Schmidt’s Eschatological Vision: Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln

Classical composers have never shied away from dealing with epic subject matter (Haydn’s The Creation, for example, or the numerous Requiems written by various composers). So it’s perhaps interesting to note how few works exclusively deal with the topic of the apocalypse — the destruction of the world and the last judgment of humanity. Probably the most famous of them all is Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), famously penned and premiered during World War II while Messiaen was a prisoner of war in German captivity. But none of those works come close to the scale and explicitness of Franz Schmidt’s magnum opus: his oratorio, Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals).

I have long been an admirer of Franz Schmidt ever since I heard his other masterpiece, his Fourth Symphony (which deserves a post all to itself). Born in the then Austro-Hungarian city of Pressburg (now Bratislava, Slovakia), he studied composition under Anton Bruckner. He was also an accomplished pianist and organist, and a cellist who served as the principal of the Vienna Philharmonic and Court Opera to Gustav Mahler. His harmonies and textures bear an unmistakable resemblance to Bruckner, Strauss, and Reger, while his melodies at times evoke Mahler. Much like Elgar, a composer he’s at times compared to, Schmidt’s works reveal their worth through repeated listenings. He rarely offers the sort of histrionics or heart-on-sleeve lyricism that would draw one’s immediate attention; rather, over time, one discovers lurking underneath the unassuming surface music of formidable depth and ingenuity.

The music

The catchy opening of the piece. The same musical material is used to close the work.

Das Buch was composed between 1935 and 1937, shortly before Schmidt’s death in 1939. Many commentators have remarked on the work’s uncanny prescience as if it were foreshadowing the catastrophes befalling Europe in World War II. The oratorio is nothing less than a setting of the complete Book of Revelation condensed into slightly under two hours of music, and as befits such an epic topic, the forces employed are large (but not extravagant), consisting of a standard-sized romantic orchestra augmented with a mixed choir and six vocal soloists, two of whom are given titled roles: St. John the Evangelist and narrator, represented by a Heldentenor who gets the lion’s share of the solo work, and the voice of God, represented by a bass. The work, bookended by a swaggering (and stubbornly catchy) crochet theme, is divided into three sections: a Prologue setting the scene for the Lamb’s opening of the seven seals of the Book, Part I which describes the opening of the first six seals, and Part II which pertains to the opening of the seventh seal and the divine calamities that follow, all of which are separated by organ solos.

The musical material, meanwhile, fully shows Schmidt’s extraordinary range as a composer. The Prologue features some exquisite melodies and textures, for example the arching theme that accompanies the rainbow in Heaven, the fugue for the four beasts (solo quartet), and the pastoral section that announces the arrival of the slain Lamb with a lovely oboe solo. But when we come to the actual opening of the seven seals, we find Schmidt at his most evocative and dramatic: the pulsating, syncopated motto driving the red horse and the rider War, the dry, bony sounds from the xylophone and col legno strings depicting the pale rider on the pale horse, the enormous “earthquake” fugue that concludes Part I, and the brilliantly scored scene of the seven angels sounding the seven trumpets in Part II, where each of the heavy brass takes turns intoning the angular, chromatic theme. There are weaker moments, like the Hallelujah chorus near the end which strikes me as overstaying its welcome in having repeated itself a few too many times. But overall, Schmidt’s considerable craftsmanship is fully evident in this stunning work. As is often the case with Schmidt, one has to be patient; it took me quite a few listenings with multiple recordings for me to completely “get” the piece. But once it clicks, it leaves an indelible impression.

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