|About this Recording
8.111318-19 - SCHMIDT, Joseph: Arias and Songs (1929-36)
Joseph Schmidt (1904-1942)
Joseph Schmidt's short-lived career was like that of a bright comet shooting across the musical sky. Although he recorded for a relatively short period, only eight years, he became one of the most popular singers in Europe during the inter-war years, thanks to the new technologies of radio and the gramophone, and it is through his numerous recordings that his undoubted talents have continued to be admired and enjoyed long after his sad death in 1942.
Schmidt was born in 1904 in a village in Northern Bukovina, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and which today is in Ukraine. He was the third of five children born to Wolf Schmidt, an orthodox Jew, and his wife, Sara. His first language was probably Yiddish, and at school he would have conversed in German: he wrote notes to his parents in both languages. The family moved to the town of Czernowitz (now known as Cernovcy), also in Ukraine, in 1914, at the time of the outbreak of the First World War. Despite his disapproval of Joseph's early interest in music, his father agreed to him receiving piano and violin lessons and, fascinated by music since his early years, Joseph was soon able to read a score. In 1916 Rumania invaded Bukovina, and the Schmidt family was forced to flee to Hungary. They stayed there for two years, before returning to Czernowitz, which had been permanently annexed by Rumania. Joseph would hold a Rumanian passport for the rest of his life, but when asked his nationality, he would simply reply 'Ich bin Jude' ('I am Jewish.').
Following the family's return to Bukovina, Joseph joined the synagogue choirs as a boy alto before developing a fine tenor voice. From 1922 he studied with Felicitas Lerchenfeld-Hřimaly, the principal singing teacher in Czernowitz, and became deeply involved in local musical activities, as well as making a name for himself as a cantor among the town's forty synagogues. When he reached the age of twenty in 1924 he decided to take the plunge into a secular musical career, starting with a successful solo concert mixing, as he was to do many times later, operatic arias and popular songs. Following the advice of his teacher he enrolled at the Berlin Academy of Music, where he studied with Hermann Weissenborn. After a period of military service in the Rumanian Army, he returned to Czernowitz as a cantor for a year. Heard by some Dutch Jews, he was invited to give concerts in the Netherlands in 1929. On his return home he auditioned for Berlin radio, which at that time had a policy of broadcasting a wide range of operas, performed by a permanent roster of singers. Schmidt's musical versatility was quickly recognised with the offer of a contract, and in his first year he took part in six operas, three concerts and an operetta. Singing entirely in German, and tackling substantial rôles such as that of Vasco da Gama in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, he immediately became a sensation, overshadowing more famous colleagues.
Schmidt never enjoyed a substantial stage career on account of his small stature (he was just short of five feet tall) and his relatively small voice. These, however, were not defects for the microphone, as it was blind to them. What it transmitted was, in the words of his biographer, Jan Neckers, 'the soft, plangent quality of his voice, his exceptional legato and splendid high notes'. Occasional hoarseness was transformed by the microphone into an attractive vocal tone of considerable individuality. During 1929 activity within the German recording industry was at its peak. As a new radio star Schmidt was quickly asked to record, first for the Electrola label (the German branch of British HMV) and shortly afterwards for the Ultraphon label. From the autumn onwards Schmidt began to record in earnest, for instance in a series of around a hundred records of Jewish religious music for Berlin's Jewish Reform Congregation – the purpose of these recordings was to provide music for smaller synagogues without choirs. At the same time he was laying down a challenge to the pre-eminent operetta tenor of the period, Richard Tauber, with excerpts from Franz Lehár's latest hit, The Land of Smiles. Despite the calamitous financial and social consequences of the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, Schmidt continued with his radio work, singing in numerous operas during 1930 and 1931 under conductors of the calibre of Bruno Walter and George Szell. He also made his first screen appearance in the escapist film Der Liebesexpress, in which he sang two songs.
The Great Depression which followed the Wall Street Crash had a severe effect upon consumer spending, not least upon the sales of non-essential items such as gramophone records. Despite Schmidt being one of its best-selling artists, Ultraphon had to cease recording with him at the beginning of 1932. Under the guidance of his manager, his uncle Leo Engle, he signed a contract with the Parlophon label, part of the Lindström group, and owned by Columbia prior to the creation of EMI, of which it became a part. Schmidt recorded with this label for the remainder of his recording career. 1932 was to be his last untroubled year – he sang in Austria and The Netherlands, recorded extensively for Parlophon and continued with his opera work on radio. In 1933 two events took place that were to change his life irrevocably: he appeared in the film Ein Lied geht um die Welt (A Song goes around the world) and Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. The first made Schmidt into a singer of popular music with international appeal, on a level with Richard Tauber and Jan Kiepura, while the latter meant that his career in Germany and later elsewhere in Europe was to be severely circumscribed, as a direct consequence of the Nazi regime's anti-Semitic policies.
At the end of 1933 Schmidt left Berlin and settled fitfully in Vienna. His operatic career was effectively over – in the remaining years of his life he was to sing just a handful of operatic rôles. Henceforth he appeared in films (three, produced in Austria between 1933 and 1936) and took part in stage and radio concerts. From 1936 onwards the pressure in Germany became intense: the sale of his records was banned from 1 April onwards, and concerts were announced but then abruptly cancelled – the last that he gave in Germany took place in January 1937 in Frankfurt and Berlin. He made his final recordings in Holland in August of the same year, between two tours of America. Following the Anschluss of 1938, through which Austria and Germany were united, he settled in Brussels, where he appeared in a production of La Bohème in 1939, singing Rodolfo, a rôle that he repeated throughout The Netherlands and Flanders. Despite the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the inevitability of international war, Uncle Leo persuaded Joseph to stay in Europe to fulfil contracts for 1940. An offer from Sol Hurok to appear in America was refused, probably to allow him to remain with his family. By November 1940 he was on the move again, this time to Lyon, the unoccupied part of France, but under the virulently anti-Semitic Vichy régime. Uncle Leo remained in Brussels, later to die there during hostilities. Without money, Joseph lived on the charity of other Jewish refugees. He gave his last public performance in May 1942, singing three French arias at the Avignon Opera. With Rumania now allied to Germany, Schmidt's passport offered no protection. After two unsuccessful attempts, he eventually made his way into Switzerland amongst a small group during October. He was sent to a refugee camp outside Zurich, where his health deteriorated rapidly. Complaining of chest pains, he saw several doctors, but to little effect. On 16 November 1942 he was permitted to visit a restaurant near the camp, where he could bathe and rest. Shortly after his arrival he suffered a fatal heart attack. The stone above his grave in the Jewish cemetery at Freisenburg, Zurich, reads simply 'Ein Stern fällt.' ('A star falls'.)
Schmidt's training and experience as a cantor gave his singing several different but highly attractive and distinctive characteristics. It enabled his singing to possess a wonderful freedom in terms of apparently spontaneous filigree decoration. This can be heard immediately for instance in his readings of 'Una furtiva lagrima' [CD 1 / Track 2], and the fearsome aria from Adam's Le postillon de Lonjumeau, 'Freunde, vernehmet die Geschichte' [2/1], where the vocal lines are decorated in ways that are unusual. The rhapsodic character of his singing can also be heard in his moving account of 'Von Apfelblüten einen Kranz'from Lehár's The Land of Smiles [2/8]. Schmidt's voice possessed a particular tonal quality that was immediately appealing and which was not dissimilar to those of two other great tenors who trained as cantors, Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce. Like them, he possessed remarkable security throughout much of his vocal range, with a particularly thrilling top; it may be heard to great advantage in the aria 'Recha, als Gott dich einst zur Tochter mir gegeben' ('Rachel, quand du Seigneur') [1/5]. In addition Schmidt was able to infuse his singing with a sense of vocal regret that with hindsight seems to sum up the tragedy of the first half of the 20th century. This characteristic is especially pronounced in some of the popular ballads which he recorded, such as Kurt Lewinnek's 'Einmal glaubt' ich an deine Liebe' [2/10] and Tosti's 'Vorrei morire' [2/21]. Schmidt made no distinction between the different genres of music which he sang. The simplest ballad received the same intensity as the most demanding operatic aria. Those who knew him well have suggested that he was only fully at ease when singing, and that this was what he cared about most, providing as it did an escape from the pressures of his frequently unhappy domestic and professional circumstances, most notably his troubled relationship with his uncle and manager, Leo Engle.
In an interview with Schmidt's discographer Hansfried Sieben, Herbert Grenzbach, the recording manager for Ultraphon, described the effect of the recording process upon the reproduction of Schmidt's voice. He recalled: 'The audition he gave for us had a sobering effect: at the top his voice sounded rough and there was a rather unusual cutting quality to it. But when we recorded his voice and cut the frequency slightly and then listened to it, it sounded totally different…Then the voice was gold, pure gold – an ideal, an extraordinary microphone voice.' The second of the three companies with which Schmidt worked, Ultraphon, served him well. He was accorded accompaniments conducted by musicians of the calibre of Selmar Meyrowitz. In addition the Ultraphon engineers employed a recording technique called 'Raumton', in which large halls were used for recording with microphones placed at the back to pick up a sense of the room's acoustic. In terms of repertoire Ultraphon was prepared to record works which made the most of the twelve-inch shellac record's playing time, and which at the same time represented the different aspects of Schmidt's wide-ranging repertoire: opera, operetta and popular ballads. The move to Parlophon was in some ways a slightly retrograde step: playing time was restricted to that for ten-inch discs only, with the results that some pieces were truncated, and the recording quality achieved was less good. Nonetheless Schmidt triumphed over these less than perfect circumstances. Of special interest amongst his later recordings for Parlophon are those made of film songs especially written for him by the composer Hans May, who created vocal lines that perfectly exploited Schmidt's high-lying voice. Two songs from the film Ein Lied geht um die Welt [2/14, 15] are good examples of his compositional skill. May later emigrated in England, writing the music for films such as Brighton Rock.
Joseph Schmidt stands out as one of the great recording artists of the inter-war period. With a voice ideally suited to the microphone and a natural musical ability of the highest calibre, he triumphed over personal and political limitations to leave a precious legacy of recordings that have continued to bring pleasure to millions throughout the world. Truly, his song goes around the world.
MOZART: Die Zauberflöte, K. 620: Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön … (Act I)
DONIZETTI: L'elisir d'amore: Una furtiva lagrima (Act II)
FLOTOW: Alessandro Stradella: Hymne des Stradella: Wie freundlich strahlt der Tag… Jungfrau Maria
FLOTOW: Martha: Ach so fromm, ach so traut (Act III)
HALÉVY: La Juive: Recha, als Gott dich einst zur Tochter mir gegeben [Rachel, quand du Seigneur]
MEYERBEER: L'Africaine: Land so wunderbar [O paradis!] (Act IV)
VERDI: Rigoletto: Questa o quella (Act I)
VERDI: Rigoletto: La donna è mobile (Act III)
VERDI: Un ballo in maschera: Doch heisst dich auch ein Pflichtgebot [Ma se m'è forza perderti] (Act III)
VERDI: Il Trovatore: Einsam steh'ich und verlassen [Deserto sulla terra] (Act I)
VERDI: Il Trovatore: Lodern zum Himmel [Di quella pira] (Act III)
PUCCINI: La bohème: Wie eiskalt ist dies' Händchen [Che gelida manina] (Act I)
PUCCINI: La bohème: Kokett ist dieses Mädchen [Mimi è una civetta] (Act III)
PUCCINI: Tosca: Recondita armonia (Act I)
PUCCINI: Tosca: E lucevan le stelle (Act III)
PUCCINI: Tosca: Nur deinetwegen wollt'ich nicht sterben [Amaro sol per te] (Act III)
PUCCINI: La fanciulla del West: Nun sind es sechs Monet', dass mien Vater tot ist [Or son sei mesi] (Act II)
PUCCINI: La fanciulla del West: Lasset sie glauben [Ch'ella mi creda] (Act III)
PUCCINI: Turandot: Non piangere, Liù (Act I)
PUCCINI: Turandot: Nessun dorma (Act III)
LEONCAVALLO: Pagliacci: Jetzt spielen…Hüll dich in Tand nur [Recitar…Vesti la giubba] (Act I)
MASSENET: Le Cid: Ach alles sinkt hinab in den Abgrund der Nächte… Du, den ich stets im Sinn getragen [Ah! Tout est bien fini…O Souverain!] (Act III)
MASSENET: Manon: Ich bin allein…Flieh', oh Flieh', holdes Bild [Je suis seul…Ah! fuyez, douce image] (Act III)
TCHAIKOVSKY: Eugene Onegin, Op. 24: Wohin seid ihr entschwunden [Lensky's Aria] (Act II)
ADAM: Le postillon de Lonjumeau: Freunde, vernehmet die Geschichte [Mes amis, écoutez l'histoire] (Act I)
SMETANA: Prodaná Nev sta (The Bartered Bride): Komm, mein Söhnchen, auf ein Wort (Duet, Act II, scene 4)
J. STRAUSS II: Tausendundeine Nacht (1001 Nights): Launisches Glück
J. STRAUSS II: Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron): Als flotter Geist… Ja, das alles auf Ehr' (Act I)
DELLINGER: Don Cesar: Komm herab, o Madonna Theresa
LEHAR: Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles): Dein ist mein ganzes Herz (Act II)
LEHAR: Das Land des Lächelns: Wer hat die Liebe uns ins Herz gesenkt (Act II)
LEHAR: Das Land des Lächelns: Von Apfelblüten eine Kranz (Act I)
MEYER-HELMUND: Das Zauberlied (Wenn dein ich denk')
LEWINNEK: Einmal glaubt' ich an deine Liebe (Warum bist du auch wie die Andern?)
NIEDERBERGER: Warum gehst du vorbei an mir? (Von jeher liebt' ich dich nur)
VON MORY: La Valliere: Ja, nur du allein
GOETZE: Der Page des Königs: Was wär mein Lied, könnt' ich dir's nicht singen
MAY: Ein Lied geht um die Welt - film music: Ein Lied geht um die Welt
MAY: Ein Lied geht um die Welt: Frag' nicht
MAY: Ein Lied geht um die Welt: Wenn du jung bist, gehört dir die Welt
SERRANO: El trust de los tenorios: Española 'Te quiero, morena…'
ROSSINI: Les soirées musicales: No. 8: La danza 'Tarantella napoletana'
TOSTI: Vorrei morire
BUZZI-PECCIA: Lolita (Serenade)
BUZZI-PECCIA: Mal d'amore
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