Sunday 15 November 2020

Who gives a Schmidt?

Who cares if it's the right guy? It's all Schmidt anyway

Classical music gossip blogger Norman Lebrecht has been laying into Austrian Composer Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) in The Critic:

“A former cellist in Mahler’s Vienna Opera orchestra, Schmidt was an embittered Austrian whose constant resentments isolated him from the mainstream. In his last year of life, he became an enthusiastic Nazi. He is regarded by the Vienna Philharmonic as part of their symphonic heritage and several leading conductors evince enthusiasm for his four symphonies.”

He goes on:

"I decided to sample [Berliner Philharmoniker Music Director] Kirill Petrenko’s passion for his 1933 fourth symphony in the hope of achieving enlightenment. To my regret, enlightenment came there none.

“The symphony is relentlessly regressive. It opens with a statement that could be mistaken for early Bruckner, or even Schumann, and it evolves within a restricted sound jacket, as if Mahler and Strauss never existed. There is a brief swipe of Mahler six minutes into the first movement, but Schmidt gets over it, settling into wish-washy swathes of Tristanesque Wagnerisms. I am neither intrigued much by his monologue nor moved at all. I am not even much annoyed by it. This is music that is going nowhere. It is, needless to say, dazzlingly played and with pinpoint precision by the Berlin Philharmonic, but to what end? It’s like asking a Michelin-starred chef to make you a burger. Hold the pickle.”

To what end? Schmidt composed his dark, sorrowful Fourth Symphony as a requiem for his dead daughter.

Also, the idea that Schmidt was an “enthusiastic Nazi” isn’t supported by any evidence; in fact, a number of people have gone out of their way to note that, despite the fact that he once gave a Nazi salute, Schmidt doesn’t seem to have been particularly interested in the Nazis at all. Evidence for this comes from the comments of Lebrecht’s own blog; a few weeks before this derisory review of the new recording of the Fourth Symphony from the Berliner Philharmoniker, he’d taken a swipe at Deutsche Grammophon for releasing Paavo Jarvi’s new CD set of Schmidt’s 4 symphonies with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, repeating the Nazi claim in the process. Below the line, Georg Tintner’s widow Tanya weighed in, commenting:

“It is very dangerous to claim ex cathedra that “this guy was a nazi supporter” when you really don’t know. I quote from a letter my husband (Georg Tintner) wrote to another conductor who was about to give a performance of Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln: ‘You asked me whether Franz Schmidt was a Nazi or not. In difficult times many things are not either black or white. I try to answer this question as well as I can. The doctor of Franz Schmidt, who was also a brilliant violinist, was perhaps his best friend for many years. They played chamber music together and Dr Adler (I think that was his name) looked after him till he died. This man was a Jew. I also know that Franz Schmidt helped some of his Jewish students and friends to get out of Austria. These are the positive sides. But unfortunately Franz Schmidt wrote a cantata in homage of Hitler. It is very fortunate that he died before finishing this piece. The Universal Edition holds the manuscript of the unfinished work and refuses (in my opinion wisely) to publish it. So what can you say? One thing is clear to me, that he certainly did not expose himself more incriminatingly than for instance Hans Pfitzner, whom I also adore.’

Georg Tintner was a renowned Bruckner conductor, born in Austria in 1917, who fled the country in 1938 because he was Jewish. He hardly makes Schmidt sound “enthusiastic” about Nazism.

There’s more, though.

Lebrecht cites the work’s “regressive” language as among its failings. It’s certainly not avant-garde for its time and could very easily be described as conservative for 1933, when it was written. It’s also wonderful, but that’s another point. Does it open “with a statement that could be mistaken for early Bruckner, or even Schumann”? Absolutely not. The First Symphony, from 1899, does, but the Fourth begins with a doleful trumpet solo that could never be mistaken for Bruckner or Schumann.

So here’s what I think happened. Lebrecht received a copy of Paavo Jarvi’s new Schmidt cycle, gave it a cursory hate-listen, and then stuck on the Berliner 4th shortly afterwards and snorted at how shit he thought that was too. Then, when he fired off his review, he got the symphonies mixed up and didn’t bother to go back and check.

Oh, and the review is headed by a picture of French composer Florent Schmitt, and Schmidt is spelled “Schmit” in the pull-quote.

Absolute Schmidt-show.