A voice in support of Franz Schmidt

A voice in support of Franz Schmidt


norman lebrecht

December 03, 2020

I make no apology whatsoever for disliking the four symphonies of a lacklustre Austrian composer whose apologists deny that his final works are odes of joy to Nazism. My own objection is purely aesthetic: the music has never moved me.

However, my colleague Richard Bratby has leaped to Schmidt’s defence in the Spectator and it woul be remiss of me to withold a contrary opinion – though I feel that Richard’s advocacy falls some way short of passion.

It begins like this:

The sounds that Franz Schmidt made while learning the trumpet were pretty much unbearable, or so the story goes. In order to practise he would leave his home in the Lower Austrian town of Perchtoldsdorf and walk up to the heath, a grassy hillside above the town. There, far from unappreciative neighbours, and looking down towards the spires of Vienna, a few miles north and east, he could crack notes to his heart’s content — in perfect isolation.

Some artists hand you their metaphors on a plate. Schmidt spent his career trying to escape the suburbs of central European music, dogged by private grief and professional frustration. ‘Someone with a name like Schmidt should never become an artist,’ declared his piano teacher. Later, he played the cello in the Vienna Opera under Gustav Mahler — who stood by while the orchestra’s leader bullied Schmidt into submission. Schmidt lost a wife to mental illness (the Nazis murdered her after his death) and a daughter to childbirth, and continued to write music through heart attacks and nervous breakdowns, even after doctors told him that the effort would kill him — which it did in 1939, 11 months after the Anschluss….

Read on here.


Richard adds in a message to me: As regards his politics: the available written sources from people who knew him in his lifetime (and who had every reason to condemn him) seem to tell a different story from those who have formed an opinion after his death: that’s often how history works. As for the symphonies; well, if you want a between-the-lines guide to my opinions: No.1 is attractive but standard-issue late romantic boilerplate – take it or leave it. No.2: near-masterpiece, really grabs me but you need to be on the same wavelength. No.3: creeps me out, can’t bring myself to like it. No.4: masterpiece, genuinely moving – but it’s definitely a Marmite work. I’ve observed that it seems to leave people either deeply touched or utterly cold. 


  • Greg Bottini says:

    I am unfamiliar with the bulk of Schmidt’s compositions, and I regret that.
    But I find his Fourth symphony, and his oratorio “The Book With Seven Seals”, to be very moving works if they are given good performances (my recorded touchstones are Mehta/VPO for the 4th and Mitropoulos/VPO for the oratorio).
    And I personally believe, from what I have read, that Schmidt was no more of a Nazi than Furtwangler was. (You may take that statement however you’d like to, commenters.)

    • Karl says:

      I love those pieces too. Leon Botstein likes The Book with Seven Seals, calling it a “Politically Incorrect” Masterpiece. I missed the performance he conducted 10 years ago at Bard. That was a bummer!

    • fflambeau says:

      I too am not familiar with his work but just listened to his 4th symphony. Some nice sounds but too sad and sombre and not melodic at all. I can see why he has been ignored.

  • Dirijor says:

    Ihr ständiges Schmidt bashing und schwingen der „Nazi Keule“ ist mehr als entbehrlich.
    Setzen Sie sich doch mal konkret mit der Sinfonik Schmidts auseinander. Das kann der Beckmesser wohl nicht!
    Sie haben mit Sicherheit keine Ahnung von Form, Struktur, Stil, Harmonik und Kontrapunkt.
    Alle großen Dirigenten wie Herbert von Karajan haben Schmidt besonders geschätzt.
    Karajan mögen Sie auch nicht? Aja, der war auch „nur“ ein Nazi. Lesen Sie einfach mal Schmidt‘s Autobiographie von Carl Nemeth bevor Sie andauernd bashing betreiben.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Bashing? You need to take German lessons, Herr H.

      • Dirijor says:

        Und Sie lernen zuerst mal objektiv zu bleiben, bevor Sie über etwas urteilen-wovon Sie definitiv nicht den Funken einer Ahnung haben!
        Jeder im deutschsprachigen Raum weiß was unter bashing gemeint ist!

        • Le Křenek du jour says:

          Entbehrlich ist hier allein Ihr ungebührlicher Auftritt.
          Sie vergreifen sich im Tonfall, so wie Sie sich in der Sache vergreifen.

      • psq says:

        According to the German reference Duden “bashing” has been adopted into German from English with identical spelling and meaning. But watch out …. the infinitive in English is “bash”, in German “bashen”, and the concomitant parting of ways in the consequences in tenses.
        Confused? Here is one of my favourites:
        Mail (in English), noun = something sent through the post;
        Mail (in German), noun (Substantiv) = an abbreviation for E-mail (from Duden);
        mail (in English), verb = to send through the post;
        mailen (in German), verb = to send an e-mail.
        No wonder the etymological forebears are confused.


    Norman, no one needs to apologise for not liking a particular composer. There are a few I can’t stand, although I hardly dare mention them here for fear of the backlash I might generate. Then there are composers I love but who’ve produced works I dislike for a variety of reasons.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Aw, go ahead and mention the ones you can’s stand, Stephen.
      I know you can take the heat!
      – regards, Greg

  • John Borstlap says:

    The reason that there is more Schmidt around in concert life is that a need is felt to add new pieces to the repertoire but NOT the 20C monstruosities, so: the traditionalist vein is becoming more interesting, of all those composers condemned and ignored for being ‘not progressive enough’.

    Here is Schmidt’s much-lauded fourth:


    The problem with this piece as with all of S’s music, is that it is harmonically and melodically developed and very serious in the usual German sense, but rhythmically very underdeveloped, downbeat, so that everything somehow falls flat, like a sullen grey blanket spread over an otherwise attractive lady. It sounds like Strauss or Mahler but with most of the life sucked-out of it, or like the sermon of a well-meaning but depressed vicar.

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    There exist first-rate second-rate composers and second-rate second-rate composers. I would say Schmidt is of the latter sort.

  • sabrinensis says:

    It’s all more useless canonic gatekeeping.

    The statement that “No.3: creeps me out, can’t bring myself to like it.” written about a work composed in the spirit of Schubert, with a sunny ebullience that is evident throughout its more than three quarter-hour length, says much more about Bratby than it does Schmidt’s music.

    I remain amazed that Schmidt still seems so controversial at this late date. I’ve just listened to four recordings of the Beethoven Variations and I hear a fabulous and original imagination coupled with technical perfection. You should sit down and play symphonies 3 or 4 at the piano (there are reductions available). It is highly revealing of the composer’s brilliance and truly, this guy was a genius. We should be glad, for we have room for more of them.

    • Herbie G says:

      Sabreniensis, well said! I award you a bottle of virtual champagne. Much has been said here about the nobility, lyricism and power of Schmidt’s symphonies and other orchestral and chamber works. For me he represents the last golden sunset of the composers of the Viennese school that began with Haydn, followed by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Brahms and Mahler (though only Schubert was born there).
      But there is a lighter work that could serve as an introduction to his music. The Variations on a Hussar Theme for orchestra is, for me, a sequel to the Enigma Variations. The introducton is a purple patch of passionate Hungarian rumination (his mother was Hungarian) like those found in the slow movement of the Second Symphony and the Intermezzo from ‘Notre Dame’. Another turns up later. The twin sister of Elgar’s whimsical ‘Dorabella’ also turns up. A marvellous work that will be enjoyed by all but the zealous naysayers.

  • CarlD says:

    Recently checked out Paavo Jarvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony’s Schmidt cycle and I must say, not bad, not bad at all.

  • Herbie G says:

    I have a very good friend – a phenomenal amateur oboist – who hates beetroot. He sees no purpose in it and can’t stand even borscht or any other by-product. I do like beetroot, either in solid form or as borscht – and of course, I like drinking beetroot juice. But I would never waste any time having long debates with him on this matter, suffused with appropriate adulatory adjectives, only to be confronted with his own derogatory ones.
    It’s much the same with Franz Schmidt. NL does not like his music. I and many others on this blog do. It’s a beetroot thing and no amount of sophisticated pseudo-intellectual argument about form, rhythm and harmonic progressions will change his opinion or mine.
    My first encounter with Schmidt was in the late 1960s, when recordings of his music were unobtainable outside Austria. But I managed to get hold of an LP of the Second String Quartet, played by the Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet. I found the work impenetrable, so thick was the highly chromatic counterpoint. (At the time, I couldn’t stomach Delius either, for the same reason.) The Damascene revelation came about ten years later, probably in 1974, when Harold Truscott (I think) gave an illustrated talk on Radio 3, the centenary of Schmidt’s birth. One example was the Intermezzo from ‘Notre Dame’, and on hearing that I was smitten. Then came the outstanding LP of the Fourth Symphony under Zubin Mehta and that made me a Schmidt fanatic. Now, all his published works have been commercially recorded, some several times, except for his second opera ‘Fredegundis’, of which a 1979 recording was briefly available on Voce – I think this may have been a pirated off-air production.
    To claim that Schmidt’s music is ‘rhythmically very underdeveloped, downbeat, so that everything somehow falls flat’ sounds like my friend’s verdict on beetroot. It’s just an effort to find adjectives to justify one’s dislike of something. Do the same brickbats apply to, say, the Tallis Fantasia of Vaughan Williams or to the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony- rum tum tum tuuum tum all the way through? In fact, forgive my ignorance but I have no idea what ‘rhythmical development’ is, though it sounds like something that the serialists might have dreamed up. But I may be wrong so please, JB, could you elucidate, with examples, what is rhythmically developed and what is not.
    ‘No.4: masterpiece, genuinely moving’ – yes indeed, but why bother to add ‘but it’s definitely a Marmite [or beetroot?] work’? Every work is a Marmite work; I guarantee that if anyone posted on this thread that any work (say Beethoven’s 9th) was a masterpiece, there would be at least one person posting the opposite.
    Five years ago I was lucky enough to attend a Prom, packed to capacity, at which the VPO conducted by Semyon Bychkov performed two works; the first was Brahms’ Third Symphony, which received enthusiastic applause. The second was Schmidt’s Second Symphony, which took the house by storm. (The encore was ‘Nimrod’.). So over 5,000 people paid top prices to hear a popular favourite and a little-known work and were spellbound. And judging by the ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ on this thread and another earlier one about Schmidt, I don’t think I am alone in my enthusiasm.
    Finally, I do hope that the myth of Schmidt’s Nazi sympathies is laid to rest. Hitler did try to promote him as an archetypal Aryan musician and a huge cantata was commissioned from him – Deutsche Auferstehung, set to the banal words of a Nazi hack. This would have further boosted his fame in Austria and would doubtless have been a lucrative proposition, with a guaranteed much-publicised premiere performance attended by Hitler and all his henchmen. As his health was in alarming decline, the income would have helped to defray the cost of medical treatment. Surely no self-respecting Nazi would have turned this down. But Schmidt dithered and what work was done was set aside and finally abandoned; instead he wrote the huge A major Clarinet Quintet – his last completed work.
    When a neo-Nazi ensemble asked Schmidt to recommend a work for them to play, he suggested Variations on a Palestinian Theme by Israel Brandman, a Jewish student of his. His circle included many Jews and they reported cordial friendship and support from Schmidt. These included Paul Wittgenstein (who lost his right arm in WWI) for whom he wrote two piano concertos; all his chamber works too, and all but one of his solo piano works, were scored for piano left hand, for Wittgenstein to play. Hans Keller, another Jewish student who, like Wittgenstein, had to flee the Nazis, spoke of Schmidt’s warmth towards him, as did violinist and astrological investigator Oskar Adler. For anyone to be a Nazi, racism was a sine qua non – particularly anti-Semitism. Indeed Schmidt could easily have become an anti-Semite after the appalling treatment, recorded in his autobiography, meted out to him as a cellist in the Vienna Court Opera by Mahler, who was their conductor.
    Tragically and ironically, Schmidt’s first wife, Karoline was permanently confined to a sanatorium in 1919 through serious mental illness and then murdered in the German euthanasia programme, probably around 1940.
    I have presented this as hard evidence; as stated previously in this thread, all the plaudits I have quoted above were given by Jews who knew Schmidt well and had to flee the Nazis. They would have had every reason to expose any anti-Semitic tendencies within the man they knew so well. I prefer their statements to any unsubstantiated allegations that Schmidt was an enthusiastic Nazi, made a fortune from them and supported their cause. If anyone has hard evidence to refute the above, I’d love to hear it.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Thank you, Herbie G. I completely agree with everything you wrote.

    • Paul Carlile says:

      I was at that VPO Prom and can enthusiastically second everything you say about it. My near-neybors in the audience, a family from USA, on holiday, taking their chance on unfamiliar music, were indeed more moved and stimulote by the Schmidt than the Brahms (fine tho that was).
      Thank you also for the extra information about FS’s “””Nazism”””….with witness from Keller and Adler; shocking that this still needs to be stated and repeated.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The music of Beethoven and Brahms is full of rhythmical life. With ‘developed’ was meant: given the attention it needs to lighten-up textures. It is a bit of a problem with late-romantic music, since so much attention went into the harmony – influence of Wagner who also was often on the square and heavy side (not always).

      The 2nd mvt of Beethoven 7 with the regular rhythm: there, the rhythm is the central musical idea, all attention goes to it, and it expresses something of a despondent mood, like a rainy sunday afternoon and no outings. It is a clear and crisp rhythm, easily remembered, giving an underlying unity to all the variations that shine a light on it, from all around, in so many different colours.

      Brahms is full of rhythmic life. Something blocklike, like the 1st theme of symph 3, 1st mvt, works like a fist banging on a table, stressing a point, but the fast-changing harmonies make them like very different first beats and very different rhetoric stresses. The 2nd theme that follows closely, has a gently-rocking rhythm, like a Schubert idea, with light figuration clearly worked-out rhythmically. Etc. etc… Or the irregularities in rhythm and phrasing (they cannot be separated) in the 1st mvt of symph 2, with the famous singing theme being pushed by the syncopated rhythms underneath.

      Hard example: Wagner’s Meistersinger Ouverture which seems to be very square, but its quasi-baroque counterpoint makes the textures brittle and pointed, so that the music never sinks. Not to mention the ebbs and flows in Tristan, which is a rhythmic device, opening-up a world of infinite movement and life.

      In Mahler there is so much rhythmic variety that it seems to be pointless to give an example. Well, one then: the music in Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde where solo instruments seem to freely improvise around fragmentary motives, all that is rhythmically carefully designed and deeply-felt.

      Baroque music has very regular rhythms, but there, it is not square and lifeless because the rhytm is light and pointed in the allegros and expressive in the adagios, like quiet dignified steps. In baroque music, rhythm is the delicate frame within which all the movement happens. In every style, rhythm has a different function, but it is always supposed to be what the lines are in a painting: to give form, to accent, to make clear.

      Variety, phrasing, irregularity within regular patterns, deviations from set-up patterns, are all rhythmic devices, and most of the time the rhythm is part of the musical idea. With Schmidt – at least in his 4th – I have the feeling rhythm was the last thing for him to think about. It’s a pity.

  • Marfisa says:

    “… his apologists deny that his final works are odes of joy to Nazism.” (NL)
    “… but in his dying months Austria’s new rulers commissioned him to write a propaganda cantata. He never completed it, instead devoting his failing energies to a piano quintet for an old friend, the Jewish pianist Paul Wittgenstein.” (Richard Bratby)
    I’m listening to the 1938 A major quintet at this moment and it does not sound in the least like an ode of joy to Nazism.

    • Paul Carlile says:

      The quintets are among Schmidt’s finest works; a concentration of pure quality in thematic material and instrumental writing skill and imagination.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    While I’m probably one of the biggest Mahler enthusiasts on the planet (the music), it is true that Mahler treated Franz Schmidt rather shabbily. We all know that tact wasn’t one of Mahler’s strong suits. Suspicion and paranoia over players within his orchestra wasn’t unknown either. Such behavior didn’t always help his cause. Thankfully, he was a great enough musician to leap over such obstacles.

  • Fernandel says:

    Franz Schmidt’s music: tautological (not devoid of charm) kitsch.

  • Herbie G says:

    To cap it all, The Book with the Seven Seals, written in 1935-1937 and based on the Book or Revelation, is (to me) undoubtedly a gruesome reflection on the impending cataclysm that Hitler’s henchmen would unleash on Europe. While Nazi-aligned composers where busy writing works in adulation of the Third Reich and genuine Aryan ‘Volksmusik’ like Carmina Burana, Schmidt produced this grim vision of hell with only the stunning Halleluja chorus at the end offering hope of salvation. What kind of self-respecting compatriot of the Fuehrer, joyfully awaiting the inevitable Anschluss, would have blotted his copy-book with such a gloomy premonition of things to come? And, as I mentioned earlier, which devoted Nazi acolyte would abandon the chance of writing ‘Deutsche Auferstehung’ and earn the plaudits of the new regime?
    I also neglected to mention that while Schmidt was no Nazi, his young second wife, Margarethe (nee Jirasek) was. It may have been through her blandishments, when he was already in parlous health, that he began that infamous work only to abort it and turn elsewhere.

  • Henry says:

    Well Mr. Lebrecht is good for assembling a website with classical music gossip, but a non-entity when it comes to assessing music. He lacks all preconditions for that. Him judging Schmidt is like a third grader judging Einstein.

    Nuff said.