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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.