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”.
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.
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
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.
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.