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Franz Schmidt’s lament makes grief beautiful. It elevates it to something irreproachable, like snow on a mountain peak that, when you’re stumbling around in it, stings and chills and makes you lose your footing, but from the distance, oh, the inexpressible beauty…

As the story has it, when Hungarian-born twentieth century composer Franz Schmidt received the news in 1932 that his beloved daughter and only child, Emma, had died in childbirth, it was just prior to his setting to work on his Symphony no. 4 in C Major. The loss affected him profoundly, resulting in a breakdown, both spiritual and physical, from which he was able to pull himself up to deliver a gorgeous, evocative, fully realized masterpiece. Completing this symphony in 1933, Schmidt inscribed it as “a requiem for my daughter.”

Schmidt’s Symphony no. 4 in C Major was part of an October 2008 San Francisco Symphony performance I attended. Joshua Bell was the night’s headliner, with Saint-Saens’ “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” and Ravel’s Tzigane. Normally when the “star” performs in the first half, there is a sense, following intermission, that the best of the concert has passed, particularly when the next piece is by a little-known composer, a little-known twentieth-century piece of music. This was not the case on Saturday night, however. Far from it.

I didn’t know I needed sad music. I read the program notes on Schmidt’s Symphony no. 4 during intermission, curiosity stirring the heavy feeling I’d been carrying around all day. I tend to avoid sad movies and books when in this kind of mood. I get too sucked into their sadness and can’t shuck the weight of it afterwards. But bittersweet music often steps right in and connects with whatever sense of loss I myself am experiencing. My lament on Saturday was minor: I was emotionally out of sorts from having just finished the second draft of my novel the day before, putting me one step closer to completing the project. It is never the triumph for me one might think it would be. Granted, there’s a headiness as you cross the finish line, but the next day, upon rising, it’s a sense of emptiness that greets you. Never mind that your brain is fried and you couldn’t have worked on it much longer anyway. Never mind that you’re not done, done. That weeks, possibly months of editing to fit the specifications of an agent are involved. But analysis and explanation did not ease my gloom that night.

There’s something so gorgeous, so soothing, so lush and expansive about Schmidt’s 4th Symphony, from the very first notes. It feels like grief, but the good part of it, that temporary high, that larger-than-life clarity that presents itself amid the process. It did not tear me up inside, the way the Sibelius violin concerto will do. It is more like Mahler, or Bruckner. The rhythmic and harmonic complexity, the shattering reverberating sound of the gong, the crashing cymbals, remind the listener that this is twentieth-century music. This is not insipid, easy-listening orchestration. It is grief. It is a lament. It is full of highs and lows, moments of ecstatic soulfulness preceding and following desperate conflict.

The symphony begins and ends with a long melody on unaccompanied solo trumpet, a herald. Solos from other parts of the orchestra—notably the cello—pepper the symphony’s four movements, lending it the richness and thrill a violin concerto always brings me. The second movement, the Adagio, is simply exquisite, particularly with the contribution of the aforementioned cello solos (Schmidt was an acclaimed cellist, performing and soloing with the Vienna Philharmonic for fifteen years). In the San Francisco Symphony program notes, author Michael Steinberg wonderfully describes when the mood during the adagio darkens. “Against a drumming whose relentless beat begins in the timpani but comes to take over the whole orchestra, the cellos begin a mournful threnody—music of searing grief, a funeral march that can stand beside the greatest by Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, Elgar and Shostakovich. Its mountainous climax is the focal point of the entire symphony.” Give it a listen.

This mood. This elegy. It is so perfect. It makes grief beautiful. It elevates it to something irreproachable, like snow on a mountain peak that, when you’re stumbling around in it, stings and chills and makes you lose your footing, but from the distance, oh, the inexpressible beauty. From this perspective, it not only makes sense, but it seems a necessary sacrifice.

Schmidt’s lament. Small consolation for him and his loss at the time, but how lucky we are, how enriched, to have this work of art that so aptly displays the curious symbiosis between pain and beauty, loss and eternal gain—the ineffable power of the wordless requiem. Such a treasure to discover on a Saturday night in Davies Hall, well after the “headliner” has stepped off the stage.

Ten years later, I’m still remembering this symphony from a little-known (in the U.S.) composer, his art, his loss, this tribute to his daughter. Through it, they can both live on eternally. Bravo, maestro.

Republished with gracious permission from The Classical Girl (2014). 

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1 reply to this post
  1. Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony is a masterpiece, and certainly the greatest Austro-German symphony of the 20th century after the death of Mahler. It is also a work of extraordinary subtlety: is it a one-movement symphony?; a four-movement symphony played without breaks?; or is it, as Harold Truscott suggested, a three-movement symphony with the two detached portions of the first movement bookending the two intervening movements? I think Schmidt fully intended this multivalency (which appears in several of his other large-scale works), being both an open-minded conservative and a true progressive.

    A work that is overtly emotional and which sounds rather rhapsodic, the Fourth Symphony is in fact tightly (if, as noted above, multivalently) structured. It is the *Fourth* Symphony, makes pointed use of the interval of *fourths* (both harmonically and melodically) and can certainly be parsed into the familiar *four* movements of the Classical symphony. It is a miracle that Schmidt could both transcend and transfigure grief and personal tragedy into this extraordinary symphonic edifice, in which there is not a single wasted note or gesture. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Schmidt’s health was becoming increasingly frail at the time the work was composed; in the first movement (or section) of the work, there is an extraordinary whole-bar quintuplet turn (a staple of Viennese music familiar from Schubert and Bruckner) which, in creating a powerfully disruptive cross-rhythm against the prevailing 3/4 meter is a kind of musical cardiac arrhythmia (Schmidt was already suffering problems with his heart).

    For the time being (and the foreseeable future, I think), the go-to recording of this extraordinary work remains that on Decca by Zubin Mehta, conducting Schmidt’s old orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic.

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