Schmidt: Symphony No. 4 (Symphony Studies No. 3 of 118)

by Glenn on August 1, 2015

I’m reading Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony and listening to examples of the works he describes. I’ve just heard Franz Schmidt’s Symphony No. 4.

Zubin Mehta conducted the annual New Year’s Concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the dawn of this year. 43 years ago, he recorded Franz Schmidt’s Symphony No. 4 with the Vienna Philharmonic. That’s some history between an orchestra and a conductor. Over two CD’s, Schmidt’s symphony is paired with Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, which is probably the only reason I have this recording. While I’ve listened to the Mahler, up to now I’ve avoided the Schmidt. I’m happy to have listened to this new to me work.

I didn’t understand the Vienna Philharmonic’s pairing of Schmidt and Mahler, until Michael Steinberg pointed out two connections:

Schmidt was a cellist in the Vienna Opera and played under Mahler.

Schmidt writes in a tradition of, in Steinberg’s words, “expansive utterance,” which certainly is like Mahler, although Steinberg more closely connects Schmidt’s music to Bruckner’s.

The Fourth Symphony is from 1933. It’s a heavy work, although the early part of the third movement brings a lightness. The general effect is sober but not despairing. This is my first exposure to Schmidt’s music and I found myself thinking, “Oh, that sounds like Bruckner or Mahler or Vaughan Williams or Debussy.” I’m too new to this composer to understand what his “voice” sounds like. I can’t accuse him of being derivative even though I do hear occasional echos from other composers. I’ll listen to this again, although I don’t have a natural affinity to it. It’s not music that I resonate to immediately.

The structure of this symphony is relatively easy to follow. An opening statement is followed by a slower statement, a faster statement, and a reprise of the opening statement.

i.

The first movement opens with a trumpet theme that is repeated by the strings. The theme places us in the key of C major but numerous Db’s and Ab’s remind us we’re well into the 2oth century.

ii.

There are no breaks between movements in this symphony, so it takes you a moment to realize you’re in the second movement, a sonorous adagio.

iii.

The transition to the third movement is obvious because we have a scherzo. It sounds like we’re going to enjoy a fugue but Schmidt does other things. In the middle of the movement, the opening theme returns this time on french horn. The end of this movement reminded me very much of Bruckner. The little fragments of melody shifting from key to key.

iv.

A short final movement leaves us where we started.