About this Recording
8.572119 - SCHMIDT, F.: Symphony No. 3 / Chaconne (Malmo Symphony, Sinaisky)
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Franz Schmidt (1874–1939)
Symphony No. 3 in A major • Chaconne in D minor

 

The Austrian composer Franz Schmidt has been strangely neglected abroad, in part through his own conservatism and in part through the vagaries of history and of progressive musical taste. He was born in 1874 in Pressburg, the modern Slovak capital Bratislava and one time, as Pozsony, capital of Hungary. It was here that Liszt had made his début as a child and that Dohnányi and Bartók had their early schooling. Schmidt, whose family had Hungarian connections on his mother’s side, had his first piano lessons with her. At school he was taught the organ and theory by the Franciscan Father Felizian Moczik and had encouragement from Archduchess Isabella, who had him perform as an infant prodigy pianist at the Grassalkovich Palace. In 1888 his father, a forwarding agent, was involved in a case of fraud, and the family moved to Vienna. There Schmidt had some rather unsatisfactory lessons with the great Leschetizky, through the insistence of a patron, and earned his keep as a tutor in a well-to-do family from Perchtoldsdorf to help his parents. He was able to enter the then Philharmonic Society Conservatory, where he studied the cello with Ferdinand Hellmesberger, member of a remarkable Vienna dynasty of string-players, and composition with Robert Fuchs, the teacher of Mahler, Sibelius, Wolf, Schreker, Zemlinsky and a whole generation of Austrian composers. He was also able to attend lectures by Bruckner, then near retirement. Schmidt completed his studies in 1896 and competed for and won a place as a cellist in the orchestra of the Court Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic. The Court Opera Orchestra was conducted from 1897 by Gustav Mahler, who at first favoured Schmidt over the existing front-desk players. According to Schmidt Mahler soon dismissed two thirds of the players and the two principal cellists would never play when Mahler conducted, leaving the front desk to Schmidt and a colleague, an arrangement that Mahler accepted. The intervention of Arnold Rosé, the concert-master and Mahler’s brother-in-law, who moved him without warning from the front desk, caused difficulties, particularly when Schmidt later refused Mahler’s order to resume, unpaid, the position of principal cellist, risking threatened dismissal. Schmidt continued in the Court Opera until 1913–14 and in the Philharmonic until 1911 as a rank-and-file player, eventually resigning in order to carry out continuing duties he had assumed at the Conservatory, where he taught the cello, piano, counterpoint and composition. He was to serve as director of the then Vienna Music Academy from 1925 to 1927 and thereafter as director of the new Vienna Musikhochschule, a position he relinquished in 1931.

Something of the enmity that arose between Schmidt and Mahler was attributed by the former to the attention critics gave the first of the former’s four symphonies, awarded the Beethoven Prize in 1900 and first played in Vienna two years later, to the expressed approval of the redoubtable Hanslick, former champion of Brahms against the Wagnerians. Schmidt played his opera Notre Dame through to Mahler, who found it deficient in melodic invention, although he listened to the work to the end. The work, completed in 1904, was a considerable success when it was eventually performed at the Court Opera in 1914. As a composer Schmidt won a significant contemporary reputation not only with his symphonies and his other orchestral and chamber music, including works written for his friends Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist who had lost his right arm in the war, and the organist Franz Schütz, but also with his apocalyptic oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals), first heard in Vienna in 1938.

Schmidt suffered various vicissitudes in his personal life. In 1899 he had married a childhood friend, whose mental instability necessitated her admission to an asylum in 1919. She was finally put to death in 1942, following the euthanasia policy initiated by the National Socialist government. In 1923 Schmidt married one of his piano pupils, but in 1932 his daughter Emma, born in 1902, was to die giving birth to her first child, a loss marked by Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony, conceived as a Requiem for her. The event severely affected his health and he suffered a complete breakdown. His health, often precarious, deteriorated markedly during his final years, but shortly before his death he received yet one more of many honours, the Beethoven Prize of the Prussian Academy. He died in February 1939.

Schmidt’s Third Symphony was written in 1927–28 and dedicated to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which gave the first performance on 2 December 1928 under Franz Schalk at the Musikverein. It was awarded first prize of the Austrian zone of the International Prize of the Columbia Graphophone Company of New York for the best continuation of or symphony in the spirit of the Unfinished Symphony, in connection with the 1928 celebration of the centenary of Schubert’s death. The work is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and a large string section.

The first movement starts with a lyrical first subject, propelled forward, as is the rest of the movement, by the inner parts. The theme itself moves from the key of A to C major, building to a dynamic climax. Shifts of key follow, leading to a second subject group, starting in F major and moving to D minor. The exposition is repeated and the development, with characteristically inventive use of the material, proceeds to a recapitulation and coda. The second movement, marked Adagio, opens in D minor, with an augmented triad typical of the composer. It is essentially a set of variations, although these are not always clearly defined as such. A sketched variation leads to an A major treatment of the thematic material from brass and woodwind and an E flat minor strongly felt Poco più mosso from the strings, again derived from the initial theme and a succeeding F minor Più mosso. A passage in F sharp major leads to the return of the music of the opening, a form of recapitulation that comes to a final close in D major. There is something of the Ländler about the Scherzo, its opening section repeated and followed by an initially fugal treatment of the thematic material in the repeated second half of the movement. The key of A major gives way to F sharp major in the trio section. Both parts of the trio are repeated before the return of the Scherzo.

The last movement starts with a chorale-like theme, given to the upper woodwind and two horns, over plucked strings. This slow and moving introduction, starting in A minor and marching forward with its continued accompanying figuration, reaches the dominant chord of E major before the start of the Allegro vivace, its theme derived initially from that of the preceding Lento introduction. The movement finds room for further thematic invention, while persistent in its pace and general rhythm. There is a central section, the equivalent of a sonata-form development. Eventually the A minor theme returns in something of its original form, but soon moving to A major, and then shifting to D minor and a coda that ends what has been a predominantly minor-key movement in the tonic major.

Schmidt wrote his monumental organ Chaconne in C sharp minor in 1925 and it was six years later, in 1931, that he orchestrated it in a transposition to D minor. The work was first performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Clemens Kraus in 1933 and is scored for piccolo, pairs of flutes and oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets and a bass clarinet, two bassoons and a double bassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, three timpani, three tamtams of contrasting register and a large string section. The chaconne theme is heard first from the cellos and continued by the strings, then joined by the wind. The variations continue, the chaconne theme never lost, its four sections based on the Aeolian, Lydian, Dorian and Ionian modes respectively, the whole miraculously transformed by orchestration that adds considerable clarity to a work of many incidental felicities, a monumental addition to German musical tradition.


Keith Anderson


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