Joseph Schmidt

4 March 1904 Davydivka/Dawideny – 16 November 1942 Girenbad near Hinwil

Picture of Joseph Schmidt

Schmidt was born into a German-speaking, Jewish family in what was, at the time, the crown territory of Bukovina, a part of Hapsburg Austria (now half Ukrainian, half Romanian, Schmidt's birthplace being in the Ukrainian part, although it was Romanian between the two world wars, that's why you'll read most everywhere that Schmidt came from Romania). He grew up in the major town of Chernivtsi/Czernowitz (now Ukrainian, as well), where he sang in the synogogue choir as a child, and started vocal studies as a young adult.

With the financial help of his uncle, he went to Berlin for further studies, and Berlin was where he made his debut in April 1929 – on the radio, which produced many complete operas at the time, the opera department being directed by retired baritone Cornelis Bronsgeest. Of course, radio opera was live at that time; it was typically never recorded (the tape had yet to be invented), or if anything, then they captured perhaps one aria or duet, on wax matrices – the rest of the performance was lost in the very moment that it went on air. That's generally an enormous pity, but particularly so in the case of Schmidt, who sang, until February 1933, so many radio performances (not least of incredibly rare operas!) that would be must-haves... but are cannot-haves, in reality (complete list of his radio performances below).

At the same time as on the radio, Schmidt became also a film, and a record star.

When he sang his last Berlin radio opera performance on 20 February 1933, the Nazis were already in power; one week after the performance, Schmidt was banned from entering the broadcasting center. He made another film in Germany during the next few months (Ein Lied geht um die Welt, a huge success), but the day after the film premiered, Schmidt fled from Germany to Austria. He continued to make successful films (in Austria and the UK), he made concert tours, for instance in 1934 to Palestine (where he made some ultra-rare cantorial recordings), but also to Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the USA (1937/38, several concerts at Carnegie Hall), Mexico, Cuba; he even returned to Germany for concerts for the Jüdischer Kulturbund, the Jewish cultural organization that the Nazis permitted as long as most German Jews had not been killed or exiled.

In March 1938, the Nazis seized power also in Austria, and Schmidt fled again: to Brussels, this time. Just that Belgium was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940; so Schmidt fled a third time, and went to Nice. Not a wise choice: the independent (southern) part of France was independent just in quotation marks, and anything but safe for Jewish people. In October 1942, Schmidt fled a fourth time: to Switzerland, which had officially closed its borders for Jewish refugees from the Third Reich, so he had to enter the country illegally, and was interned in a specific camp for Jewish refugees in Girenbad near Hinwil. He was in bad health, asked to be medically treated, was allowed into a hospital; but they only cured his sore throat, and with regard to his chest pain considered him a fake. He was declared fit for camp, and redelivered to Girenbad. Two days later, he died of heart failure, to the eternal memory of Swiss infamy during the Nazi period.

Much has been speculated and argued about the fact that Schmidt hardly ever sang on stage. It's true, he was so extremely small that it was detrimental to a stage career; but of course, his voice, too, was small, and benefited greatly from a microphone. (No, dear young opera lovers, they didn't use microphones on stage at the time. No, Schmidt had probably not a smaller voice than Juan Diego Flórez.) In Vienna, he sang at both important concert halls, the Musikverein and the Konzerthaus. People who heard him at both venues reported that at the Musikverein (whose acoustics are as much-praised as they are terrible), only visitors in the first few rows could hear Schmidt, but that he fared better with the acoustics of the Konzerthaus.

So what? So he was destined to be a radio tenor, and that's what he was. (Not like Flórez or Lawrence Brownlee, who pretend to be what they are not, and make the operatic stage their radio studio, with the heavy miking they use for their performances.) His was a microphone voice, no doubt; but with the help of the microphone, he made some – no, not some: many! – of the very best recordings any tenor ever achieved. For the record collector (and at his time, for the radio listener), i.e. in contexts where vocal size doesn't count, Schmidt is beyond doubt one of the most gorgeous tenors ever; for many, many songs and arias that were recorded by Schmidt, there was and is little or no reason for anybody else to sing them again: we already know the definitive versions, and thank you very much, but we're not interested in getting to know also your attempts at them. – Yes, I'm kidding. No, not 100 percent.

Joseph Schmidt sings Ki lekach tov natati lachem (Steinberg)

Joseph Schmidt sings Il trovatore: Di quella pira

Joseph Schmidt sings Turandot: Nessun dorma

Joseph Schmidt sings La bohème: Che gelida manina
In RA format

Joseph Schmidt sings Ein Lied geht um die Welt, with Arthur Preuss
In RA format
This is from a lesser-known 1933 Schmidt film, Wenn du jung bist, gehört dir die Welt, and Preuss' role is that of the comic tenor. He's playing an elderly Kammersänger performing at an elegant private party, and ironically, what he's singing is one of Schmidt's greatest hits, from an earlier film, Ein Lied geht um die Welt (My song goes round the world). Preuss' task in the role of the Kammersänger is to produce a complete failure, musically and vocally. Schmidt is playing the usual son-of-the-housekeeper-gifted-with-a-great-voice-but-no-money, and takes over from the quickly exhausted Kammersänger, making this sort of a Preuss-Schmidt duet (of sorts!).

Be sure to visit the definitive website on Schmidt: the Joseph Schmidt Archiv.


Radio opera, all in German

L'Africaine – Berlin, 18 April 1929
Martha – Berlin, 12 May 1929
La muette de Portici – Berlin, 14 June 1929
Robert le diable – Berlin, 22 August 1929
Guillaume Tell – Berlin, 20 September 1929
Die drei Musketiere (Benatzky) – Berlin, 8 October 1929
Louise – Berlin, 10 October 1929
Idomeneo – Berlin, 8 January 1930
Dinorah – Berlin, 7 February 1930
Il trovatore – Berlin, 21 February 1930
Dom Sebastien – Berlin, 17 June 1930
Jean de Paris (Boieldieu) – Berlin, 1 July 1930
Un ballo in maschera – Berlin, 13 August 1930
Les vêpres siciliennes – Berlin, 2 September 1929
Rigoletto – Berlin, 2 October 1930
Benvenuto Cellini (Berlioz) – Berlin, 2 December 1930
Bánk Bán – Berlin, 19 December 1930
Die Zauberflöte – Berlin, 24 January 1931
Don Carlo – Berlin, 15 March 1931
La fanciulla del West – Berlin, 10 May 1931
Les contes d'Hoffmann – Berlin, 9 June 1931
Der häusliche Krieg (Schubert) – Berlin, 12 August 1931
La traviata – Berlin, 27 August 1931
Les événemens imprévus (Grétry; and no, événemens is not a typo!) – Berlin, 3 September 1931
I masnadieri – Berlin, 11 September 1931
Salome – Berlin, 16 October 1931
Tausendundeine Nacht – Berlin, 16 November 1931
La chanson de Fortunio (Offenbach) – Berlin, 12 December 1931
Le postillon de Lonjumeau – Berlin 7 January 1932
I due Foscari – Berlin, 29 January 1932
Mefistofele – Berlin, 12 February 1932
Boris Godunov – Berlin, 26 February 1932 (Schmidt sang Grigorij!)
Cherevichki – Berlin, 8 April 1932
Semiramide – Berlin, 17 June 1932
Nadja (Künneke) – Berlin, 21 June 1932
Euryanthe – Berlin, 8 July 1932
L'elisir d'amore – Stuttgart, 8 September 1932
Un ballo in maschera – Wien, 2 December 1932
Der Barbier von Bagdad – Berlin, 20 February 1933
Il barbiere di Siviglia – Hilversum, 16 October 1933
I puritani – Wien, 20 September 1935

Live appearance

La bohème – Brussels, Monnaie, 19 January 1939 (total about 20 performances, on tour in Belgium and the Netherlands)
La bohème – Helsinki, 24 and 27 April 1939
I wish to thank Thomas Silverbörg for the picture and recording (Bohème).
Reference: Alfred A. Fassbind: Joseph Schmidt. Ein Lied geht um die Welt – Spuren einer Legende. Eine Biographie, Zürich 1992 (a revamped version appeared in 2021)

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