The Book of the Seven Seals

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.