Concerto for Piano Left Hand

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? performed on Feb 26, 1993 at Carnegie Hall. 

Franz Schmidt’s music has always been the object of fanatical advocacy by a small group of connoisseurs. His opera Notre-Dame (1904), the oratorio The Book of the Seven Seals (1937), the four symphonies and the various smaller orchestral works have always had a loyal following among highly discerning musicians. Among the most enthusiastic Schmidt adherents was Hans Keller, the eminent Austrian musician and critic who emigrated to England in the 1930s and who left an indelible and brilliant mark on twentieth-century English musical life. More than any other composer on this program, Schmidt earned within his own lifetime the reputation of an unjustly neglected master. There is little doubt that the symphonies deserve to be heard more often. They, in my opinion, are equal to the much better known works of Sibelius. In part what prevented Schmidt from receiving his deserved recognition was his personality. (A similar case was that of Hans Pfitzner.) Schmidt, a loyal child of the Habsburg Empire who lived for most of his life in Vienna, was both a fine cellist and pianist. He served for many years in the Vienna Opera orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic. In that role he developed a burning envy and hatred for Gustav Mahler and Mahler’s brother-in-law, the great violinist and concert-master Arnold Rose, whose quartet premiered much of Arnold Schoenberg’s early chamber music. Schmidt later quit the orchestra to teach piano at the Vienna Conservatory; Jealousy, bitterness and arrogance were Schmidt’s distinguishing character traits. He always felt disregarded as a composer and denigrated – unfairly – as a mere player, whose music was a pale pastiche or imitation of the styles of others. As this ambitious Concerto indicates, Schmidt’s musical architecture, thematic impulses, uses of instruments, as well as the sequencing, mode and development of musical materials owe a great deal, curiously enough, to the Viennese tradition as realized by those arch-rivals Brahms and Bruckner. This concerto was commissioned in 1934 by Schmidt’s fellow Viennese, Paul Wittgenstein, the brother of the great philosopher Ludwig and scion of one of the city’s most musical and distinguished families. Wittgenstein lost one arm in World War I. He proceeded to commission works for left hand alone from Schmidt, Strauss and Ravel. Schmidt also wrote a magnificent quintet for Wittgenstein, as well as a solo toccata.