Looking Forward, Looking Backward

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert The Uses of History: Reincarnations of Beethoven, performed on March 30, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

At the center of the musical universe that was Vienna in the first quarter of the twentieth century, the orbits of two minor but pivotal planets intersected to create some of the most inventive pieces in the piano repertoire. Paul Wittgenstein, brother of Ludwig, seemed fated to abandon his fledgling career as a pianist when he lost his right arm in the Great War but, through sheer force of will, trained himself to perform with his one remaining hand and commissioned works from many of the rising stars of his era. The most famous compositions dedicated to Wittgenstein are the Ravel and Prokofiev concerti, but he also was the inspiration for Reger, Korngold, Britten and Strauss as well as several lesser lights. Franz Schmidt, himself a virtuoso pianist, developed a symbiotic relationship with the young man and composed three works for his unique talents. Schmidt, a vital link in the musical evolutionary chain, studied composition with Bruckner (whose influence is particularly strong in Schmidt’s opera Notre Dame) and performed as a cellist with the Vienna Philharmonic under Mahler, with whom he publicly feuded primarily due to his acerbic relationship with the concertmaster (and brother-in-law of the great composer) Arnold Rose.

For the left hand, Schmidt wrote a solo toccata, a quintet for piano and strings and tonight’s Concertante Variations on a Theme of Beethoven (often referred to as the Piano Concerto No. 1). Although sympathetic to the avant-garde trends in Viennese music and capable of searing dissonances himself (particularly in the Symphony No. 4), Schmidt chooses in this piece to dwell within the ebullient Classicism of Beethoven, fashioning a set of variations on the thematic material from the Scherzo and Trio of the Sonata for Violin and Piano in F, known as the “Spring” Sonata. In the original, Beethoven is in a playful mood, presenting the joyous theme as a children’s game between violin and piano, a sort of musical tennis match. Schmidt contrasts the piano with the orchestra in much the same manner. After an atypical introduction, we are treated to fifteen variations inhabiting a highly interesting spectrum from the Bolero (variation VI) to the contemplative Fugue (variation XIV). An abrupt pause at the conclusion of the variations themselves allows the composer to end in the spirit of the original by charmingly presenting the melody once again as a game presented in a gently bipolar conclusion (compare the quiet ending of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini). Writing for Wittgenstein was not a guarantee of success (he refused to play the Prokofiev concerto for example, pronouncing it too difficult) but this particular work was a favorite of the pianist and he performed it many times throughout Europe, popularizing the music of Schmidt outside of Austria for the first time.

Bruckner begat Schmidt and Schmidt begat Friedrich Wührer, important in music history as a founder of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Vienna and responsible for the premieres of several important compositions of Schoenberg and his school. With his mentor’s permission, Wührer transcribed all three of Schmidt’s left-handed works for two hands and it is his version of the Concertante Variations to which we are treated this evening.