listen to recordings of music we've been missing and never go to a live concert. I was surprised that one of my favorites, Sibelius, turned up in this series of posts, but, then, he really hasn't been on programs much in recent years, at least around here. I haven't heard anything by Schmidt before, but now your post has inspired me to look for recordings. (If you want to continue a mini-series of composers whose first name is Franz and whose last name begins with Sch..., maybe you could say something about Franz Schreker? He's another I've read about but not heard yet, and there are some operas among his works, too.)

Thanks for the support, and the Franz suggestion. TIM

Schmidt is undoubtedly a great composer, and his neglect is an anomaly with numerous historical precedents.

The Mehta recording of his Fourth Symphony is probably the best place to start. The Third Symphony was Schmidt's personal favourite among his symphonies, but there is no really satisfactory recording of this amazing work, which is "better than it can be played".

(Incidentally, it's a great shame that Franz Welser-Moest hasn't yet delivered on his promise to record Fredigundis - an amazing work that pushes tonality to its utter limits.)

Schmidt seems to have been consistently unlucky. His posthumous reputation was first ruined by accusations of Nazism, which while not borne out by his warm personal friendships with Jews (Oskar Adler and Hans Keller have written spiritedly in his defence) were fuelled by the cantata "Deutsche Auferstehung", a commission from the post-Anschluss authorities to a crassly nationalistic text.

He was further handicapped by the institutional avant-garde in the postwar period, who would have regarded his music as outmoded and irrelevant, but Karajan's refusal to conduct his music must have been a major barrier to its popular dissemination - it is fascinating (if frustrating) to imagine what the Symphonies would have sounded like under Karajan's baton.

Tom Corfield has just completed a study of the chamber music, and this will prove an invaluable sequel to Harold Truscott's volume on the orchestral works (disfigured as this is by inaccuracy and eccentricity).

Many thanks for sharing your insights and enthusiasm (and my apologies for taking so long to post your comments -- the national holiday here this week put me rather off-schedule). TIM

Indeed, Fredigundis is probably the best opera that hardly anyone has ever heard. But there is a dot com website at which you can here fredigundis. I don't think I can type the full url here, and have it post, but you ought to be able to figure out. Those of you who remember the Bell telephone Hour's the "Bell Waltz" will be shocked and delighted by the theme heard at the end of the overture. At least I was.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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