JOSEPH SCHMIDT : A Star Falls (Part 1)
“Joseph Schmidt has died in a concentration camp !” My father often told me how that news went from house to house in occupied Flanders as it was one more proof of the horrible behaviour of the Nazis. I doubt that story as up to now I have not found a local newspaper announcing the great tenor’s death in 1942. I think it somewhat unlikely the censurers would have allowed the news to pass. H.D. Rosentahl, the late editor of Opera Magazine, tells in his operatic memoirs “My Mad, Mad World of Opera” how he inquires after Schmidt’s fate after the war and only then gets the sad news. So it is well possible my father mixed up the correct date but as Schmidt was one of his favourite singers and immensely popular in Flanders, everybody was shocked by this further example of beastly criminals; be it ’42 or ‘45’ when they got the news. And that concentration camp legend still lives on. I often heard it in my home town of Mechelen. I would later serve in the army in the Mechelen barracks where all captured Jews of the country were rounded up to be sent to their death. Many people therefore didn’t make the distinction between a Nazi hell-hole and a Swiss refugee camp. Schmidt’s tragic end enhanced a legend which already during his lifetime was cluttered with fiction and which, after his death, would grow even bigger. The legend is quite unnecessary as historical facts alone suffice to tell the story of a tragic life almost without precedent for a singer.
Joseph Schmidt was born on the 4th of March 1904 in the village of Davideny, Northern Bukovina, which belonged to the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Due to the infamous alliance between the two monsters Stalin and Hitler the Northern Bukovina became part of the Soviet Union and was incorporated into the Soviet state Ukraine. After the war Stalin refused to give up his conquests and to this day this part of the world belongs to the now independent Ukrainian Republic. Schmidt was thus originally born a Hungarian subject. He was third child and first son of Wolf Schmidt, an orthodox Jew, and his wife Sara Engel who already had two daughters Betty and Regina. After Joseph another brother (Schlomo) and sister (Mariem) were born. His biographies and some witnesses in a TV-documentary relate that his mother language was German as a lot of Jews in the region were very much Germanized. I doubt these statements as he wrote notes to his family in Yiddish and German. Probably his first language was Yiddish but as it is derived from German and as there were so many German speakers in his surroundings Schmidt was probably already fluent in German as a child. Bilingual men and women were numerous in those regions with people speaking one language and easily switching to another as they had heard several languages at the same time in their youth. Schmidt’s early life was led at only a few kilometres away from the Russian Empire. Therefore he must have heard the horror stories of severe pogroms which took place at the beginning of the century, only a small distance away and there is a distinct possibility he saw refugees escaping the ingrained anti-Semitism of the neighbouring state. He was only ten years when his youth abruptly came to an end. The first world war changed his life and not for the better. In the autumn of 1914 the Russian army invaded and the Schmidt family along with many Jews flew before the onslaught. They moved to the safer town of Czernowitz (nowadays Cernovcy; in Ukraine as well) where Jews felt very much at ease as the town was reputed to have more than 40 synagogues while Jews formed a majority of the towns people. Young Joseph attended a State School with German as the official language. He was not a brilliant pupil, often skipping courses as already very early he was more interested in music. His father was a dour severe man who didn’t like his son’s preferences but nevertheless consented to Schmidt receiving violin and piano lessons. Thus Joseph or Jossale as everybody called him (a name he often used in his more private letters) soon learned to read a score. After two years the family’s life was uprooted once more. This time neighbouring Rumania declared war on the weakening Austro-Hungarian empire, joining the Allies in the hope of conquering the whole Bukovina. The Schmidt-family fled to Hungary proper and they spent two difficult years in a real refugee camp. After these two years Russia was out of the war and Rumania had collapsed so the family could finally return to Czernowitz. But at the end of 1918 the Austro-Hungarian empire too fell and for a time a short-lived Ukrainian Republic was in power. Due to Soviet imperialism Ukraine was incorporated into the new USSR, though with the former borders of 1914. Rumania was finally rewarded for its treacherous attitude by the Allies and got the former Bessarabia, a big chunk of Hungary proper (Julia Varady is a Rumanian Hungarian) and the Bukovina. Thus Schmidt finally became a Rumanian subject and he would carry a Rumanian passport till his last months and untimely death when he was declared to be stateless. For the tenor his nationality was mainly a necessary piece of paper to cross frontiers and it even gave some protection for a time when the Nazis came into power. But he never considered himself a Rumanian. When fans wrote to him to ask for biographical details he didn’t mention his nationality but simply and powerfully stated “Ich bin Jude”.
After his return to Czernowitz music played an all important role in his life. He had a remarkable boy-alto and became a member of the synagogue-choir where he soon sang solo parts. The choir was often invited by the German language theatre when operettas or operas needed a children’s chorus. Schmidt very much liked performing in the second act of La Bohème and it is a small coincidence that Rodolfo would be his only operatic stage-role. His voice soon changed into tenor but his father tried to steer him toward more secure jobs and enrolled him in a Commercial School which he duly attended without enthusiasm. Jossale was an obedient Jewish boy, a member of a Zionist Youth organization and a good student of the Talmud and classical Hebrew. So when Schmidt started to take singing lessons at age 18 there were no real objections as there was a good possibility of his earning a bit of extra money by becoming a cantor in one of those many synagogues. His orthodox father however would only attend one of his son’s later concerts as the music the tenor liked to perform was too profane.
Schmidt studied for two years with Felicity Lerchenfeld, married to the local conductor Ottokatr Hrimaly (a Hungarian). The lady was a soprano and as late as March 1932 we find her singing Lieder on Goethe-texts in the local Goethe-Feier celebrating the poet who had died 100 years earlier on the same day. Schmidt studied another way of singing as well as he got the tenor lead in his own synagogue chorus and he became versed in the cantorial tradition as is proven by many of his non-Jewish recordings (Elisir d’amore for instance). He discovered that just learning to sing will not do for a career in music. He became his own manager and was something of a local celebrity as he threw himself into a plethora of activities as a singer, actor, writer and even composer of some small pieces. He was the tenor star of two local theatre pieces with incidental music. Nevertheless his chances were deemed very small to become an opera star and he got the advice to concentrate on a cantorial career. When he applied for the job of first cantor at one of the bigger synagogues he was rejected on the grounds of his size, though it seems the rabbi later on withdrew his objections.
And here we meet another aspect of an eternal legend: the heroic sized tenor voice locked up in a small frame so that beastly racist Nazis (even before they were in power) could deny him the well deserved operatic world career. Of course his size was not a trivial matter. Most biographies state he measured 1.54 cm. That is small though definitely not uncommon before the war. In the sometimes extremely poor regions of Eastern Europe or the South of Italy and Spain a lot of men were not taller. Such height combined with a good pair of lifts wouldn’t have been a problem for starting a stage career. Bonci and De Muro didn’t measure 1.54 meters and had a world career (though De Muro thought his height made him unfit to sing and act Otello). I have several times attended operatic performances with Tony Poncet and he didn’t even reach 1.50. Photographs however prove that Schmidt is almost always half a head smaller than everybody else. I therefore tend to believe someone who knew him very well. His accompanist during his last years when Schmidt lived in Flanders was Leonce Gras who became a conductor of the Flemish Radio orchestra after the war. I myself was a television reporter/producer at the same institution. I once asked Gras how tall Schmidt really was. Well, he couldn’t exactly give the correct measures but he told me Schmidt was half a head smaller than Gras himself and the conductor measured only 1.55 m. So that would have given Schmidt a height of 1.40 – 1.43 cm; and that was indeed somewhat small to make a career in the German language countries in those days. Schmidt however compensated a lot with gymnastics and sporting activities and his body was very well proportioned. During his heydays he realized very well that his handicap offered pros and cons. In several of his movies his small size plays an important role in the story as the girls fall in love with the recordings and then refute the tenor hero when they see the real man. Those scripts probably didn’t do much to heighten his self-esteem and they clearly didn’t endear him to Ernst Neubach, the story and lyrics writer of some of his movies; witness the strange last meeting in Switzerland. On the other hand this small size made him very distinct and endeared him to a lot of (female) fans with motherly feelings who couldn’t almost believe this frame could produce such a voice. A late colleague at Flemish Radio and TV attended a lot of his concerts and told me there was always a small gasp in the audience when that very small man appeared, with a wave of sympathy sweeping over the spectators who frenetically applauded his appearance. As a result Schmidt had often conquered before he had sung one note.
When the extremely young tenor started to take the plunge and go mainly for a career outside the synagogue, he made up his mind as to what kind of music he liked to perform. He started his solo career at just 20 years of age with a successful solo concert in his home town and right from the start he mixed opera arias with popular songs and ballads. Throughout his whole career Schmidt never sang a highbrow programme of Lieder nor even a concert entirely devoted to opera if he was not engaged for a specific commemoration. He knew he still had a lot to learn and accepted the advice of his teacher to continue his further studies in Berlin. Vienna was closer to home but the city was known for its anti-Semitism and Schmidt had an easily recognizable Jewish profile, often found with Eastern European Jews before they were wiped out. Moreover Vienna was now a water head; a former imperial capital reduced to the role of governing a very small state. And last but not least, his mother’s brothers Leo and Hermann Engel lived in Berlin, happy to help their nephew. Due to his musical knowledge Schmidt obtained without much difficulty a place at the Staatlichen Akademischen Hochschule für Musik und Gesang, a kind of musical college. His main teacher was Hermann Weissenborn; a well known pedagogue (and not the builder of the famous Weissenborn guitar) whose best known after war pupil was Fischer-Dieskau. Schmidt concentrated on his weak lower and middle register as his high notes were already secure. He added language and piano courses to his curriculum. And he threw himself into Jewish life as he joined the chorus in one of the Berlin synagogues, a few times singing solo.
In 1926 he had to return to Rumania for his obligatory military service. As was the custom at the time, a good artist didn’t have to fight and march a lot. His officers immediately discovered he was a well trained musician and therefore he performed at all kinds of army parties. He sang, played the violin and the piano. He played drums in a jazz band and entirely in agreement with military logic the smallest man of them all beat the big drum in regimental band marches. After his release he made some money by giving once more a concert in Czernowitz. The German-language programme bill mentions two Italian arias (though sung in German), one Rumanian song and nine Yiddish songs. It is clear he was still not sure about his musical future. And it is equally clear he had not made an indelible impression in Berlin as he stayed at home for more than a year. He probably opted for the safe life: a synagogue where he sang the whole time. A few Dutch and Flemish Jews attended one of the services and this resulted in a first engagement abroad: concerts for Jewish associations in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp in early 1929. Little did he presume the two Dutch speaking countries would become his asylum in later years. There is one source that says Schmidt tried to get a job in one of the Antwerp or Amsterdam synagogues as they were more wealthy than those in Czernowitz but once more his size was thought too small.
According to one of his biographers, he returned home via Berlin where he went searching for employment in vain at the opera houses. Alfred Fassbind, not his worst biographer, doesn’t mention these auditions. It is more probable that uncle Leo Engel who knew some people at Sender Berlin asked them to give his nephew an audition. The radio station had started in 1923 and was eagerly promoted. Soon many Berliners had their own set, helped by the recovery of German economy after the disasters of the war and the resulting inflation. Typically for the time was the fact that the new medium was not considered something for fun alone. There had to be a big dose of education and even instruction. Notwithstanding the war there were still an awful amount of Germans who stuck to the 19th century concept of “Bildung” (intense learning and formation) as a way of life and a way of educating and classical music was a big part of Bildung. Therefore Sender Berlin soon started to produce performances of operas as it would take some ten years more before live performances from the opera house could be broadcasted. The Germans were not alone in broadcasting operas by a cast assembled for the occasion but they were early. RAI (Italy) only started in 1932; at a time New York already had live performances from the Met. Nowadays few organisations still perform opera for radio broadcast alone (Dutch Radio is one of the exceptions) but in the twenties and thirties the whole Western world did it. Typically, each country went to it in its own way. According to the true Italian tradition, RAI assembled an ad hoc cast for each performance with as a result that more or less every Italian singer performed in those broadcasts. Sender Berlin didn’t have a real company which had to perform all operas as did most German operatic theatres. But it preferred to come as close as possible to a real one. Therefore many the same names pop up in those Berlin performances: Vera Schwarz, Emmy Bettendorf, Sabine Kalter, Joseph Schmidt and especially the Dutch baritone Cornelis Bronsgeest. He doubled as singer and as casting director for the radio station. So Schmidt auditioned for the baritone and Bronsgeest is responsible for one of the more laughable legends on Schmidt. In a well-known article Bronsgeest wrote the pianist started to play ‘ Di quella pira’ and when Schmidt sang the aria the baritone didn’t see him at first and thought somebody was playing a trick on him and playing a record of Enrico Caruso. This is utter nonsense of course. Schmidt may have been small but the baritone would surely have noted him, even as Bronsgeest was probably seated in the technician’s booth to judge the sound listeners would get. And nobody in his right sense can mix up the voices of Schmidt and Caruso. Moreover Caruso never recorded “Lodern zum Himmel” as Schmidt sang the audition aria in German. Probably more to the mark is Bronsgeest’s story that he asked the tenor to sing “Noch tönt mir ein Meer (Fuor del mar)” from Idomeneo. Schmidt didn’t know the aria but he was a good score reader and he sang it without difficulty, coloratura included. Bronsgeest probably knew the aria in Jadlowker’s (a Jew too) famous record. The baritone was duly impressed though for a cantor as Schmidt the aria was an easy one. Bronsgeest knew quality when he got it. He engaged Schmidt on the spot and thus the big career began. Uncle Leo was quick to take the burdensome administrative tasks on his managerial shoulders.
To become a legend, singers need three qualities: lots of talent, lots of work and last but not least lots of luck. Enrico Caruso and Maria Meneghini-Callas would have been successful singers but probably less than household names if they had not arrived at exactly the moment shellac and LP-recording started to blossom and to sell. Schmidt had the same luck as radio was on the brink of its big break. In April 1929 Schmidt’s radio career started with a complete performance of L’Africaine (with Mafalda Salvatini and sung in German of course). Then he got a month to study Martha while one month later there already was a broadcast of La Muette de Portici. He got a little bit more time for Robert le Diable but only another month for Guillaume Tell and he ended the year with Louise. Only a good musician could have coped with this. There were no live pirate recordings available in those days, so eagerly listened to today by singers when there is a rarity performed while at the same time these singers will hotly deny it, pretending they only consult the score. In Schmidt’s days there was indeed only a score and most of these roles were (even by today’s standards) not very common fare. Schmidt was a sensation. He almost immediately overshadowed his colleagues Salvatini, Eisinger, Kiurina and even Ljungberg. Here was that very rarity indeed: an authentic German tenor (anyway that was what most listeners originally thought). A voice with a soft, plangent quality, exceptional legato, no hamming or barking and splendid coloratura (some vocal connoisseurs will immediately have realized Schmidt was Jewish). And on top of it all there were those splendid and free high notes, so unusual for a German tenor and exceptional even by Italian standards. As a result the hottest new ticket in town started recording almost immediately. HMV hired him for “Nur deinetwegen (Amaro sol per te)” with Ljungberg. Soon afterwards he signed a contract with Ultraphon and only four months after his radio début he recorded his first solos (the two Tosca arias). In September 1929 Schmidt made his stage début in ‘Die Drei Musketiere’. Ralph Benatzky (later of White Horse Inn fame) concocted a spectacular half operetta, half show: a so called “Revue-Operetta” where acting, dancing and spectacular scenery were as important as music. Messrs. Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’ Artagnan stumbled during their adventures upon a gypsy camp and look and behold there was a small gypsy singing a …tango which he would record a few months later. The ‘Revue’ was quite a success but in those days there was still a big gap between high art (as performed in opera houses) and popular art (as performed in theatres for operetta and musical). Not that Schmidt really needed a series of operatic performances in a house somewhere as his workload was already quite heavy. In the autumn of 1929 he had a rather monotonous life: studying difficult and rare scores for the radio and performing them; studying scores for his record company and going into a studio to record them as sales were soaring. He was the tenor soloist too in a series of about 100 records of music produced for the Jewish Reform Congregation in Berlin. The records could be used in smaller and liberal synagogues when there was no cantor available. Schmidt’s voice is exceptionally beautiful in the few of those recordings which have survived and though one can understand those who say he should have stuck to being a cantor it is clear that here is a fully fledged opera tenor at work who revels in his high notes. At the same time and only a few weeks after its première, he recorded excerpts from Lehar’s new hit (actually a rework of “Die Gelbe Jacke”) Das Land des Lächelns. And he did it in direct competition with its creator Richard Tauber. That was a challenge Schmidt couldn’t win as in later Lehar operettas it was not often clear where Lehar ended his compositions and Tauber took over to taylor them to his voice. Schmidt tried his hand or better his voice too at a few Italian songs and his are probably the only German language versions of Vorrei morire and Mattinata where the language is not a handicap. The fine version of the Mascagni Siciliani is the only operatic recording in those months.
In short the 25 year old tenor seemed on top of the world. Still, disaster was around the corner. Europe was not much interested in the Wall Street crash of October the 29th of 1929 but soon it dawned upon people that the old continent wouldn’t remain unscathed. The results were very much felt in Germany. Its economy depended a lot on short-term American loans and American banks immediately demanded repayment. As a result credit was no longer possible and not only the stock exchange suffered but real economy too came into heavy waters. Company after company went broke and laid off their workers. In a short time five million men (most of them sole earners for their family) were without employment and lived upon extremely low dole payments. As the economy plummeted so did prices. This meant that people who had kept their jobs were actually better off. Therefore and contrary to what happened in the US recording of classical singers didn’t stop. Nor did opera performances at the subsidized Berlin radio. During 1930 Schmidt sang the tenor role in ten operas. One looks with admiration at titles like Idomeneo, Dinorah, Jean de Paris, Benvenuto Cellini and Bank Ban. One is amazed at Schmidt’s versatility and we know that those performances were no run-of-the-mill affairs with conductors like Bruno Walter and Georg Szell and singers like Bettendorf, Meyer, Schützendorf, Schwarz and Janssen. In addition to those rarities Schmidt performed in better known operas like Il Trovatore, Un Ballo, Vêpres Siciliennes and Rigoletto. All performances were recorded during the actual broadcast but pitifully few fragments were saved. Not that the operas were recorded completely as there was as yet no tape but highlights of all performances did once exist. The radio stations recorded directly off-the-air on acetates or on flexible directly-recordable discs. The technical problems were great as the nature of the material was not suited to enter archives in eternity. Some of the records decomposed or the acetate coating got off the disc. Other records were destroyed by politically-correct clerks; maybe not even Nazis who thought to endear themselves with the powers that were. And by 1945 barely one house was still standing in Berlin and maybe records were not the first priority to save from the incessant American-British bombing. All existing records were transferred on CD (Koch International). There is still hope new finds may pop up and as we have a full inventory of everything recorded by Sender Berlin, the Schmidt list is mouth watering: apart from well-known pieces he recorded commercially too there are now missing arias and ensembles from Cellini, Vêpres, Bank Ban, Huguenots, Masnadieri, Due Foscari, Euryanthe etc. Luckily for us he was a permanent visitor of the Ultraphon studios during 1930. . There are only four operatic titles among them: the two popular arias from Rigoletto, the Addio alla Madre from Cavalleria and a high spirited wonderfully sung duet from The Bartered Bride with Michael Bohnen. Most titles were of famous Italian songs which Schmidt sang hauntingly beautiful; slower and less inclined towards vocal exhibition than is usually to be found with Italian tenors. Schmidt clearly takes his German texts seriously and his Musica Proibita, Sole Mio, La Paloma and especially Son tre giorni che Nina take on a new and plangent life. His German songs have far less musical quality and the two German tangos he recorded are in fact not really worth the pains he launders on them.
At the end of 1930 there was good and less good news. The ‘talkies’ were looking for young fresh voices and that new Berlin tenor was rapidly becoming very well known. He started with the movie Der Liebesexpress. He only lent his voice in four songs which in the fashion of the time were probably only played half or in the background. The movie came out half a year later in May 1931 and in the meantime Schmidt’s reputation had grown so much that his name was billed in bolder letters than the stars’ on the playbill. He duly recorded two of the movie songs in their entirety. There was some disturbing news too. In September 1930 a bombshell went off in German politics. A small unimportant and slightly ridiculed party had only 12 seats in the federal German parliament, the Reichstag. Due to the economic crisis the NSDAP jumped from 12 to 107 seats in parliamentary elections, thus becoming the number two party in Germany after the social democrats. One of the main traits of the NSDAP was its virulent anti-Semitic programme. Schmidt never made outspoken political statements on the German situation as after all he was a foreigner. But he was very much attached to his Jewish identity and he was deeply enmeshed in Berlin Jewish life. Daily life in Berlin nevertheless continued and was still comfortable as Prussian police didn’t allow the Nazis to take action against Jews (Berlin was both the capital of the state of Prussia, governed by social-democrats and of Germany). Berlin party leader Joseph Goebbels and his thugs concentrated more on cracking skulls of their strong communist antagonists than on harming Jews.
In 1931 Schmidt’s workload remained heavy for a tenor of 27 though this time the titles on radio are a little bit less unhackneyed: Zauberflöte, Traviata, Salome, Contes d’Hoffmann. Other titles as Don Carlos, Fanciulla del West and especially I Masnadieri were not common in those days. And Der Haüsliche Krieg, Les Evenements imprévus, La Chanson de Fortunio have disappeared from the repertoire. Schmidt also sang a second operetta score: Tausend und eine Nacht from Johan Strauss. The aria Launisches Glück (in reality a re-arrangement of the Strauss-song O schöner Mai) was an instant hit when he sang it during a series of theatre performances and when Schmidt switched record companies one year later this was the first recording requested by his new company. He collaborated to another two movies though it is unclear what exactly his roles were. “Goethe lebt” was clearly produced for the Goethe year and only parts of the movie still exist. It seems he sang together with some others music from Goethe’s time. In the second movie (a gangster story) he sang an Italian folk tune but we don’t know if he acted as well as the Nazis cut his part. Both movies appeared in 1932. During the year he duly recorded the 12 sides Ultraphon had him contracted for. As he was now considered to be a fully fledged opera tenor, though his medium was radio, there were more operatic recordings than usual: half of his last records with the company are operatic and some of them are classic ones like his Zauberflöte-aria. He is the only tenor who can let us forget that his Traviata-aria is sung in German and of course no listener can stay cold when he launches into Eléazar’s aria as we know too well his background and fate. And then there is his first operatic recording in the original: Elisir where he shows his proficiency in coloratura. His Italian songs (in the vernacular) are fine; especially Mal d’amore which he would repeat in his first big movie; an interpretation that brought many a tear to the faces of spectators in the thirties. The German songs once more are not very distinguished musically with the bright exception of Stolz’s most beautiful melody: Du sollst der Kaiser meiner Seele sein. Schmidt brings ardour and poetry to it; another rendition that has never been surpassed. The tenor would record another two songs in early 1932 and then Ultraphone was finished; victim of the economic crisis. It was absorbed into a new company Telefunken but by that time (and probably even before that) Leo Engel had transferred Schmidt to Parlophone. A few years ago Teldec (now part of Warner) brought out a double CD-album containing all Schmidt’s Ultraphone recordings in a wonderful de luxe edition, including a fine article on the tenor. Maybe the most important statement in these notes is made by the then 89year old sound engineer Herbert Grenzebach; Ultraphon’s first recording manager. Grenzebach said: “ the audition he gave for us had a sobering effect; at the top his voice sounded rough and there was a rather cutting quality to it. But when we recorded his voice and cut the frequency range slightly and then listened to it, it sounded totally different.” Grenzebach repeated the story one often hears from Schmidt’s contemporaries:” Then the voice was gold, pure gold-an ideal, an extraordinary microphone voice.” This story complies with Vera Schwarz’s reaction when she first performed with him in Il Trovatore. She didn’t really want to continue with such a hoarse singer; so the producer invited the soprano into the technicians booth and she heard the brilliant voice she knew from other broadcasts. My former colleague always told me the Schmidt voice was rather ugly in real live performances and the difference between recordings and live was marked. There is discussion too concerning the size of the voice. Mezzo-soprano Paula Lindbergh who sang with him said that the voice was more impressive than Tauber’s and that it could easily carry in the theatre. That seems to be the opinion too of the critics who heard his Rodolfo in Brussels and Antwerp and don’t complain on the number of decibels. Dutch critic and collector Leo Riemens stated unequivocally that Schmidt had a bigger voice than Marcel Wittrisch and produced about the same volume as Jussi Björling (whose voice was not especially large). On the other hand Dutch conductor Hugo de Groot conducted several Schmidt concerts and frankly told the tenor that he was not able to keep down the sound of the orchestra in the acoustically favourable Amsterdam Concertgebouw. In De Groot’s opinion Schmidt’s voice was too small to fill the house. Austrian writer and critic Marcel Prawy (Jan Kiepura’s secretary) too didn’t think much of the Schmidt voice. It remains a controversy that nowadays will never be solved as the generations who heard the tenor in the flesh have disappeared.
1932 would be Schmidt’s last important artistic year. He was only twenty-eight. He sang twelve radio operas, many unhackneyed like his roles in Semiramide, a repeat of I Masnadieri, I Due Foscari, Boris, Euryanthe and Tchaikovsky’s almost unknown Cherevichki and operetta composer’s Edward Künneke’s opera Nadja. He sang the tenor roles in Le Postillon de Longjumeau, Mefistofele, Elisir d’amore and Ballo as well. He started to give concerts in Vienna and he made his radio début in the Netherlands for VARA. Dutch radio broadcasts were and still are cut up according to ideological policies. VARA belonged to social democracy and the influence of Dutch Jews was very strong. So Schmidt immediately felt at home and he probably opened up his heart in private about the political situation in Germany because the programme guide at his début stated that they would support him whatever might happen in that country. He certainly needed moral support as two months later in July 1932 the NSDAP got 230 seats (out of 608) in the German parliament; making it by far the strongest party in the country; almost the double of social democracy. The party got 37.4% of the popular vote and it reached its apogee in really free elections. Moreover ultra conservative chancellor Franz von Papen succeeded in ousting social democracy out of power in Prussia and thus in Berlin by using every dirty trick at his command. Berlin was fast becoming a rather unhealthy place for a very small guy, easily recognizable as a Jew. Still, after summer things seemed to improve. German economy slowly recovered from recession and in another and last free election the Nazis received a thorough beating, losing two millions of votes. It was only a postponement. Now that the NSDAP was weakening important conservatives and extreme nationalists offered the beaten Hitler the chancellorship, sure that he would crush much feared communism and democracy. Afterwards they would smother him as they had done with his party in some local governments. They completely underestimated the ruthlessness of the Nazis. On the 30th of January 1933 Hitler became Reichskanzler and Hermann Goering minister of the interior. All other ministers belonged to non-Nazi-parties. But Goering was made prime-minister as well of the biggest German state, Prussia. He immediately incorporated tens of thousands of SA thugs into the police. Twenty days after the new government was installed Joseph Schmidt gave a concert in his beloved Berlin on the 19th of February. Little did he presume this was to be his last unconditional Berlin concert. Next day he sang his first new role in the new year for Sender Berlin: Nureddin in Der Barbier von Bagdad. When he next appeared at the radio station he was simply shown the door and his contracts were worthless. No official measure was taken but the momentum of Nazism was immense. The roughening and physical intimidation to downright killing of antagonists made so overwhelming an impression that a wave of political correctness swept through Germany. Fear became pervasive and the motto was “Im Geist des Führers handeln (acting in the spirit of Hitler)”. Every bureaucrat from small to big took measures to ingratiate himself with the new powers to prove by their actions that they knew what that Geist meant. The Nazis themselves were flabbergasted at the speed their wishes were fulfilled and their later laws against Jews, communists etc. only made official what was already a painful reality.
Joseph Schmidt reacted as so many Jews did: after the initial onslaught he hoped that things would again improve and in the meantime he should carry on as there was still a lot of work without his radio performances. After Ultraphon had changed into Telefunken, uncle Leo who had gotten to know a lot of people in the recording business made the tenor leave his label to go to Parlophone. Schmidt was not much interested in business negotiations and gave uncle Leo free rein. His fees were more or less divided into three parts: the tenor kept one third and spent it on whatever he fancied. Few people who knew him and were in need didn’t receive money. The family in Rumania got another third and uncle Leo kept one third for investing in securities, paying costs and rewarding himself very generously as he liked “Wein, Weib und Gesang”. Engels always went for the short gain, booking Schmidt whenever possible and at the highest fee without consideration for the tenor’s long term interests. Engel asked for a fixed price per recording, scorning royalties for ready cash (as however most singers did). Schmidt would complain bitterly about uncle Leo when he at last understood the consequences during his flight in 1940. Artistic matters were the least of Uncle Leo’s concerns. Parlophon produced mainly 25cm-records and Schmidt could either record short arias or otherwise compress them (Manon, Alessandro Stradella). The sound picture changed too. Ultraphon recorded the tenor with more spacious and also more honest acoustic than Parlophon’s tighter recordings which made Schmidt’s top notes more brilliant and suppressed a lot of the hoarse and veiled notes. Parlophone clearly banked on Schmidt as they recorded 20 titles in 1932. In fact if one is to believe the fine discography by Hansfried Sieben (The Record Collector June 2000) then Schmidt started recording for Parlophone one day before he made his last Ultraphone recording. That means that it was not a case of Ultraphone being in trouble but of uncle Leo going to Parlophone because the company offered more recordings and thus more fees. The recordings are the usual mixed bag. Schmidt is still a German tenor and therefore all his operatic selections are sung in German. He is one of the few tenors to record Rodolfo’s second aria. The voice has everything what the Lenski-aria needs (happily recorded on two sides and thus complete): nostalgia, longing, plangent fear. His Le Cid aria Ah tout est bien fini reminds us that this “It’s all over” is the last music he ever sang in public. For once even Schmidt is handicapped by a bad translation and the sound on open ee (Flieh oh flieh) in Manon grates somewhat. Only 5 titles are operatic. Most of the 1932 recordings consist of Italian songs; some of them very rare like Voga, voga or L’Ariatella. As everybody knows them so well in the lovely Schmidt-versions almost no other tenors ever thought of recording them too. Schmidt’s La Danza is a classic because as a master of florid singing he is fully at ease and his plangent tones are at their place in Piscatore è pusilecco and Nun mi scetà. Once more the German songs are far less distinguished but his operetta recordings are fabulous. Launisches Glück is unsurpassed and his interpretation of Barinkay’s aria from Strauss’ Zigeunerbaron is full of “Schwung” and capped with a formidable high C. Every tenor worth his salt has copied this trick; sometimes with success (Gedda) and sometimes without (Seiffert). Schmidt’s records were almost always classical bestsellers and Parlophone knew they had gold in their hands. A big programme was drafted for 1933 though the bosses probably didn’t realize at the time of signing the tenor how important their catch would become. At the same time that Schmidt was no longer allowed to perform opera at Sender Berlin, he was acting in the first of his big movies that would make him a world star.Jan Neckers, OperaNostalgia