Franz Schmidt was born on 22 December 1874 in Preßburg. The Schmidt family – part of it was of Hungarian origin – moved to Vienna in 1888. This meant for the musical ‘prodigy’ that he was able to study at the former ‘Conservatory of the Society of the Friends of Music’.
Franz Schmidt influenced the Austrian and Vienna musical life in many ways: from 1896 to 1911 he was a member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, until 1913/14 he held a post as cellist in the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra. As teacher for piano, violoncello, counterpoint and composition at the present University of Music and Performing Arts he educated numerous students who later became renowned musicians, conductors and composers.
1925–27 he was director, 1927–31 rector of this traditional education centre. Among his most renowned students ranked the pianist Friedrich Wührer or Alfred Rosé (son of the legendary quartet Primus, conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Gustav Mahler’s brother-in-law, Arnold Rosé) and the composers Theodor Berger, Marcel Rubin, Alfred Uhl.
Franz Schmidt was an acclaimed soloist, chamber musician, accompanist and conductor. There are many anecdotes with respect to his phenomenal musical memory: the still living (or recently passed away) students tell about his unbelievable knowledge of all musical genres which the master virtually knew by heart.
High honours are proof of his contemporaries’ high esteem: among others he was awarded the Franz Josef Medal, honorary doctor of the University of Vienna (like Anton Bruckner).
His private life was the direct opposite of his successful professional career: two early loves – both women were of Jewish origin – were unaccomplished. His first wife was confined to a mental hospital in Vienna as of 1919 and eliminated three years after her famous husband’s death under the Nazi euthanasia law in Germany. His daughter Emma died unexpectedly in childbirth. Schmidt experienced a breakdown after these events, but then composed his 4th Symphony as ‘requiem for my daughter’.
Paul Stefan wrote in 1934 at the beginning on the occasion of the premiere of the 4th Symphony: “What distinguishes this work above all is, apart from the novelty and boldness of form, the professed honesty of a tonal language. A noble, natural decency is observed everywhere”.
Already in his 2nd Symphony, the formal and thematic conception proves to be extraordinary in many respects. To use the principle of variation as the determining structural model for a symphony movement is not surprising in Schmidt’s case, since he wrote variation works several times (Concertante Variations on a theme by Beethoven, Variations on a Hussar Song) or used variable thematic changes.
The oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln is his last completed work and the most frequently performed. The subtitle is: From the Revelation of John, and the Evangelist (sung by a heroic tenor) plays the leading role in the almost two-hour work, which is scored for four other soloists, large choir, organ and orchestra. In his preface, the composer describes his work as an oratorio about the “fundamental antithesis” of good and evil. Musically, they are juxtaposed as euphony and dissonance.
The second marriage to a younger piano student brought the necessary stability in the artist’s private life as he suffered from severe health problems already from the early 30ies. As colleague, friend and teacher Franz Schmidt was much admired.
In his last year of life the critically ill composer witnessed the beginning of the Nazi regime. After Alban Berg and Franz Schreker’s death, Alexander Zemlinsky and Arnold Schönberg’s emigration, Franz Schmidt was legitimately regarded as one of the most distinguished composers of the former ‘Ostmark’. (The recognition which enjoyed his colleagues Julius Bittner, Wilhelm Kienzl or Joseph Marx cannot be compared with Franz Schmidt’s reputation and position in the musical life in Vienna). The cantata Deutsche Auferstehung was a commission of the regime, however, the composer left the composition unfinished and created another two inspired commissions for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein: the Clarinet Quintett in A Major and the (solo) Toccata D Minor – finalised in summer and October 1938, a few months before his on 11 February 1939 in Perchtoldsdorf near Vienna (universaledition.com).