Note by the Composer

By Franz Schmidt

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

Certain parts of the Apocalypse which are especially suitable for setting to music have often been used by composers, hut as far as I know mine is the first attempt at a comprehensive setting. As I approached this gigantic task, it became evident that it was necessary to contract the vast dimensions of the text to a size that could be grasped by the average human brain, and to do so without impairing the essence of the work and if possible without altering the text. The whole construction had to be left intact both in its general plan and in its internal coherence. I only deviated from the original in that I combined the letters of St. John to the Seven Churches into an initial address. Otherwise I kept entirely to the original: the calling of John by the Lord, his appearance before the Throne, the ceremony of homage, the Book in the hand of the Lord, the Vision of the Lamb, the acceptance of the Book by the Lamb–all this is taken almost verbally from the original. The short service of thanks completes the act as a “Prologue in Heaven.”

The first part of the work, which now follows, deals with the breaking of the first six seals by the Lamb; this is preceded by the story of mankind. After the blessed and hopeful spreading of the Christian message of Salvation by the White Horseman (Jesus Christ) and his Heavenly Hosts, mankind falls prey to darkness and chaos. The blood-red Horseman and his hellish army cover the earth and precipitate mankind into war, one man killing the other. The third (black) and fourth (pale) Horsemen of the Apocalypse lead on the results of war–famine and pestilence. The greater part of mankind sinks into despair and perishes; only a small number still remains faithful. At the breaking of the fifth seal the souls of the martyrs appear with other victims of men’s crimes. They call for justice and punishment. The Lord bids them have patience and promises that they shall have justice at the Last Judgment. Since the greater part of mankind is still living in sin and obduracy, the Lord calls forth earthquakes and floods and fire over the face of the earth; so with the breaking of the sixth seal He destroys sinful man.

With this the first part closes. The natural break here gave me my sole opportunity to create a form suitable for music out of a mass of material unbounded as the ocean. From here St. John continues with ever greater power, by use of countless variations and repetitions of metaphors and similes, the story of his fight against Babylon the sink of iniquity (representing Rome) up to its complete annihilation, in order to stress and glorify the final victory of Christianity in the Vision of the new Jerusalem. I have risked the omission of the first two factors in the antithesis Babylon/Jerusalem, heathendom! Christianity, sin/virtue and so on, including all that belongs to them. I feel that the fundamental antithesis loses nothing of power and significance through this omission, which by enormously lightening the material makes a proportionate second part in the spirit of the original possible.

The second part opens with the great silence that fills Heaven at the opening of the seventh seal. During this silence St. John tells us, in parentheses as it were, the story of the true Faith and of its Church, beginning at the birth of the Savior, continuing with its fight against the worshippers of the devil and their false teaching, and concluding with its final victory.

After the great silence in Heaven, which one assumes to the last to the end of the world, seven angles prepare to sound the terrible summons to the Last Judgment. As in the original St. John only describes the Last Judgment briefly, but to announce the more vividly that the Millennium has arrived and that an immortal race now lives on a new earth and under a new sky. Then the Lord speaks to the purified and tells them the He will dwell with them and he their father. After the purified have given him thanks and homage with an Alleluia, St. John concludes his Revelation with a short explanation and farewell.

Apart from the one omission mention above I have kept faithfully to the original. My approach to the work has always been that of a deeply religious man and of an artist. This may account for a certain freedom in the conception; for instance that I have conceived St. John as a young man and given him music suitable for a young man, though he was in fact extremely old when he wrote his “Revelation”. As to the music itself, I shall confine myself to some remarks about the form.

Since it is the function of the text to provide the skeleton of the composition, thus not only to form the outer contours of the work but to exercise a proportionate influence on the construction of all its parts, the vocal section appears to me to have the greatest importance in the general development. Nevertheless I endeavored to achieve an even distribution of artistic tasks amongst all the contributing forces. A result of this is that the orchestra is never subservient nor dominating. Throughout it accompanies in a highly dramatic style, and sometimes it paints a musical picture. On the other hand it has no independent movements, preludes or intermezzi. The latter are left for the organ, which is treated not as a part of the orchestra but as an independent body.

The disposition of vocal sections is roughly as follows: St. John, who represents his Revelation between the musically identical addresses (the Greeting and the Farewell), is supported by the four soloists and by the choruses, who contribute partly as characters taking part, partly in assisting the narrator. Of the solo parts the Voice of the Lord (bass) is the most prominent. It is heard three times: at the very beginning when it summons St. John, then in the first part where it quells the uproar in Heaven and lastly in the second part to announce the message of salvation and mercy. Apart from various movements for quartet and ensemble, representing angels and the like, the soloists have two scenes for duet in the first part. They are that of the mother and daughter (soprano and contralto), and that of the two survivors on the field of carnage (tenor and bass). The choruses, distributed over the whole work in various tasks, have the following independent movements of importance: in the Prologue the Vision of the Lamb (with tenor solo), then the closing chorus. In the first part “King of kings,” the war, the uproar in Heaven, the end of the world. In the second part the summons to the Last Judgment (a quadruple fugue) and finally the Alleluia.

These brief notes should suffice to facilitate the understanding of the composition by those who hear it for the first time. If my musical setting of the unparalleled work, which is as relevant today as it was at its creation eighteen and a half centuries ago, should succeed in bringing the hearer spiritually closer to it, then that will be my greatest reward.

The Book of the Seven Seals (McColley)

By Robert McColley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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

The Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Schmidt (December 22, 1874-February 11, 1939) began writing the second of his two great masterpieces–the first was his Symphony No.4 in C–in 1935. As his failing health permitted be worked on through 1936 and completed Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln in February, 1937. Although most of the monstrously vast destruction of lives we call World War II would happen after the composer s death, with hindsight one can see that all the virulent movements of the age were already operating: in Mussolini’s occupation of Ethiopia, in the Spanish Civil War, in Stalin’s purges and show trials, in Hitler’s re-occupation of the Rhineland, and in his continually escalating persecution of German Jews. In the Soviet Union, Pravda reversed earlier favorable judgments and denounced Dimitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as “chaos instead of music.” Shostakovich quietly set aside his daring new Fourth Symphony (it would finally be heard at the end of 1961) and began composing “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism,” his fifth and most popular symphony.

Franz Schmidt, struggling against several illnesses to stay alive and compose his music, seems outwardly to have been oblivious to these developments, yet his music suggests a profound spiritual understanding of the veritable apocalypse at hand. Schmidt stated his conscious aims quite modestly: “If my musical setting of this unparalleled work, which is as relevant today as it was at its creation eighteen and a half centuries ago, should succeed in bringing the hearer spiritually closer to it, then that will be my greatest reward.”

Schmidt would enjoy, however briefly, rewards that would cloud his reputation. In March 1938, Nazi invaders annexed Austria to the Third Reich. Throughout the Reich the Nazi policy was to suppress Jewish and atonal music–the music of Arnold Schoenberg was therefore doubly condemned–but otherwise to support and celebrate the music of composers, living as well as dead, who illustrated “Aryan” supremacy, for example, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Richard Strauss. The world premiere of Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln in Vienna, June 15, 1938, a deserved triumph for the composer, was also amplified as a triumph of German culture. The work had been conceived and composed before the Anschluss, but then Schmidt effectively accepted the blessing of the new regime by agreeing to compose a cantata, Die Deutsche Auferstehung, (German Resurrection), celebrating the revival and unification of the Germans under National Socialism. Schmidt died before completing his cantata, but a former student completed it, and it was performed with full publicity by several of Vienna’s finest musicians in April 1940. The conductor was Oswald Kabasta (1896-1946), who had also conducted the premieres of the Fourth Symphony and Das Buch; indeed, Kabasta was a great friend and admirer of Schmidt, and had performed his works far more often than any other conductor. The Nazis continued to support Schmidt’s music until the end, but within a year of the composer’s death they killed his first wife, Karoline. Mentally unbalanced, she had lived in an asylum continually since 1919, and fell victim to Hitler’s general orders of September 1, 1939 to kill all the “incurables” of the Third Reich.

After World War II, several survivors of Hitler’s Holocaust graciously helped to restore Franz Schmidt’s reputation. Schmidt was never a Nazi in thought and feeling, and was entirely free of prejudice against Jews, according to Dr. Oskar Adler, violinist and physician. Adler regularly played chamber music with Schmidt for twenty years, and tended his illnesses until taking flight to England in 1938. Dr. Adler pointed out that Schmidt, though musically conservative, admired the work of Arnold Schoenberg, supported him (unsuccessfully) for a position at the Vienna Academy of Music, and led a highly successful public performance of Pierrot Lunaire. The distinguished musicologist Hans Keller, another refugee from Vienna, supported and amplified Dr. Adler’s testimony. The conductor Josef Krips, driven from Vienna by the Nazis and forced to survive as a factory worked in the Balkans, revived Das Buch at the Salzburg Festival in 1950, and introduced it to the United States at the Cincinnati May Festival in 1954.

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.

By Peter Franklin, University of Oxford

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

Reviewing the premiere of Schmidt’s Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (15 June 1938), Dr Friedrich Bayer chose words which any German or Austrian composer of the nineteenth-century might have coveted for his crowning achievement:

One could almost speak of this tousle as clarified, removed from the atmosphere of things earthly: the tousle of a roaster who has risen above a whole period of storm and stress.

But Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) was by nature a modest master. His character reflected the ordinariness of his name, whose Germanness concealed his origins in the Hungarian part of the old Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Blessed with outstanding natural musicianship, Schmidt forged a career that turned hard work and noble aspirations (the stuff of romantic stories about artists) into solid achievements that were appropriately blessed with the spark of genius. He did not become a conductor like Richard Strauss or like Mahler but abandoned performance for a teaching career. In 1925 he became Director of Vienna’s State Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.

Composition remained the talent he most cherished, excelling the genres favored by conventional Viennese culture. There are two operas, some fine chamber-music works, four remarkable symphonies and, finally, two oratorios. The first was Das Buch, to whose 1938 premiere I have referred. All but the bravest of Schmidt’s advocates avoid referring to the second: the posthumous Deutsche Auferstehung (German Resurrection). The reason is that it was, in effect, a Nazi oratorio glorifying (in Schmidt’s words) “the rise of Grossdeutschland‘ and ending: “Wir danken uns’rer Führer! Sieg Heil!” In its shadow, the path to clarification of this modest master, who once likened Mahler’s symphonies to “cheap novels’, becomes a path into the arc-lights of a swastika-draped stage. Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln was not intended for such a stage, but its premiere in Vienna, four months after Hitler had annexed Austria (had Schmidt cheered with other Viennese conservatives and pan-Germanists?) compromised its idealism. And Dr Bayer’s review? It appeared in Hitler’s propaganda paper: the Völkischer Beobachter.

Schmidt’s other-worldly Apocalypse was tragically caught between the ideal and the worldly. Looked at in one light, it communicates the spiritual vision of a conservative master of the German tradition. The atmosphere of Dürer and the fugue-lore of Bach are recaptured through the miasma of post-Wagnerian decadence (which nevertheless marks it). Its version of St John’s revelatory account of evil purged and promise of a new World–claimed by a new Redeemer and hymned in Schmidt’s wonderful Hallelujah chorus of country-bred Hungarian hussars–can also be looked at in another light: as a cautionary demonstration of how “ordinary”‘ aspirations to traditional values may collaborate in the apocalypse they fear. This eclipsed masterpiece of twentieth-century music has something to teach us self-congratulating modernists and post-modernists. We idealize it at our peril. To ignore it is to close a path of knowledge.