Breaking into The Book with Seven Seals

Steve Holtje

By Steve Holtje

on 07.03.12 in Spotlights

Schmidt: Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln

Franz Welser-Möst/Stig Andersen/Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks

Given the situation in 1930s Austria, it seems inevitable that it would produce a work about the Apocalypse. Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Schmidt (1874-1939), a Catholic, was old, ill and looking to cap his career with a monumental masterpiece. This epic oratorio sets large sections of the weird, mystical allegory in the Revelation of St. John the Divine about a book with seven seals and seven woes revealed by seven trumpets, each of which is connected to an event at the end of the world. Meanwhile the Austrian empire was collapsing: Schmidt began writing it in 1935, the year after Nazis assassinated the Austrian Chancellor and civil war broke out; Schmidt finished it on Feb. 23, 1937, and by its June 15, 1938, premiere, Germany had annexed Austria.

Schmidt was a student of Bruckner, and though Schmidt’s Late Romantic harmonies are more modern, The Book with Seven Seals has Brucknerian breadth and density; it is structurally descended from Bach’s Passions and sprawls majestically across a nearly two-hour time span. A quartet of vocal soloists plus the roles of John (tenor) and The Voice of the Lord (bass), choir, organ, and full orchestra are deployed in a lushly dramatic style to deliver a lengthy libretto mixing Revelation with Psalm excerpts and Schmidt’s own texts.

After a prologue, the first four seals bring the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; the fifth, the souls of martyrs; the sixth, an earthquake; the seventh, the great silence before the end of the world. A series of visions culminates in a fight with a dragon and the defeat of Satan, followed by the Seven Trumps heralding a series of disasters: hailstorms of blood and fire, a mountain collapsing into an ocean, the destruction of all ships, water turned to blood, eclipses, black smoke and plagues of locusts rising from craters. The final Trump proclaims the Day of Judgment. The piece closes with an epilogue of rejoicing.

Though it was Schmidt’s stated preference that the arduous role of St. Johnbe given to a heldentenor, for decades lyric tenors were used; this was the first recording to honor Schmidt’s wish. Stig Andersen’s extra vocal heft delivers the virile power Schmidt wanted. Welser-Möst is a proven master in Late Romantic repertoire (his recording of Schmidt’s Symphony No. 4 is classic), and this 1997 recording is powerfully persuasive. It could easily drag and become episodic, but Welser-Möst delivers a taut interpretation (well, as much as possible in this music) without sacrificing majesty or drama.

The choir is superbly drilled, the orchestra equally so, and the balance between them — and the soloists, including organ — is ideal. The sonics are realistic yet sufficiently clear, and the dynamic range, if not quite as full as some of the climaxes could stand, is generally impressive. There aren’t many choices in this repertoire, and Welser-Möst’s achievement here remains unsurpassed, though Dimitri Mitropoulos’s 1959 Salzburg Festival concert recording is well worth hearing even in mono. This is a work that deserves to be better known.