Trapped in the Web of History

By Leon Botstein

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

Today’s performance of Franz Schmidt’s opera Notre Dame, which he completed in 1906 and which was premiered in 1914, is perhaps the first effort to present this work on a major stage in North America. The opera had some notable success before World War II, but only in German-speaking Europe. After 1945, its presence in the repertory was restricted essentially to Vienna, where the work has been produced both on the stage of the Vienna Sate Opera and the Volksoper. Notre Dame has taken its place, alongside Max von Schillings Mona Lisa (1915) and most of the operas of Zemlinsky and Schreker, in the virtual storage bins of the repertory.

Opera is one of the most recalcitrant of art forms. Unlike some other musical genres, new operas are still being written and performed. But perhaps an adverse consequence of opera’s currency is that its rich history, especially during the 19th and 20th centuries in France and German-speaking Europe, is being buried by neglect, much to the detriment of the audience and the future of the art form. The situation is so dire that when one seeks to revive a work, one is bound to encounter the perennial ill-informed suspicion that if a work is not as popular as La bohème, La traviata or (however implausibly) Götterdammerung, it can’t be any good. The fact is that opera houses are risk averse, and they fear, without reason, that the public won’t attend anything from music history that is not already a hit. The richness of the historic repertoire from after 1815 and before 1970 is a potential bonanza; this conservatism is an unnecessary impediment to enlarging the audience for opera.

The meager attention still paid to Notre Dame, since it is restricted essentially to Vienna (although there was a 2010 revival in Dresden) might lead one to think that the work, and indeed all of Schmidt’s music, has something peculiarly Austrian or even Viennese about it. Could Schmidt’s music be a “local” phenomenon, which, unlike the music of Johann Strauss, is not susceptible to international export?

Nothing could be further from the truth. If there ever was a cosmopolitan and versatile musician who commanded the full range of compositional techniques transcending any local tradition, it was Franz Schmidt. If there indeed was anything “local” about him, it was the extent to which he mirrored the polyglot diversity of the Habsburg Empire and its culture, itself—as Franz Werfel never tired of asserting—the embodiment of the cosmopolitan: an anti-nationalist, multi-ethnic, political conglomerate. It is worth some nostalgia, particularly today as we witness the struggling provincialism among the Central European nations that emerged from the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918 and the demise of the Soviet Empire in 1989.

Schmidt came to an anti-provincial culture naturally. He was born in 1874 (the same year as Schoenberg and 14 years after Mahler) in today’s Bratislava, now the capital of the Slovak Republic. It was formerly known as Poszony and was an important Hungarian city governed by Budapest after the Compromise of 1867. Before that it was Pressburg, a crossroads of the Habsburg Empire where German was spoken (alongside Slovakian and Hungarian and Yiddish). Schmidt was part Hungarian and part German and spoke both languages. Bela Bartók grew up in the same city, as did Ernő Dohnanyi—two of Hungary’s 20th-century cultural icons. Schmidt’s Hungarian heritage left its mark, as listeners will discover easily from the music in Notre Dame.

But Schmidt’s musical training took place in Vienna, where Dohnanyi had also gone to study, as opposed to Budapest, where Bartok had chosen to enter the conservatory. Schmidt was a fine pianist. He was also a very accomplished cellist who played solo parts in the Vienna Philharmonic, where he was a member for almost 20 years. In addition, he was a virtuoso organist, and of course a composer. He eventually became the head of the Vienna Conservatory and taught a fantastic array of distinguished musicians, just as Franz Schreker did in Berlin. Schmidt’s pupils included not only composers, however, but also pianists and cellists. In the midst of all this, Schmidt wrote four symphonies, a variety of concerti, operas, and one major choral work (performed twice by the ASO), the towering and magisterial The Book with the Seven Seals (1937).

Despite the admiration both of those who were in opposing camps in terms of music and culture such as Schoenberg, and of others including key protagonists of modernism in England and America such as Hans Keller, Schmidt today is performed, if at all, mostly by Austrians (e.g. Franz Wesler-Most) and a few who were trained in Vienna (e.g. Zubin Mehta). Why is a composer of such craftsmanship and versatility, who stuck stubbornly to the still-appealing rhetoric and style of late 19th century romanticism, consistently ignored? Why does Schmidt still suffer in the shadows, even more strikingly than do his Viennese contemporaries Alexander Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker?

Predictably, the answer is complex. First, Schmidt was not only poor at self-promotion (a necessary attribute for a composer), but he seems to have been his own worst enemy. He quarreled openly with Mahler and Mahler’s brother-in-law, Arnold Rose, the concertmaster of the Vienna Opera and Philharmonic. Schmidt always felt put upon by someone or something. He was prone to hypochondria. His self-image as victim was not quite as offensive as that cultivated by Hans Pfitzner, but Schmidt was nonetheless of that ilk, quick to believe that he had been overlooked or snubbed. Unlike Pfitzner, however, Schmidt was improbably and uncommonly generous to students and colleagues in need.

Second, there is some discomfort with how Schmidt, who was not Jewish, allowed his music to be appropriated. Despite vigorous dissents in the posthumous Schmidt literature (there is an active and fiercely loyal group of admirers still in existence) and testimonies by his loyal pupils and colleagues (many of them Jewish), Schmidt’s politics veered to the right and adhered to the local Viennese traditions of political anti-Semitism, which during the 1890s became embedded in a Christian-Social framework. In this sense, Schmidt followed in the footsteps of Bruckner before him in the cultural politics of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Although as a composer Schmidt reveals an affinity to Brahms, his politics were the opposite of Brahms’s. By the mid-1930s Schmidt allowed himself to be linked to Austro-Fascism, and after 1938 and the Anschluss, to the Nazis. He died in 1939 before completing a Nazi-inspired cantata he agreed to write with the unfortunate title The German Resurrection. During the war, Schmidt’s music was played frequently in Vienna in order to demonstrate great “Aryan” modern music blessed with spiritual meaning, a powerful corrective and alternative to the “degenerate” grandiosity of Mahler and the abstract cacophony of Schoenberg.

Third, Schmidt had the misfortune of writing music at the peak of music’s history as a cultural form. There were too many good composers around. Schmidt came of age while Brahms and Bruckner were still writing. As an aspiring composer he competed with Max Reger, Gustav Mahler, Hans Pfitzner, Richard Strauss, Alexander Zemlinsky, Dohnanyi, and Franz Schreker, and one could add Edward Elgar as well. Each of these composers wrote music with a continuing allegiance to 19th-century post-Wagnerian practices. If that was not sufficiently daunting, Schmidt by 1918 faced an entirely new source of competition—the modernist and nationalist musical movements that emerged after World War I. Schmidt’s work as a composer appeared contemporaneously with music of Bartók, Szymanowski, Enescu, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Hindemith, Weill, Martinů, and Janáček, just to name a few. And then one needs to consider the impact of composers from North America and Russia on the concert and opera repertoire after 1918. There seemed to be little place in the international scene for an old-fashioned-sounding Schmidt.

All this would be enough to daunt anyone, no matter how talented. But Schmidt remained productive and disciplined, impervious to fashion. It is ironic that Notre Dame, like Schreker’s Der Ferne Klang (1910), anticipates Berg’s Lulu (1935), not only in the treatment of the central female character, but in Schmidt’s use of classical strategies associated with instrumental music—sonata and counterpoint—and the orchestra as protagonist to frame the musical structure within opera. Dramatic action and an independent musical structure and logic, without reference to illustration or allusion, are integrated in Notre Dame, as in Wozzeck (1925) and Lulu. Schmidt was not a bland conservative—he was a reactionary revolutionary who sought to resist the decline in musical culture that had started in the late 19th century with the indiscriminating popular rage for Wagner.

The theme of Notre Dame has less to do with Victor Hugo then it does with Frank Wedekind and Otto Weininger: the fin-de-siècle obsession with the feminine and its role in inspiring aesthetic creativity and defining (and corrupting) the masculine. If anything, Schmidt and his librettist invert Hugo’s narrative and turn his politics upside down, framing the audience against the mob. Schmidt’s Notre Dame is an early example of 20th-century conservative cultural skepticism regarding the prospects of progress and mass democracy. It tacitly laments the collapse of the cultural legacy of aristocracy and monarchy, hardly Hugo’s intent. Indeed, Schmidt was one of many who never recovered from the end of Habsburg rule and the splintering of the Empire into warring little nations, essentially destroying the multi-ethnic and national character of Europe, including his birthplace.

The final remarkable aspect of Schmidt is the extent to which his music, despite its superficial debts and affinities to others, including Wagner, Brahms and Strauss, is really original. Despite his personality, Schmidt has a Gershwin- and Richard Rodgers-like gift for tunes, melodies, and lightness that routinely eluded Schoenberg and Reger. The melodic instinct and ear for a popular style (more associated with the operetta) resulted in the fact that Schmidt’s music is never quite as bombastic as that of Strauss and Mahler. Schmidt also carries on Bruckner’s adept lyrical use of the chorus. Furthermore, Schmidt retains an uncanny sense of proportion in structure and the use of time, as two previous works performed by the ASO, the 1934 Piano Concerto (with Leon Fleisher) and the 1923 Beethoven Variations for Piano and Orchestra, also reveal.

Notre Dame was Schmidt’s greatest single career success. Yet he remained bitter. Its premiere was delayed. Schmidt blamed Mahler and openly accused him of jealousy (clearly a bad idea). The first performance took place in the first year of World War I. By the time the war was over, the work seemed out of date and out of touch with the times—if not the music, then certainly the plot and libretto. During the 1920s and the early 1930s, Schmidt felt unfairly and increasingly dismissed and overlooked, even in Vienna (when in the 1920s Strauss briefly co-directed the Vienna Opera with Franz Schalk).

At the same time, Notre Dame, although in the shadow of other works, garnered considerable respect, as it deserved. Hugo von Hofmannsthal was impressed enough by the music to write Strauss about it. The orchestral music and vocal writing were widely admired and the finest opera singers from 1914 on wanted to be cast in Notre Dame.

This opera, along with practically all of Schmidt’s music, deserves to be in the repertoire as more than a rare curiosity. The excellence, refinement, elegance, and inspiration of Schmidt’s work are qualities eagerly embraced by audiences. Now that the conflicts of history have receded, we could use a breather from more of the same: Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner. Franz Schmidt’s music can provide a welcome change, if only it were performed in contexts that emancipate it from its undeserved identification as provincially Austrian.