Franz Schmidt, Notre Dame

By Christopher H. Gibbs

Written for the concert The Hunchback of Notre Dame, performed on March 8, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

Gustav Mahler famously predicted that “his time would come,” and it did with a vengeance. Franz Schmidt, who played cello for ten years under Mahler’s direction at the Vienna Court Opera, may not have made the same claim, nor has he as yet enjoyed a comparable reassessment, but there are clear indications that his time is coming. His four symphonies, two operas, organ and chamber music, and magnificent oratorio The Book with Seven Seals, are ever more often performed and recorded.

Schmidt’s artistic gifts were multifaceted. The distinguished English music critic Hans Keller described him as “the most complete musician” he had ever met. Although he began his studies as a pianist, it was as a cellist that he first built his professional career. He was praised for astonishing abilities on both instruments. In an all-Schubert concert with the celebrated Rosé Quartet, Schmidt performed the cello part in the C-major String Quintet followed by the piano part in the “Trout” Quintet. Mahler greatly admired his playing, and always wanted him to perform the cello solos in the operas he conducted. After nearly two decades as a performer, Schmidt shifted his energies in 1914 to composing and teaching at Vienna’s Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.

The frustration he experienced getting a production mounted of his first opera, Notre Dame, had stalled his compositional career. The first music he wrote for the opera was an orchestral excerpt based on an earlier Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic premiered this Interlude “from an unfinished Romantic opera” on December 6, 1903. It went on to become an independent concert favorite, and also to generate the principal thematic material for Notre Dame, which Schmidt only started to compose the following summer. He was eager to premiere the opera in Vienna and played the work through for Mahler, who declined to stage it, as did his successor Felix Weingartner. These rejections led to a long hiatus not only for the work itself, but also for Schmidt’s compositional activity, which ceased for some five years. The opera finally premiered on April 1, 1914 to considerable acclaim with Franz Schalk conducting. The outbreak of the First World War limited exposure beyond Vienna, although there were productions in Dresden and Budapest in 1916 and Berlin in 1918.

Julius Korngold, the powerful music critic and father of composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, was much taken with the Interlude at its premiere and remarked on how the lush orchestration depended so crucially on Schmidt’s experience as a member of the famed Viennese orchestra: “Herr Schmidt sits at its source, right in the middle of the Philharmonic, among the cellos. Here he has listened to what they, who can do so much, do best. And he may have discovered that, while everything enraptures, the strings are most irresistible. This string sound colors his new work to great effect, and it is particularly well presented, with full, sense-beguiling sweetness and urgency, in the Hungarian section of his Interlude.”

The comment about the Hungarian mood proved crucial to the genesis of the opera. Schmidt was raised in what is now Bratislava in Slovakia, but at the time was a city in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, called Pressburg or Pozsony. Hungarian was the principal language spoken at home during the composer’s childhood. This side of his heritage, already evident in the Interlude, ultimately shaped the opera and the libretto Schmidt wrote, in collaboration with Leopold Wilk, based on Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris. (The standard English title, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, switches the focus from the great medieval cathedral in Paris to a single character, the bell ringer Quasimodo, who has a relatively small role in the opera.)

Hugo’s novel, published in 1831, had already spawned many operas and ballets before Schmidt. His two-act opera focuses attention on the beautiful gypsy girl Esmeralda and on men fatally attracted to her. Although far from that most notorious of operatic gypsies, Carmen, the innocent Esmeralda nonetheless leads to the downfall of four men “bewitched” by her charms, and ultimately to her own death as well. Gringoire is a vagabond with whom she entered into a loveless and unconsummated marriage. The womanizing Phoebus wants to seduce her but finds himself truly in love with the virgin gypsy. Quasimodo, whom Esmeralda saves from a mocking mob, is ultimately unable to save her in return. The Archdeacon of Notre Dame is another who finds himself captivated but comes to realize that her death is the only way he will not succumb to his desire.

The opera is unusually symphonic. There are extended orchestral passages at the beginning of the acts and during scene changes. In addition, many sections use formal structures associated with instrumental rather than dramatic music—the first scene, for example, is in sonata form. Characters have various leitmotifs, the most important of which is Esmeralda’s, which as Korngold remarked, centers on the strings, opening with what seems like a folk ensemble “warming up.” The strings accelerate until the full orchestra enters with harps in music of utter freedom, incredible lushness, and amazing melodic beauty. The motifs associated with the Archdeacon are liturgical in character and give Schmidt opportunities to use the organ, one of his favorite instruments. The vocal lines range from chant-like incantations to full Wagnerian monologues. The great poet and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who saw Notre Dame in 1914, wrote to Richard Strauss commending Schmidt’s skill: “I understood almost the entire text (which was incidentally quite absurd) upon hearing it for the first time, although the music was in no way thin and melodramatic. Whenever the vocal part was supposed to dominate, the rest of the music receded.” The chorus adds some lively moments, not so much providing the local color of medieval Paris as evoking an exotic carnival.

Dr. Gibbs is the James H. Ottaway, Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College and the Co-Artistic Director of the Bard Music Festival.