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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Joseph Schmidt: A Great Tenor And A Terrible Tragedy

Joseph Schmidt was born in 1904, in Davydivka, a small town in Austria-Hungary, now a part of Ukraine. Born into a musical family, he showed promise very early, as is so often the case with those who go on to achieve musical greatness. From living in a multi-cultural geographical area, he soon began to acquire more languages than his native German. He was Jewish, and quickly became acquainted with Yiddish and Hebrew. It was natural, therefore, that his first training was in the synagogue. He was presented as a very young man of 20 in his first concert, in Czernowitz, singing a wide variety of Jewish and operatic music. His talent was so evident by that point that he was sent to Berlin to study piano and voice. He was shortly thereafter appointed cantor of the Czernowitz Synagogue.

In 1929 he went back to Berlin, where he was given the opportunity to sing the role, on the radio, of Vasco da Gama in L'Africaine. Normally, this would mark the beginning of an operatic career for most, but Schmidt was an extremely small man, only 4 feet 11 inches tall, hardly bigger than a young boy. This of course made a stage career impossible. For that reason, his world of opportunity was to be found in radio, recordings (of which he made a significant number), the concert stage, and movies, where clever photography made it possible for him to appear more normal in appearance. (Similar, in modern times, to the career adjustments forced upon Alan Ladd and Dudley Moore, for the same reason.)

The tragedy in the Joseph Schmidt story derives from the time and place of his birth. His artistic rise was during Germany's darkest hour, the rise of the Nazis. Even though extremely popular in Germany, the rise of the barbarians soon made it impossible for him to work there. His popularity in other countries seemed, I suppose, to be sufficient compensation for the German turn of events, and he stayed in Europe longer than he should have. He was touring in the United States as late as 1937, and had he stayed here, the horror of his last days would have been prevented. It is so easy in hindsight to see these things, but it is unfair. I know many Jews who lived through that era, and the stories I have heard always point up the fact that most just didn't know how bad it was going to get. Most thought it to be probably for a limited period, something like the pogroms that had historically erupted in Europe. We cannot impose upon them a foresight that few possessed. Also, not everyone had the money or the opportunity to get out. The end of the Schmidt story is painful to recount, and easily consulted, if one has the stomach for it. To be brief: in 1939, he was caught in France by the German invasion, tried to escape to the US but didn't get any further than just across the Swiss border. Interned in a refugee camp near Zurich, he was extremely poorly cared for and died in 1942. He was 38 years old. As in the case of Mario Lanza and Fritz Wunderlich, one wants to cry.

To really appreciated the astonishing technical virtuosity of Schmidt's voice, one needs to hear what is unfortunately a poor recording, privately made in 1934. I have done some audio work on this recording, in an attempt to bring out some of the sounds of the lower register, which are all but lost in the original. I believe it is at least a little better for the effort. Here is the Aramaic prayer Ano Avdoh. "I am thy servant, Oh Holy One, and I ever bow before thee and the glory of the Torah."

An absolutely astonishing instrument! Schmidt's voice soared easily to the very top of the tenor range. He could, like Lauri Volpi and a few other great bel canto tenors, sing—in line— all the way to the high D natural, something remarkably few tenors can legitimately do. Also note the extreme flexibility, owing almost certainly to his early cantorial training. The plaintive nature of the piece is very moving indeed.

Schmidt had an enormous operatic repertoire, and recorded a large number of the best known tenor arias, something that was easy for him, as he had "no fear of heights," so to speak! It was the more popular repertoire, however, that won him his biggest audience. Here is a good example, the English version of "Ein Stern fällt vom Himmel," the title song of a 1934 movie:

A lovely rendition of a pretty, lilting melody. His English was quite good, and the song is easy enough to understand. That cannot always be said, as legitimate voices often slur over consonants, especially if English is not the singer's native language. But Schmidt handles English diction quite well. (The greatest exception to this tendency was Mario Lanza, whose enunciation was crystal clear, like that of a popular singer, even in his stratospheric upper register.)

Finally, we must include one operatic piece, even though it is in an arranged concert version, Here is a special Schmidt version of the old war-horse "Di Quella Pira," where he manages to interpolate yet a THIRD high C in the middle of the aria:) You will never hear an easier high C. It sounds like the middle of his register. His voice lay extremely high.

A great voice, by any measure. It is at least some consolation that he made so many recordings. In this way, his artistry and extreme vocal endowments live on, for new generations to enjoy and admire.


Anonymous said...

Yes, it is a shame he died so young. A terrific voice.

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you. Yes, it certainly was a shame. That was a tenor voice delux. We use the word tenor to describe a lot of different kinds of voices, many of which would be more properly called high baritone. But this was a TENOR voice, all the way up and down the scale. Thanks for the comment, always appreciated.

DanPloy said...

Another great choice of singer, Edmund.

Perhaps the high lying voice was in part due to his small stature. I can't think of another singer of such height so I can't compare.

In my oh so arrogant youth I chose not to buy his records despite hearing him because he wasn't a 'proper tenor' because he didn't record complete operas or appear on stage. I didn't know the reason why at the time.

Time to make amends I think.

EdmundStAustell said...

Thank you very much for a comment that goes right to the point. Yes, I think you are probably right. Typically, tenors tend to be a bit short, sometimes rotund, and this may well speak either to a thyroid anomaly or, possibly, shorter vocal cords, corresponding to a smaller body. I know that is a very general observation, and I really can't say it is the case, but I have often wondered. Schmidt, as you indicate, had to make a forum for himself that did not involve the stage, and, everything considered, he did a good job. His many recordings speak convincingly of an extraordinary talent. Thanks again for comment.

racheleleeba said...

I'm sorry to say I have only just recently learned of him, from YouTube, but also will be making up for lost time. What a horrible ending for such a beautiful soul and divine voice. Thank you, Edmund.

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you very much, my friend. Yes, he was wonderful and it's true that the end of the story is terrible indeed. I'm sure we both contemplate those dreadful times even today as something so unbelievable, so horrible alien, like something out of the Middle Ages at best. It all seems like a collectively dreamed nightmare. The losses were unspeakable, the rationale beyond comprehension.

Anonymous said...

I am now 88 years old but I remember as if it were only yesterday when my parents were enthusiastically listening to EIN LIED GEHT UM DIE WELT and introduced me to the golden voice of Josef Schmidt. Thanks to modern technology I can now recreate those moments again on my laptop! Thank you for providing such valuable information.

Edmund StAustell said...

And thank you for your comment! I appreciate it very much!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. His story is horrible, I didn’t know about it. Some great Soviet singers and artists were captured by the Nazis (Ivan Jadan, Nikolai Pechkovsky ) and they had to sing for German soldiers and went through many dangerous situations, because Russians were considered ‘untermenschen’ by the Nazis. But unlike Jews those singers were not interned in camps. Fascist hatred of Jews was unimaginable.
Unfortunately, I can’t listen to his version of Di Quella Pira, the video was deleted,; I found another one:
Did he insert the third high C here?
Unbelievable voice, it seems that there are no technical difficulties for him at all.


Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you very much for your comment. That is an interesting observation about the fate of Soviet singers (I presume non-Jewish) captured by the Nazis as opposed to Jewish singers. Yes, it is inconceivable. The utter insanity of it all is still almost impossible to comprehend. And yes, his technical facility was extraordinary, no doubt about it. Thanks for alerting me to the fact that the Di Quella Pira is down. I'll see if I can find another one to replace it.

Anonymous said...

Schmidt's recording of the Ano Avdoh is astonishing and hauntinly beautiful...Thank you so very much for introducing this recording to me. Schmidt had an extremely beautiful voice, for me easily the peer of Wunderlich. How sad that he died such in such a terrible way...May God bless his soul.

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you for a touching comment!

Ballaratboy said...

Thank you for this expose on Joseph Schmidt, who has been one of my favourite tenors for more than 40 years now.How I would love to read a detailed biography in the English language. I know so little about his life and career. Thank you, Steve.

Verdiwagnerite said...

What an amazing voice. The life cut short in that way is heart-breaking.
It raises the question for me, sorry off track a bit, are there any particularly short sopranos or mezzos? I know there have been some rather tall ones like Sutherland. Tall for her day certainly, but maybe not so today as the population in general is taller than before.
Schmidt sings rather well in English. He manages to sound not too operatic and has really good diction - just listened to "One life, one love" excellent singing.
Thank you again, Edmund. More homework for me.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, he was a wonderful singer, all the way around. There have been some very short--or perhaps we should "super-petite" sopranos. Lily Pons comes to mind. She was around 4'11" if memory serves. Also Amelita Galli-Curci and Licia Albanese. But it doesn't seem to matter so much if it's a woman, does it? It's the extremely short man that is a problem. Jan Peerce was very short, but he wore elevator shoes on stage. And opera was only one part--maybe the smallest part-- of his amazing career.

Maria said...

Mr. StAustell, I joined this blog because I just discovered your YouTube uploads of el Nino de Ronda: my father, a Granadino, passed away a year ago today and the recording of el Nino de Ronda was one of his favorites. I believe his father knew el Nino.

Thank you for these uploads, and thank you for sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm for great music.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment. I really appreciate what you say. I don't know if you read the description I wrote for the recordings you mention, but in case you did not, here is what the daughter of "El Nino" had to say:

Esta grabación se hizo en Ronda (España) en el verano de 1955. Hace poco, uno de los hijos de este cantante, cuyo nombre es José Villar García, me escribió para hacerme saber algo de su vida. "El niño de Ronda," escribe," se llamó primeramente "el Niño de la Naranja. [Su] nombre verdadero es José VILLAR GARCÍA y la cosa es que es nuestro padre. Somos tres hijos muy orgullosos de su arte. Imigró en los años 60 aquí en Francia, [y] aunque no siguió su carrera, su familia y sus amigos aprovecharon de su arte y su historia, muy rica de saber."
El Señor Villar García vive aun, y acaba de cumplir 82 años. Les agradezco muchísimo a los hijos estas informaciones interesantes y le felicito al cantante por su arte tan notable.

Thanks once again. Edmund StAustell

Anonymous said...

Hi Edmund, just wanted to comment on the video of Yossele Rosenblatt singing "Avinu Malkenu Galeh K'vod" and in the comments there is some disscusion who the second singer. the second singer is Cantor Samuel Malavsky, have a look at this link

Very nice blog.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Oh, how very interesting! Thank you so much. I really appreciate that additional information! Thanks again!

ClassicalTenors by Rian Mayer Tenor said...

Dear Mr. St-Austell.
I really appreciate your post about my own favorite Tenor Joseph Schmidt. I m training Opera with Maestro Richard Fredricks. I m a high lyric Tenor myself with a range upt to High F,Fsharp in full voice. I m working on the Postillion Aria with the High D, C and many others. Your blog is so informative. Here s some High C finish.

Gerhard Santos said...

Hi dear Edmund, Thanks for sharing this post. It is so great to read this article! Thank you and Have a Beautiful Morning! *GOD BLESS*

Yitzhak said...

Hi Edmund,

I see that my amteurish remarks on Youtube about Joseph Schmidt were directed at a professional. Sorry!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Not a problem, my friend. Not at all! My best, Edmund

Anonymous said...

My grandfather (who I never knew) and Joseph Schmidt were first cousins. I have only heard a few things about Schmidt from my father. Apparently, my grandfather (who came here from Austria) and Schmidt were very close.

On Schmidt's last visit to the US, my grandfather tried hard to get him to stay and not return to Europe, but Schmidt thought he was too famous for them to touch him. Sadly, as we all know, he was wrong.

What a terrible tragic loss, indeed.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much for that personal memory! Such memories, anecdotes and stories add so much to the historical record of great individuals! Yes, the loss was unspeakable. It is hard now even to recall the horrors of those barbaric times. May it never happen again!

Anonymous said...

Edmund--- Peerce, Gigli,Tagliavini and Labo too name a few where all about five four, not taller. Schmidt was shorter, true about four eleven but well proportioned, about like a teenage boy of 13. His voice on top was amazing. His 1937 concert at Carnegie hall has a La Donna E Mobile on you tube that is just magnificent, with a great cadenaza and diminuendo, and it is live! Merritt was huge and fat with great high notes so Schmidt being small didn't make it nhigher. MDM was short like Tucker, but slighter of build, about five seven and a big dramatic voice. Schmidt did sing Boheme on stage live but was so short even a short Soprano at five feet one was taller. H edid sing Concerts and Recitals plus film and Radio live. Tragic death. Basically they killed him.

Baskerville Hall said...

It is still astounding that there are so many people still adamant that Schmidt dies in a NAZI concenytration camp, and even that the Nazis tore out his tongue before his death. The Nazis certainly played a part through their oppression of so many European countries, and particularly their persecution of the Jews, but it does no one any good to perpetrate the "Nazis killed Joseph Schmidt" myth simply to dramatise the virtue of the victim vs the brutality of a perpetrator. Schmidt was interned in a Swiss refugee camp - doing hard forestry work for almost 2.5 years, in poor health, before he finally died in Nov'1942. The Swiss refugee regime must share a great deal of the blame for Schmidt's early death. Never forget that Switzerland refused shelter to most Jews seeking sanctuary from the Nazis....and that neutral nation, like Sweden, continued to trade with Nazi Germany throughout the war, providing them with food, precision tools and other items essential to the German war effort.

Anonymous said...

You do not have to wear a uniform to be a Nazi, or a sympathiser, or be German. Why was Joseph Schmidt not welcomed with open arms and lauded as a great and wonderful singer into Switzerland. Most of Europe and America knew how marvellous he was.
With his small stature he should have been nurtured and cherished.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr St Austell

I write to let you know that I am another longstanding 'appreciator' of the artistry of Josef Schmidt.

I have gone out of my way to collect 78rpm Schmidt shellac records during the past 40 years.

I am also fortunate in that I am a phono cartridge maker here in Cape Town and have the necessary audio equipment to make these old records sound at their best.

Each time I listen to his voice, I feel entranced by it but at the same time angry and sad at how he had to end his life.

Man's inhumaniy to man...

With kind regards

Andre Hanekom
Cape Town
South Africa

arly said...

Thank you for this wonderful article. In an interview with my uncle, I was told that my grandfather (Leo Raschkes) discovered Mr. Schmidt singing in the synagogue and got him started performing on the stage in Czernowitz. I'm wondering if you have any more information about Mr. Schmidt's early career or could point me to any relevant resources that may help me corroborate my uncle's story. Thank you very much.