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8.223415 - SCHMIDT: Clarinet Quintet in B-Flat Major / Romance

Franz Schmidt (1874–1939)
Clarinet Quintet in B-Flat Major • Romance


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 Pressburg (the modern Slovak capital Bratislava and former Hungarian capital Pozsony, where Liszt made his début and Bartók went to school) in 1874 and had his first music lessons there from the cathedral organist. In 1888 his family moved to Vienna, where he was able to continue his musical studies, but only by earning money as a dance-school pianist. He took lessons with that most remarkable of piano teachers Leschetizky and two years later entered the Conservatory, where his composition teachers were Bruckner and Robert Fuchs, the latter teacher of Mahler, Sibelius, Wolf, Schreker, Zemlinsky and a whole generation of Austrian composers. At the same time he studied the cello with Ferdinand Hellmesberger, a member of a remarkable Vienna dynasty of string-players. In 1896 Schmidt joined his teacher in the cello section of the Court Opera, conducted from 1897 by Gustav Mahler, who at first favoured him over the existing front-desk players. According to Schmidt Mahler soon dismissed two thirds of the players in the orchestra, 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. He continued as a rank-and-file player until 1911, when he eventually resigned, to become a piano professor at the Vienna Staatsakademie. There he later taught harmony and composition, serving as director from 1925 to 1927, when he was appointed director of the 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 his 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 opera, completed in 1904 and based on Victor Hugo’s novel, won considerable success when it was first staged at the Vienna Court Opera in 1914, after Mahler’s death. As a composer Schmidt won a significant contemporary reputation not only with his symphonies but also with his 1937 apocalyptic oratorio, Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln. Schmidt’s chamber music includes two string quartets, a piano quintet and two quintets for clarinet and piano quartet, both now available on the Marco Polo label. Shortly before his death he received one more of many honours, the Beethoven Prize of the Prussian Academy. He died in February 1939, at the end of an epoch in the history of his country.

The first of the two clarinet quintets, the Quintet in B-flat major, was written in 1932. The piano parts of both quintets, as of the Piano Quintet in G major of 1926 and the Second Piano Concerto, written in 1934, were for the left hand only, designed for Paul Wittgenstein, a former pupil of Leschetizky, who had made his début in 1913 but lost his right arm in the war in 1915. Wittgenstein, from a family of considerable distinction, had developed a remarkable left-hand technique and commissioned or received the dedications of a number of works for his use. Two-hand versions were later arranged by the pianist Friedrich Wührer, a piano pupil of the composer and a leading virtuoso of his generation and pioneer of new music.

The B-flat Quintet opens with a motif imitated by one instrument after another, accompanied by a busier piano part, the whole movement immaculately crafted and of manifold charm, with passing suggestions of a darker world, as minor keys are explored. The material is winningly developed in music that belongs to the best traditions of Vienna, in an idiom that Brahms and his contemporaries would have acknowledged and accepted. The slow movement allows the piano initial prominence, its left-hand origin barely perceptible. At its heart is a relaxation of mood, in the style of a scherzo, replaced temporarily by greater poignancy, before the return of lighter-hearted music, recalling the Austrian countryside of Schubert’s time. It is music firmly rooted in folk tradition that opens the final movement, the recurrent principal theme of the rondo a village dance, with one episode at least that suggests the pianism of Rachmaninov. Once again the title Clarinet Quintet, though convenient, seems a misnomer for what is basically a work for piano, with clarinet, violin, viola and cello.

The three delightful Fantasy Pieces on Hungarian National Melodies for cello and piano are early compositions, dating from 1892, a reminder of Schmidt’s birth-place and maternal ancestry, and of his own ability as a cellist. He wrote these pieces while a student at the Conservatory and they are evidence of his own instrumental ability, exhibited in his own cadenza to the Haydn D major Cello Concerto, that impressed Brahms at Schmidt’s graduation in 1896 and won him his place in the Court Opera Orchestra, over forty other applicants. The Romance for piano was only published posthumously, in 1960, but is remarkable enough in its harmonies, while the Toccata of 1938, originally for the left hand only, was written as a parting gift to Paul Wittgenstein, who left Vienna in the year of the Anschluss at first for Switzerland and then to spend his final years in the United States.

Keith Anderson

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