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The Music of Franz Schmidt
Volume 1: The Orchestral Music
by Harold Truscott
with Personal Recollections by Hans Keller
and the Autobiographical Sketch by Franz Schmidt
Demy octavo, 190 pages; b/w illustrations; 109 music examples; Bibliography; Index
Toccata Press, 1984
£10-95 Paperback (ISBN 0 907689 12 4)
£15-95 Hardback (ISBN 0 907689 11 6)
Toccata Press



This book is a meaty sandwich with Harold Truscott’s exposition on Schmidt’s orchestral music in the middle. The bread is definitely wholemeal – “Personal recollections: Oscar Adler’s and my own” by Hans Keller, and an autobiographical sketch in which Schmidt (1874-1939) wrote of his life as far as 1913. The book was published in 1984 (Truscott died in 1992) and was written to celebrate the 110th anniversary of Schmidt’s birth. Two further volumes – on the chamber and keyboard music, and on the vocal music were planned but it seems that the project was never completed. Truscott was a prolific composer himself but much of his output was only discovered after his death. A worthwhile disc of his music was issued on Marco Polo soon afterwards (see review). He dedicated the book to his wife “who had to put up with me”. 

Schmidt’s autobiographical sketch is at the end of the book but here seems a natural place to start. Born in Pozsony (Pressburg) in Hungary (now Bratislava in Slovakia) on 22 December 1874 to musical parents, he started taking piano lessons from his mother at the age of six but yearned to play the organ. Eventually, behind the back of his then teacher Ludwig Burger, at around the age of eleven, he was taught the organ in a Franciscan monastery. Just before he turned 14 Schmidt left home for Perchtoldsdorf near Vienna, becoming a tutor to a grammar school with food and lodging being his only reward. Lodging with a wealthy family, the Grienauers, one of them, Alois, was an opera singer who engaged Schmidt as a co-repetiteur and introduced him to opera. Around this time Schmidt started composing in secret. In 1890 he decided to become a conductor and enrolled at the Vienna Conservatory. He should have studied counterpoint with Bruckner, whose music he admired greatly but the great man fell ill almost immediately. He also needed to learn an orchestral instrument and chose the cello on the grounds that there was no demand for violinists. In 1896 he beat 39 other applicants to the post of cellist in the Court Opera Orchestra and therefore became a member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. There he played under Richter and Fuchs but Mahler was soon to take charge. Mahler obviously admired Schmidt as a cellist and insisted he played the solos even though he wasn’t the section leader. This ultimately led to a showdown the outcome of which I won’t describe here. If you are interested in the composer, you should definitely be buying this book.

Schmidt’s private life, of which he says little, also had its moments. In 1899 he married Karoline Persson but she soon fell ill and was confined to an asylum from 1919 - where she was eventually murdered by the Nazis. Their daughter Emma died in childbirth in 1932 and the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony became her elegy. In 1923 he remarried (happily) Margarethe Jirasek but the last years of his life were dogged by heart disease. In 1938 out of political naivety Schmidt welcomed the Anschluss. Such issues are dealt with only very briefly - and often in the context of photographs - in this book, the focus of which is very firmly on Schmidt’s music. According to Keller, he was the “most complete musician I have come across in my life”. The recollections of Keller and Adler - a physician with whom Schmidt played in a string quartet - serve as an introduction and end with the controversial statement that he died composing. The autobiographical sketch ends with the words “truth without poetry”, an allusion to Goethe’s autobiography.

Truscott opens by briefly describing Schmidt’s origins as a composer and then there are six chapters covering the entire orchestral oeuvre. The four symphonies (completed in 1899, 1913, 1928 and 1933) are dealt with first, followed by the organ Chaconne which he orchestrated in 1931 and the Variations on a Hussar’s Song which was completed in the same year. Presumably the Piano Concerto was intended for volume two. These six chapters represent a penetrating analysis of Schmidt from the perspective of a composer. Yet Truscott was an experienced writer who manages to make a musicological exercise accessible and interesting. There are copious musical illustrations to what is clearly a sympathetic and personal overview. Some of Truscott’s views surprised me a little – for example his comparison of the Third and Fourth symphonies: “In the last resort the Third may be the more profound of the two”. But he certainly does justice to the Fourth, explaining vividly how the work evolves from the magical opening trumpet solo and ultimately comes full circle.

This well-illustrated book is essential reading for those in the English-speaking world interested in a composer not yet fully recognised by it. I was soon digging out every recording of his music I could find and listening again to masterpieces such as the Fourth Symphony and The Book of Seven Seals. I was also intrigued by Truscott’s music – perhaps his day will also come. I am not clear whether or not the book has recently been reprinted (my copy is dated 1984) but it really doesn’t matter – put it on your Christmas list.

Patrick C Waller






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