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.