A “Politically Incorrect” Masterpiece

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert A “Politically Incorrect” Masterpiece, performed on Nov 22, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When the history of twentieth-century music is written from a distance greater than our own, the story that is told may very well be different from the one with which all of us have lived. Until recently, we have understood the history of twentieth-century music as a history of progressive development. The essentials of the story begin in the nineteenth century with Wagner. He is credited with extending harmonic practice, transforming time and duration, and enlarging the palette of musical sound. He abandoned the traditional forms of classic and romantic music. From Wagner on, progress–understood as the pursuit of originality and innovation–continued unabated until tonality was abandoned altogether. Modernism in the form of the twelve-tone strategy of Arnold Schoenberg and the work of second Viennese school appeared to be the logical culmination of the evolution of a musical language specifically appropriate to twentieth-century life and culture. The motto on the Secession building designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich, which was completed in 1898–when the twenty-four year-old Franz Schmidt (who was born in 1874, the same year as Arnold Schoenberg) was already a member of the Vienna Imperial Opera Orchestra under Gustav Mahler–read, “To each age its art, to art its freedom.” This motto implied historicism; it meant that each age would place its distinctive stamp on the many forms of aesthetic expression that it produced. That stamp was linked to the dominant and unique historical circumstances which artists and audience shared alike.

In this familiar story, two exact contemporaries, Schoenberg and Schmidt, ended up occupying two radically different places in the progressive narrative of music history: Schoenberg was placed the center and Schmidt ended up at the periphery. Why? Although Franz Schmidt grew up in the same Vienna as Arnold Schoenberg, the inspiration he took from the city was radically different. As a cellist in the opera orchestra, he did not particularly like Mahler’s personality. (Listeners to tonight’s concert, however, will notice many Mahlerian touches in Schmidt’s score, particularly in the orchestration.) Schmidt studied with Bruckner and Robert Fuchs and aligned himself with a cultural movement which saw itself as the healthy mainstream, and viewed the innovators of the Viennese fin de siecle as narcissistic rebels and philistine purveyors of change for change’s sake.

Indeed, not all composers in the early part of the twentieth century understood the legacy of Wagner in the same way. By the 1920s, an open rift existed in the German and Austrian musical world. In 1917, a leading German composer, Hans Pfitzner, wrote a polemical essay entitled “Danger: Futurists!” designed as an attack on Ferrucio Busoni. Pfitzner then published a more extensive essay, “The New Aesthetic of Musical Impotence,” in 1920. An anti-modernist conservative camp developed. Although Max Reger died in 1916 on the eve of the rift, he emerged as a founding father of the anti-Modernist tendency in twentieth-century musical composition. There are many points of comparison between Reger and Schmidt, not the least of which can be discerned in moments of extreme chromaticism and in the organ solo which opens the second part of the work on tonight’s program.

Reger, Pfitzner, and Schmidt are the three central figures of the anti-Modernist German and Austrian line in twentieth-century European music before 1950. All three composers believed that twentieth-century music needed to retain the ideal of a common musical language rooted in tonality. They were determined to continue a historical tradition reaching back into the Renaissance in a manner that was wholly recognizable as unbroken to the contemporary audience. They drew inspiration from both Wagner and Brahms, and saw themselves as sustaining the true German Romantic tradition. They were eclectic in their use of “pure” musical forms and the writing of so-called “program music.” Ironically, they had much in common with their Modernist enemies, particularly Schoenberg. For example, Pfitzner, Schmidt and Schoenberg all believed in the superiority of German music, and each considered himself in his own way a great patriot. Schmidt, like Pfitzner, paid overt homage to the classical past by using both the symphonic form and the variation form. In tonight’s work, he undertook a task reminiscent of the great Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach. In Schmidt’s case, there is a particular affinity between this work and the religious intensity and commitment in the choral music of his teacher, Anton Bruckner.

The great divide between Modernist and anti-Modernist music had its echoes in politics. Pfitzner became an avid Nazi and had the misfortune of outliving the Third Reich. Unlike Richard Strauss, his political engagement was fanatical, a fact which has helped keep much of his music from the concert and opera stage. Only the monumental Palestrina, among whose admirers was Thomas Mann, seems to return periodically. Schmidt was an Austrian who died shortly after the Anschluss in 1938. There is some dispute about how bad his politics actually were, and there is some evidence that, like Wilhelm Furtwängler, Schmidt behaved decently in his personal relationships with his Jewish colleagues. But any attempt to improve Schmidt’s image cannot avoid coming to grips with his sympathy for Austro-fascism. Aesthetic conservatism and political conservatism went hand in hand in the cultural politics of early twentieth-century Austria. Schmidt, after all, did begin work after the Anschluss on a celebratory cantata entitled Die Deutsche Auferstehung (The German Resurrection). His profound commitment, evident in this work, to the traditions of Austro-Catholicism lent him both prestige and an image of nativist authenticity dear to Austrian conservatives. Like Bruckner, he took on the mantle of the uncorrupted, anti-cosmopolitan artist rooted in his native soil and culture.

Owing to Schmidt’ s political leanings during the 1930s, his music became associated with Austrian fascism and Nazism. In the years between 1938 and 1945 in the concert programs of Vienna, the music of Franz Schmidt played huge and prominent role. This association resulted in making his music unwelcome and politically tainted after the war. In this sense, his music and career was labeled “politically incorrect” and took on a symbolic role directly in conflict with any effort at de-Nazification. The situation in Austria was even more complicated than in Germany, for in Austria, the process of coming to terms with the past was delayed and submerged by Austria’s delusive and inaccurate self-image an unwitting dupe of Hitler.

The coincidence of art and politics cannot be brushed aside. But at the same time, it cannot give us the right to turn away from the musical achievement of Franz Schmidt. Unlike Pfitzner, Schmidt was not a collaborator, but merely a fallible human being with his share of relatively commonplace but dangerous prejudices. He was also, however, a composer of remarkable gifts. Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln is unquestionably his magnum opus. Like the music of Max Reger, it shows its debt to the past even as it displays unmistakable originality. Schmidt did not write music as an act of restoration. He used historical models to fashion something new. The tenor role of Saint John may conjure up the memory of Bach, and there may be other glimpses of direct references to the musical past, but all these allusions are cast in an ambitious, sweeping and intense fabric of musical and spiritual inspiration. This work qualifies as few others do as a neglected masterpiece. It should lead the listener on a spiritual journey that illustrates and magnifies the mysteries, metaphors, and images of the Apocalypse. It stands in the greatest tradition of the sacred oratorio.

To return to the story of twentieth-century music, a revival of Das Buch at the end of this century is particularly appropriate. The heyday of modernism has passed, and in that amorphous and eclectic aftermath called post-Modernism, tonality and traditional forms of composition and narrative music have returned. Franz Schmidt may have a place in the story of this century that will be told in the future, that is closer to that occupied today by Arnold Schoenberg than we may heretofore have suspected was possible. New generations may discover the unbroken conservative line of music making in this century with enthusiasm. They may hear it in a new way, detached from the polemics of the day, much the way we now hear Wagner, Brahms, and Bruckner side by side. It is therefore poignant and fitting that the first performance in recent years in the United States should feature the Arnold Schoenberg Choir from Vienna with the American Symphony Orchestra in New York. The pairing of Schoenberg and Schmidt in this way constitutes not only an act of symbolic reconciliation, hut also a more precise and penetrating reflection on the history of music in the twentieth century.