Mahler would habitually have 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 State Academy of Music. In 1925 he became Director of the Academy, and in 1927 Rector.
Schmidt's worsening health forced his retirement from the Academy in early 1937. He died on 11 February 1939. 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. 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). He also composed two string quartets (1925, 1929), a piano quintet (1926) and two quintets for clarinet, string trio and piano (left hand) (1932, 1938); Concertante Variations on a Theme of Beethoven for piano (left hand) and orchestra (1923); a piano concerto (1934); Variations on a Hussar's Song for orchestra (1930); a quantity of important organ music, including the Prelude and Fugue in E flat (1924), the Toccata (1924), the Chaconne (1925, orchestrated 1931) and the Prelude and Fugue in C (1927).
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. Although the Intermezzo from Notre Dame and the Fourth Symphony are probably his best known works, his crowning achievement was the oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals) (1935-37), a setting of the Book of Revelation. 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. The later stages of Schmidt’s life were shadowed by tragedy.
He was plagued by numerous serious illnesses, by the death of his beloved daughter, and by the collapse of his first marriage (his wife was confined to a mental hospital and later eliminated under the Nazi euthanasia laws). Schmidt himself experienced a spiritual and physical breakdown after these events, but achieved an artistic revival and solution to this crisis in his Fourth Symphony of 1933 and, especially, his oratorio. It seems, however, that like many of his contemporaries Schmidt was an enthusiast for the cause of a ‘Greater Germany’ and failed to understand the dangers inherent in the rise of Hitler. He was cynically lauded by the Nazis and at the triumphant premiere of his oratorio, shortly after the Anschluss, he was seen to give the Nazi salute.
His last, unfinished work was a cantata honouring the new order. These facts long placed his posthumous reputation under a cloud; yet 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 simply extraordinarily naïve about politics. Hans Keller proffered similar endorsement. Most of his principal musical friends were Jews, and they benefited from his generosity.
It might also be said that, whatever his personal naïvety in these matters, Schmidt’s music was realistic, and prophetic: Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln is now seen 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: the work may be seen as the last majestic representative of the great Austro-German oratorio tradition stretching back through Brahms and Bruckner to the masses of Haydn and Bach and the oratorios of Handel. It owes much, too, to such choral symphonies as Mahler’s Eighth and Beethoven’s Ninth. Symphonies 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.
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 climax, one of the most dramatic pages in the entire symphonic literature, 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). Read more on Last.fm.
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