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Terez Mertes

Schmidt's Lament

October 29, 2008 at 1:43 PM

As the story has it, when Hungarian-born 20th 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 Saturday night’s concert with the San Francisco Symphony. 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 20th 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 Fourth 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 heaviness 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 an exhilaration 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. Analysis and explanation did not ease my gloom on Saturday, which was further compounded by my husband’s announcement that his job is at risk due to the economic turndown. His job loss would be a family catastrophe. There is nothing to “do” or not do about it; we can only sit tight and await the mid-November layoff announcement.

So. This music on Saturday.

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 20th 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.”

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.

© 2008 Terez Rose

From Anne Horvath
Posted on October 29, 2008 at 5:46 PM
You know Terez, it is really quite a tip of the hat to the audience when the supermegaoverhypedstar is placed before the intermission, and an unknown piece placed after. Kudos to that decision. Who was The Stick?

Also, sorry to read about your family's woes. Everyone I know, musicians, nurses, reporters, small business owners, is spooked about the economy and their job. Bleh.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 29, 2008 at 6:42 PM
"The stick" being the conductor? (Great term, whatever it turns out to mean!) Visiting conductor Fabio Luisi - who got a great review in the SF Chronicle, as did Schmidt's symphony.

On the economy and layoffs affecting everyone - yes, there certainly is a trickle-down effect, isn't there? I had to tell my violin teacher yesterday that if the worst case scenario actualizes, I'll have to go from 45 mn to 30 mn. I refuse to give up the lesson entirely. I know me - I need that weekly motivation/threat. (The latter part said with a twinkle in my eye, mind you.) She said I'm not the first one to have to discuss (or implement) a cutback.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on October 29, 2008 at 8:07 PM
Terez - why not go to every other week with you lessons and go for longer, rather than doing a weekly but shorter? Just a thought.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 29, 2008 at 8:58 PM
Tom - my teacher doesn't want to do less than once a week. Initially, way back when, that had been my preference. It's a huge time drain to get to the lesson and back (45 minute drive one way, childcare logistics). Nice idea, tho!
From Anne Horvath
Posted on October 29, 2008 at 9:03 PM
The Stick is indeed the conductor.

As for lessons, play it by ear. Things might turn out OK. Or, the book could go Oprah, and your financial concerns would be lessened considerably.

Or, we could all stand in the free cheese line together.

From Karin Lin
Posted on October 29, 2008 at 9:51 PM
I had tickets to last Friday's concert (same program) but ended up not going because of bad bronchitis. :( I've read reviews of it since and now I'm bummed that I missed not only Joshua Bell but what sounds like a very interesting symphony. Thank you for your beautifully written report---it almost makes up for not being able to listen to it.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 29, 2008 at 10:40 PM
Oh, Karin, poor you! Knowing how you like Josh, too. (His Rondo Capriccioso really was great.) Hope the bronchitis has improved. : /

Anne - please tell Oprah that I'll have that final draft ready in January and we all know that the publishers are lining up for novels these days, so it should be a piece of cake. Let's see - were we up to 20K or 30K for your cut?

From Anne Horvath
Posted on October 29, 2008 at 10:53 PM
Tell Oprah? I know Oprah?

20K is fine. I am not greedy. (Insert smiley face here).

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on October 29, 2008 at 11:33 PM
A long time ago, I read an interview with Margaret Graham, the great dancer and choreographer. The interviewer asked Ms.Graham what part of her career she was most proud of. Graham told a true story about a woman who had made her way backstage to talk to Ms. Graham after a performance. The woman was crying. She told Ms. Graham that her husband had died several years ago, and she had never been able to cry for him. She tried psychotherapy, but it didn't help. When she watched Ms. Graham and her troupe dance, she realized that suffering and death had dignity and were universal, and she was able to cry.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 30, 2008 at 3:17 AM
Oh, Pauline, what a beautiful story. I could see Martha Graham doing that to someone - she was a heck of a dance pioneer and a strong woman who influenced a generation of women (particularly dancers, who suddenly found "another" way to be a dancer).
From Drew Lecher
Posted on October 31, 2008 at 2:44 PM
Hi Terez,

Exceptional, as always. I hope to hear the Schmidt some day.

All the best to you and your husband in the — and all others.

God bless,

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 31, 2008 at 10:53 PM
What a lovely comment, Drew. Thanks so much. Yes, do go listen to the Schmidt, if given a chance. I definitely want to hear it performed again.

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