String Quartet No.1 in A Major
Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) was born in the Austrian city of Pressburg (now Bratislava) and began his musical training there. Subsequently, in Vienna, he studied cello with Franz Hellmesberger and piano with Theodor Leschetizky. At the Vienna Conservatory, his composition teachers were Robert Fuchs and Anton Bruckner. Schmidt served as a cellist in the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra (1896-1911) and played under Mahler. From the First World War until his retirement, he held many important teaching posts, eventurally serving as the director of theVienna Staatsakademie as well as Hochschule für Musik.
Schmidt's roots are to be found in the Viennese Romanticism of his master Bruckner. Although not a prolific composer, he is nonetheless considered the last of the great romantic symphonists. His four chamber music works—2 string quartets, a piano quintet and a quintet for piano, clarinet and string trio--are among his most important.
His First String Quartet dates from 1925. Writing of the work in his Handbook for String Quartet Players, Wilhelm Altmann remarks that no quartet or chamber music society should overlook this fine work. From a tonal standpoint, one might say that it begins where Bruckner’s marvelous string quintet leaves off. Though clearly rooted in traditional tonality, it nonetheless pushes these boundaries ever farther. The opening movement, Anmutig bewegt, (graceful, but with movement) almost sounds as if it begins in mid phrase. The main theme only takes shape slowly and over a very broad tonal canvas as Schmidt gradually fleshes it out by way of development. The stunning second movement, Adagio, is clearly the center of gravity of the quartet. The haunting main theme is first given out by the cello before it is taken up by the violins. It is calm and with broad vistas and requires great space to make its affect. Schmidt builds in small increments quite leisurely. In the powerful middle section, the viola forcefully declaims the dramatic second theme. Then against the hypnotic pizzicato in the lower voices, the violins embark upon an extraordinarily beautiful duet. Next comes a scherzo, Sehr lebhaft. (very lively) It starts in a very Brucknerian vein but the middle section, which resembles an elves dance because of its harmonics and high pitched running notes, sounds more like a post-Brucknerian Mendelssohn. The finale, Ruhig fließend, (quiet but flowing) is a theme and set of several very original variations. Our sound-bite presents but a few.
Unquestionably a masterpiece that belongs in the concert hall, but because it presents no insurmountable technical difficulties, amateurs will also enjoy this fine work.