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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHMIDT: Clarinet Quintet in B-Flat Major / Romance
Franz Schmidt (1874-1939)
Clarinet Quintet in B flat major
Three Little Fantasy Pieces on Hungarian National Melodies
The Austrian composer Franz Schmidt has been strangely
neglected abroad, in part through his own conservatism and in part through the
vagaries of history and of progressive musical taste. He was born in Pressburg
(the modern Slovak capital Bratislava and former Hungarian capital Pozsony,
where Liszt made his début and Bartók went to school) in 1874 and had his first
music lessons there from the cathedral organist. In 1888 his family moved to
Vienna, where he was able to continue his musical studies, but only by earning
money as a dance-school pianist. He took lessons with that most remarkable of
piano teachers Leschetizky and two years later entered the Conservatory, where
his composition teachers were Bruckner and Robert Fuchs, the latter teacher of
Mahler, Sibelius, Wolf, Schreker, Zemlinsky and a whole generation of Austrian
composers. At the same time he studied the cello with Ferdinand Hellmesberger,
a member of a remarkable Vienna dynasty of string-players. In 1896 Schmidt
joined his teacher in the cello section of the Court Opera, conducted from 1897
by Gustav Mahler, who at first favoured him over the existing front-desk
players. According to Schmidt Mahler soon dismissed two thirds of the players
in the orchestra, and the two principal cellists would never play when Mahler
conducted, leaving the front desk to Schmidt and a colleague, an arrangement
that Mahler accepted. The intervention of Arnold Rosé, the concert-master and
Mahler's brother-in-law, who moved him without warning from the front desk,
caused difficulties, particularly when Schmidt later refused Mahler's order to
resume, unpaid, the position of principal cellist, risking threatened
dismissal. He continued as a rank-and-file player until 1911, when he
eventually resigned, to become a piano professor at the Vienna Staatsakademie.
There he later taught harmony and composition, serving as director from 1925 to
1927, when he was appointed director of the Vienna Musikhochschule, a position
he relinquished in 1931.
Something of the enmity that arose between Schmidt and
Mahler was attributed by the former to the attention critics gave the first of
his four symphonies, awarded the Beethoven Prize in 1900 and first played in
Vienna two years later, to the expressed approval of the redoubtable Hanslick,
former champion of Brahms against the Wagnerians. Schmidt played his opera
Notre Dame through to Mahler, who found it deficient in melodic invention,
although he listened to the work to the end. The opera, completed in 1904 and
based on Victor Hugo's novel, won considerable success when it was first staged
at the Vienna Court Opera in 1914, after Mahler's death. As a composer Schmidt
won a significant contemporary reputation not only with his symphonies but also
with his 1937 apocalyptic oratorio, Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln. Schmidt's
chamber music includes two string quartets, a piano quintet and two quintets
for clarinet and piano quartet, both now available on the Marco Polo label.
Shortly before his death he received one more of many honours, the Beethoven
Prize of the Prussian Academy. He died in February 1939, at the end of an epoch
in the history of his country.
The first of the two clarinet quintets, the Quintet in B
flat major, was written in 1932. The piano parts of both quintets, as of the
Piano Quintet in G major of 1926 and the Second Piano Concerto, written in
1934, were for the left hand only, designed for Paul Wittgenstein, a former
pupil of Leschetizky, who had made his début in 1913 but lost his right arm in
the war in 1915. Wittgenstein, from a family of considerable distinction, had
developed a remarkable left-hand technique and commissioned or received the
dedications of a number of works for his use. Two-hand versions were later
arranged by the pianist Friedrich Wührer, a piano pupil of the composer and a
leading virtuoso of his generation and pioneer of new music.
The B flat Quintet opens with a motif imitated by one
instrument after another, accompanied by a busier piano part, the whole
movement immaculately crafted and of manifold charm, with passing suggestions
of a darker world, as minor keys are explored. The material is winningly
developed in music that belongs to the best traditions of Vienna, in an idiom
that Brahms and his contemporaries would have acknowledged and accepted. The
slow movement allows the piano initial prominence, its left-hand origin barely
perceptible. At its heart is a relaxation of mood, in the style of a scherzo,
replaced temporarily by greater poignancy, before the return of lighter-hearted
music, recalling the Austrian countryside of Schubert's time. It is music
firmly rooted in folk tradition that opens the final movement, the recurrent
principal theme of the rondo a village dance, with one episode at least that
suggests the pianism of Rachmaninov. Once again the title Clarinet Quintet,
though convenient, seems a misnomer for what is basically a work for piano,
with clarinet, violin, viola and cello.
The three delightful Fantasy Pieces on Hungarian National
Melodies for cello and piano are early compositions, dating from 1892, a reminder
of Schmidt's birth-place and maternal ancestry, and of his own ability as a
cellist. He wrote these pieces while a student at the Conservatory and they are
evidence of his own instrumental ability, exhibited in his own cadenza to the
Haydn D major Cello Concerto, that impressed Brahms at Schmidt's graduation in
1896 and won him his place in the Court Opera Orchestra, over forty other
applicants. The Romance for piano was only published posthumously, in 1960, but
is remarkable enough in its harmonies, while the Toccata of 1938, originally
for the left hand only, was written as a parting gift to Paul Wittgenstein, who
left Vienna in the year of the Anschluss at first for Switzerland and then to
spend his final years in the United States.
Aládár Janoska is one of the finest Slovak clarinettists. He
was a member of the Accademia Ziliniana until 1984 since when he has performed
widely as a soloist and in chamber music.
František Török, Alexander Lakatoš, Ján Slávik
The members of the Moyzes Quartet, František Török,
Alexander Lakatoš and Ján Slávik are employed as an ensemble of the Slovak
Philharmonic, the name of the quartet commemorating the distinguished Slovak
composer Alexander Moyzes, who was director of Bratislava Conservatory until
1971 and as a teacher fostered a whole generation of Slovak composers.
Daniela Ruso had her early training at the College of Music
in Bratislava, later continuing her studies at the conservatory in Leningrad.
She won distinction at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1969 and
has pursued an active career as a recitalist, soloist and chamber-music player.
She is a member of the ensemble Musa Antiqua.
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