Posted by Neil Saunders on October 02, 19101 at 16:39:30:
In Reply to: Re: Bruckner...so amazing....so unknown posted by Dick Welty on March 18, 19101 at 18:05:51:
I would certainly agree with Messrs Fee and Welty that Bruckner is amazing. Unknown? I'm not so sure, at least in Europe (he is hugely popular in Holland, of all places). Undervalued? Certainly.
At this point I feel obliged to mention the name of Mahler. Like Bruckner (with whom he was often associated), Mahler was for many years utterly disregarded outside the German-speaking world (except, once again, in Holland). The problem is, having once been criminally under-rated, Mahler is now in the invidious position of being criminally over-rated, and Bruckner is one of the many Austro-German composers who are overlooked as a result of being in the huge shadow Mahler now casts.
Richard Strauss has partly escaped from this, since he operated principally in genres eschewed by Mahler (first the symphonic poem, then opera, as well as concertos). But symphonists, and those operating in other abstract (non-programmatic instrumental) genres have suffered. Bruckner is nearly forty years Mahler's senior, but he matured late, while Mahler matured early, making them nearer contemporaries than mere chronology might suggest. Hans Pfitzner didn't attempt the symphonic form until Mahler was already long dead, and was primarily a composer of opera and lieder (in the shadow of Richard Strauss), but composers such as Reznicek, Zemlinsky, Reger, Schreker and perhaps even Korngold (nearly forty years Mahler's junior!) have certainly been given less than their due as a result of the all-consuming cult of Mahler. (In my native England Mahler has even pushed Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms out of the repertory, indicating a most unhealthy situation in our musical culture.)
Greatest of all, and perhaps the least known and appreciated among all the above composers (with the exception of Reznicek) is the Austro-Hungarian symphonist Franz Schmidt (1874-1939). I use the term "Austro-Hungarian" advisedly since Schmidt (who was three-quarters Hungarian) was born in what the Germans called Pressburg and the Hungarians Poszony (which, when Schmidt was born, was the capital of a Hungarian province). Poszony is now called Bratislava, and is the capital of Slovakia. Schmidt spent the first fourteen years of his life in Poszony, before a scandal in which his father was implicated forced Schmidt and his family to move permanently to Vienna. (Hungarian had been Schmidt's first language, Slovakian his second, with German coming a poor third. Later in life Schmidt spoke Patrician Viennese German without a trace of Hungarian accent, and later friends and acquaintances were amazed to learn that he even knew the language.)
I mention this because Schmidt, like Mahler (who was born in Moravia), was far less Teutonic than his name and subsequent Viennese background might suggest.
Schmidt composed four symphonies, two operas, two string quartets and a quantity of extremely valuable organ music, as well as an oratorio based on the Book of Revelation, "Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln". He also completed a number of works commissioned by the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein (brother of Ludwig), two concertante works (the Piano Concerto in E flat and the "Concertante Variations on a Theme by Beethoven"), and three chamber works, the Piano Quintet in G, and the Quintets in B flat and A for Clarinet, String Trio and Piano (Left Hand). Wittgenstein also had left-handed piano works composed for him by Strauss, Ravel, Prokoviev and Britten, but he valued Schmidt's works above all of them.
You may have read in reference works that Schmidt's music resembles that of Reger. This is seldom actually the case, but arises from lazy and superficial inferring from the fact that both composers are Austro-German, relatively neglected, wrote a lot of organ music and composed in a very chromatic, but essentially traditional idiom that they must somehow closely resemble each other. Schmidt no more resembles Reger than Strauss resembles Mahler.
Schmidt's posthumous reputation has suffered because of rumours, vigorously rebutted by his many Jewish friends and colleagues (including Oskar Adler and Hans Keller), that he became a Nazi towards the end of his life.
The true situation is more complex. Schmidt was a fairly conservative nationalist, but he was humane and in no way anti-semitic. As Austria's most distinguished composer still resident in Vienna he was compelled to begin a Cantata to a National Socialist text, "Deutsche Auferstehung" ("German Resurrection"), that he appears to have left deliberately unfinished at the time of his death (he was already a dying man when he received the commission). Nevertheless, the work was completed by a student of Schmidt's with Nazi sympathies (Robert Wagner), and performed and published under Schmidt's own name. Schmidt was notoriously politically naive, but he would surely have come to recognise the true nature of the Nazi regime had he lived a little longer (he died in February 1939). His first wife, who was confined to a mental hospital, but whom he continued to visit and support financially until his death, was subsequently murdered by the Nazis in their "euthanasia" programme.
One of Schmidt's biographers subtitles his biography "Ein Meister nach Brahms und Bruckner" ("A master in succession to Brahms and Bruckner"), and this is a slightly more helpful characterisation than that of the Schmidt-sounds-like-Reger school. I would disagree with Mr Welty that Bruckner was alone in his contrapuntal mastery after Bach (what about Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven?). Brahms, for example, was a stupendous contrapuntist. So, in his way, was Reger. But the greatest all-round technician was Franz Schmidt.
If you want to get to know the music of Franz Schmidt, the place to begin is with the Fourth Symphony, composed in 1932-33 after the death, in childbed, of his only daughter, Emma. There are two particularly fine recordings of this work: one on Decca featuring the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (in which Schmidt had been a cellist under Mahler's direction) conducted by Zubin Mehta in a 1972 analogue recording, and one by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Moest in a mid-90s digital recording. If you love the music of Bruckner you will love this work also, even though Schmidt writes in a far more advanced harmonic idiom (which borders, at times, on atonality). Schmidt's extensive experience as an orchestral cellist (he was also a virtuoso pianist and organist) gave him an insight into the orchestra unavailable to Bruckner, Brahms or Reger, and his skill as an orchestrator exceeds that of Mahler or Strauss. (There are too few opportunities to hear his works in the concert hall, but every time I have heard the Fourth Symphony live I have been utterly awed by the superlative skill of its orchestration.)
Ignore also anyone who says that Schmidt was a "hopelessly conservative" composer. His mature music contains some of the most extreme tonal music ever written (especially his second opera "Fredigundis", his Second String Quartet and his Third Symphony), and his harmonic idiom often resembles that of the jazz pianist Bill Evans at least as much as it does that of Brahms or Bruckner.
Schmidt disliked talking about his own music, preferring to let it speak for itself. As a first step, get one (or both) of the above-mentioned recordings of the Fourth Symphony, and find out for yourselves.
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