Franz Schmidt was an Austrian composer, pianist and cellist who was Director and then Rector of the Conservatory in Vienna from 1925 to 1937. Schmidt is remembered chiefly for his oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals, 1935-37), but he also wrote symphonies, operas, concerti, orchestral works and chamber music. His post-Romantic style was influenced by Bruckner, Wagner, Brahms and Mahler, under whom he played cello in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Schmidt suffered from health problems in his later life and died months after the Nazi Anschluss (annexation) of Austria. Schmidt’s reputation has been tainted by his association with the Nazi Party, contributing to his relative obscurity since his death, but many of Schmidt’s friends defended his actions and argued that he was naïve to the political implications of the association.
A Hungarian-German Roman Catholic, Schmidt was born in Pozsony (Pressburg) in the German-speaking part of the Austro-Hungarian empire (now Bratislava). Schmidt moved to Vienna in 1888 with his family and studied piano at the Vienna Conservatory, where he later became Director. A talented pianist, cellist and composer, Schmidt played in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra where he reportedly had a tempestuous relationship with the conductor, Gustav Mahler, although he was frequently given cello solos. Believing that he would not be taken seriously as an artist while playing the cello, Schmidt moved into academia and concentrated on composition. Sadly, Schmidt suffered from poor health throughout his life and experienced a number of personal tragedies including his first wife’s move to a mental hospital in 1919 (she was later murdered by the Nazis in their so-called ‘Euthanasia’ programme), and the death of his only daughter. The composer remembered his daughter in his Fourth Symphony, ‘Requiem for my Daughter’ (1933) and Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln.
Schmidt was a highly regarded composer, although his style has been described as too conservative for traditionalists and too traditional to be avant-garde. He has also been likened to the composer Hans Pfitzner, in that his post-Romantic, somewhat conservative style and rejection of ‘modernity’ have been described as Fascist and German nationalist. After the Anschluss in 1938 Schmidt was named the greatest living composer in the Ostmark (Austrian state) by the Nazis, partly due to the emigration of prominent Jewish composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, and his music was adopted by the Party. The Nazis organised the premiere of Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln and it was reported that Schmidt made a Nazi salute at the event, an act which greatly damaged his posthumous reputation.
Equally detrimental was his work on Deutsche Auferstehung (German Resurrection, 1938-40), a Nazi-commissioned cantata, setting a Nazi text by Oskar Dietrich. It is likely that Schmidt was given no choice in accepting the commission, and he described the order as a liberty which would most likely kill him, a statement that was unfortunately prophetic. He died leaving the cantata unfinished, to be completed by Robert Wagner and premiered on 24 April 1940. Although he included a Fuga Solemnis, which he described as ‘the reawakening of the Reich’s power after the humiliation of the dictated peace terms,’ and ended the cantata with the phrase, ‘Sieg Heil!,’ the Nazi Party did not like the piece.
Despite his association with the Nazis, Schmidt was not anti-Semitic and had never expressed support for Nazi ideology. Whilst he should have been completing his Deutsche Auferstehung, for example, he was instead working on two pieces for the one-armed Jewish pianist Paul Wittgenstein (brother of the philosopher), and he had a number of Jewish friends including Schoenberg and the lesser known composers Hans Keller and Oskar Adler. Keller and Adler both escaped to England after the Anschluss, and defended Schmidt later in life. Adler described Schmidt’s association with the Nazi party as a result of his political naïveté; Schmidt reportedly recommended Variations on a Hebrew Theme by his Jewish pupil Israel Brandmann to a proto-Nazi German National Party. The unfinished cantata has also been cited as evidence of his lack of commitment to the Nazis. His death has meant that Schmidt has been unable to defend himself or explain his actions. Musicologists have suggested that Schmidt’s music may have been performed more frequently after his death if he had had a better relationship with the conductor Herbert von Karajan, whom he is rumoured to have advised that he did not have a future in conducting.
Nevertheless, there has been a resurgence in Schmidt’s work in recent years, and in 2015 his Second Symphony was performed at the Proms in London with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom Schmidt played principal cello in the interwar years.
By Abaigh McKee
Franklin, P. (1989)‘The Case of Franz Schmitt,’ The Musical Times 130:1752 (February) 64-68
Laki, Peter (1996) ‘Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) and Dohnányi Ernö (1877-1960): A Study in Austro-Hungarian Alternatives’ The Musical Quarterly 80:2, Orchestra Issue (Summer) 362-381
Schmidt, F. and Black, L. (1993), ‘Up Schmidt Creek’ The Musical Times 134:1804 (June) 329-331
Truscott, H. (1984) The Music of Franz Schmitt: The Orchestral Music, With Personal Recollections by Hans Keller and the Autobiographical Sketch by Franz Schmidt (London: Toccata Press)
Tschulik, N. (1980) Franz Schmidt Angela Tolstoshev tr. (London: Glover and Blair)