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8.570589 - SCHMIDT, F.: Symphony No. 2 / Fuga Solemnis (Malmo Symphony, Sinaisky)
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Franz Schmidt (1874–1939)
Symphony No. 2 in E flat major • Fuga Solemnis


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 and 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 1925 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 wrote his Symphony No. 2 in E flat major between 1911 and 1913, and it was published in Vienna the following year. Dedicated to the conductor Franz Schalk, who, according to Schmidt’s later statements, never had any true understanding of the work, the symphony was originally conceived as a piano sonata and has been described by its editor in the Kritische Neuausgabe, Karl Trötzmüller, as the most difficult in the whole symphonic repertoire, particularly in view of the demands made on the strings. It is unified by the presence, in one form or another, of a single basic theme, discernible in the first subject of the opening movement, the opening phrase first heard from divided second violins and clarinets. The symphony is scored for a large orchestra of piccolo, three flutes, two oboes and cor anglais, E flat clarinet, three B flat clarinets, a bass clarinet, two bassoons, a contra-bassoon. eight horns, four trumpets, two tenor and one bass trombone, a contra-bass tuba, four timpani, a bass drum, side drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tam-tam and a large body of strings.

The first movement, marked Lebhaft, introduces the main theme at once, at first with the divided second violins and clarinet. The thematic material is to return twice in recapitulation, the first time in the original key, its approach marked by the timpani, and the second time in the strings in G major, after a general pause. The composer makes full use of the chromatic character of his main theme and of the possibilities presented by a full orchestra and a large body of strings, each section divided into six at one point. The theme of the Allegretto con variazioni, marked Einfach und zart is introduced by the woodwind, and the first variation is entrusted to the strings, with the varied melody in the first violin, accompanied by semiquaver figuration, largely from the second violins and violas. Woodwind and horns return for the second variation, with the third given to the strings, each section divided into three. The fourth variation, marked Schnell, scored for woodwind, horns, timpani and strings, is in figuration recalling that of the main theme of the first movement. The even faster B flat minor fifth variation, in which the woodwind are accompanied by long violin and viola trilled notes, leads to a B flat major sixth, marked Langsam und ruhig, but momentum is resumed with the seventh variation, now in E flat minor, modulating to an eighth, Sehr leidenschaftlich, nicht zu schnell, in the enharmonically related key of F sharp major. The ninth variation is a B flat major Scherzo, a movement that includes, as a tenth variation, its own A sharp minor Trio, before the Scherzo resumes. The Finale brings its own reminiscences of the main theme of the symphony, the principal source of its thematic material. The opening fugue is initiated by the woodwind and horns in a movement that combines contrapuntal elements with the general form of a rondo, providing the culmination not only of the symphony but also of an epoch.

If, historically, Symphony No. 2 marked the end of one period, before the cataclysm of 1914, Schmidt’s Fuga Solemnis, scored for organ, six trumpets, six horns, three trombones, tuba, timpani and tam-tam, came not only at the end of the composer’s career and life but at another turning-point in the history of Austria. His last organ work, it was written for the inauguration of the new organ for the Vienna Broadcasting Station in the summer of 1937. After the Anschluss it was reworked as an interlude in the politically motivated cantata Deutsche Auferstehung (German Resurrection), with tendentious texts by his pupil Oskar Dietrich, first performed after Schmidt’s death. The Fuga Solemnis remains in itself, nevertheless, an impressive tribute to the composer’s mastery of counterpoint and to his originality and inventiveness.

Keith Anderson

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