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Symphony No. 4 in C major

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Franz Schmidt
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Yakov Kreizberg, conductor/Lars Vogt, piano, plays Mozart Nov. 20 - 22, 2008
© Peter Laki

The late Hans Keller, a noted writer on music who moved to England from his native Vienna as a young man, declared in a memoir on the composer Franz Schmidt in 1984:

"As a composer, conductor, piano virtuoso, chamber-musical pianist and string-quartet cellist, Franz Schmidt was the most complete musician I have come across in my life." In fact, Schmidt's versatility was legendary in his day. Equally accomplished as a pianist and a cellist, he could appear in a Schubert program where the first half consisted of the Trout quintet (with Schmidt at the piano), and the second half of the two-cello quintet in C (with Schmidt as the second cellist). For fifteen years (1896-1911), he was a member of the Vienna Philharmonic; his tenure there included the decade of Mahler's directorship (1897-1907). Although Schmidt was never appointed to first chair, Mahler insisted that he play all the important cello solos. This was the source of major conflict between Mahler and concertmaster Arnold Rosé (incidentally, Mahler's brother-in-law), who favored the official principal. About 30 years later, after the premiere of Schmidt's Fourth Symphony, Rosé embraced Schmidt enthusiastically and said, "In this work Mahler's spirit is resurrected," according to the recollections of Oskar Adler, a physician and violinist who witnessed the moment.

As a composer (best known, perhaps, for his apocalyptic oratorio The Book with Seven Seals), Schmidt wrote in a conservative style, especially when compared to Schoenberg, born the same year as he. Nevertheless, he followed the activities of the New Viennese School with great interest. He did not stop at Schoenberg's early works but performed even the Third String Quartet, written according to the twelve-tone system. (He reportedly told an indignant listener: "I don't understand it either, but surely the author of Verklärte Nacht and Gurrelieder knows what he is doing.")

The intense chromaticism of some of Schmidt's writing in the Fourth Symphony may owe something to early Schoenberg, but the main stylistic impetus comes from Bruckner and Mahler. Schmidt's personal contribution lies in the way he imposed a strict cyclic structure upon the late Romantic idiom of his predecessors. In fact, the four movements of his Fourth, played without interruption, form a single large-scale movement in which the last movement is essentially a recapitulation of the first. This idea had earlier appeared in compositions as diverse as Dvořák's Carnival Overture and Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony. It receives new meaning in Schmidt's hands insofar as he applied the principle to a much longer work.

However, the opening theme that returns at the end is neither a vigorous Allegro as in the Dvořák nor a fanfare-type horn call as in the Schoenberg. It is, instead, a wistful trumpet solo that slowly winds its chromatic way from A to C, introducing a dark, tortuous movement whose melancholy is only occasionally relieved. Some passing references to the Ländler dance and a more extroverted second theme provide some brighter moments; shortly before the end, the second theme generates a passionate, if extremely brief, "Vivace" section. Yet the general mood of the movement remains one of great sadness, which may find an explanation in the personal tragedy that befell Schmidt shortly before the composition of the symphony: his daughter Emma had died in childbirth in 1932.

The second-movement Adagio is, according to one analyst, the "emotional core of the symphony." It opens with an intensely personal cello solo (we shouldn't forget that Schmidt was a cellist!) and continues with a grandiose funeral march. The melody of the opening song then returns, led this time by the woodwind and a solo violin.

A short epilog for solo cello leads into the next movement ("Molto vivace"). This section takes the place of the scherzo, yet the tragic emotions displayed so far hardly admit a scherzo of the usual kind. Instead, Schmidt offers a fugato (a passage with imitative counterpoint) on a spirited, playful theme first introduced by the violas. It is not long, however, before the wistful theme from the symphony's opening returns, superimposed on the fugue in the high woodwind parts. The scherzo theme eventually merges with the wistful idea in a new melody that combines elements from both. Three times the fugato begins, and three times it is "intercepted" by this chromatic theme that constantly reinforces the fundamental sadness of the symphony. To make the connection even stronger, an extended passage from the development of the first movement is repeated almost verbatim, though at a much faster speed. Finally, in the scherzo's coda, there is what the composer himself referred to as the "catastrophe" (analyst Thomas Corfield noted that the passage has parallels in several other of Schmidt's works). It is a sudden, sharply dissonant fortissimo played by the entire orchestra, which gradually subsides and fades into near-silence.

In the fourth movement, the opening of the symphony returns in a complete form. After various quotes and allusions, here is a full-fledged recapitulation, despite the rearrangement and reorchestration of various materials as well as substantial cuts. We hear a variant of the opening theme played by the first horn (instead of the first trumpet as before), with the addition of a mysterious soft timpani roll. Schmidt commented about this passage: "After…the intimations of catastrophe, in the recapitulation of the first movement everything appears mellower and more transfigured." One detail in particular deserves mention: early in the first movement there was a remarkably strong C-major cadence, one of the few clear tonic chords in the whole symphony. At the end, however, this cadence is interrupted, and instead of a bright C major, we hear more dark chromaticism as the music becomes slower and slower. Finally the opening theme returns in its original form, played by the first trumpet as at the beginning. The symphony ends the way it began, with the sound of a single trumpet—an ending described by the composer as "dying in beauty, with the whole of one's life passing in review."