Many kinds of musical characters meet in the figure of Ole Schmidt: the composer, the conductor, the teacher and the debater. But all are bound together in one strong personality - a loner in Danish musical life. Throughout his many years on the Danish and international musical scene, he has retained the personal courage to go his own way.
And this is how it has been right from the start, in his younger days when he earned his daily bread as a self-taught jazz pianist; but at the age of 20 he worked his way into the classical music world by being admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. There his studies included composition with Vagn Holmboe. Ole Schmidt's first major composition was a piano concerto, but it was as a ballet composer that he made his name. He wrote among other things the music for Ildmageren (The Fire-maker) in 1952 and Bag tæppet (Behind the Curtain) in 1954. With the ballet Fever in 1957 Ole Schmidt assumed the conductor's baton and the next year he was engaged by the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen as the conductor for the ballet. This post lasted until 1965, and it was during this period that he met and married the former deputy ballet-master and stage director Lizzie Rode.
Ole Schmidt's whole musical career has been divided up into three roles: composer, conductor and teacher. And it is precisely Ole Schmidt's strength that the three aspects stimulate one another. The craftsmanship is in order in Ole Schmidt's rich œuvre, the works are well conceived for the musicians, and super-added compositional structures are never allowed to prevent the music sounding good.
His sources of inspiration have been Stravinsky, Bartók and the French school, interpreted beautifully by Ole Schmidt in his own musical idiom. He has written works in most genres, but it is especially his succession of solo concertos that stands out in his output: concertos for accordion, tuba, guitar, violin, oboe, flute etc. To these we can add his famous through-composed music from 1983 for Carl Theodor Dreyer's film Joan of Arc. Ole Schmidt's close cooperation with the poet Jørgen Gustava Brandt on a number of hymns has provided striking, beautiful contributions to the renewal of the Danish hymn tradition.
As a conductor Ole Schmidt has primarily been inspired by his mentor, the Hungarian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, and by Albert Wolff and Rafael Kubelik. He demonstrated his great format in 1974 when, at his own initiative, he recorded all of Carl Nielsen's symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra. This was an achievement that opened the eyes of the world to both Carl Nielsen and Danish music as a whole. Contemporary Danish music has always held Ole Schmidt's interest as a conductor. He has conducted many orchestras in Europe and the USA. In 1978-1985 he was Principal Conductor of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra. Ole Schmidt has always had the courage of his convictions, even if it has cost him dearly in some cases. But that too is a side of him that is an essential part of the complete portrait. Since 1992 Ole Schmidt has lived in the south of France, but his connection with Denmark remains strong and intact through his family and his summer home at Sjællands Odde.
String Quartet no. 3
String Quartet No. 3 was composed in 1965 and has the subtitle Episodes in the life of a young artist. Whether Ole Schmidt was thinking of his own life as a young artist he has not said directly; but he has said that the work means a lot to him, and in its fragmented form it can be heard as musical sketches for a self-portrait.
The quartet is in three short movements in the classic sequence quick - slow - quick. The first movement is in the tempo Allegretto, where the first violin several times attempts to create a melodic progression accompanied sporadically by the other strings. Thematically nothing comes of this first part, but the important element is in fact the rhythmic interaction among the four strings - rhythms coloured by syncopation that makes the music ‘swing' in the best jazz style. A small inter-mediate passage leads on to a solo in the second violin with the ‘jazzy' accompaniment of the other strings. Then it is the viola that takes over the solo - this time more expressively, until the four strings end the movement by repeating the material from the introduction. The movement closes in on itself, but at the same time it is fragile and vulnerable.
Quite the opposite is the next movement, Molto tranquillo e pesante, where the four strings create close, expressive chords - chords that expand and never come to rest; not even when the cello comes in with a wistful solo that triggers off a cascade of pizzicato from the other strings. The movement falls to rest before it really gets going.
The third movement, Allegro, is itself tripartite. A danceable theme forms a run-up to the middle section, where a small turning figure, or striking repetitions of the same notes, build up more and more energy. Here Ole Schmidt is romantic in his musical thinking: he works determinedly forward towards a culmination - played out in hectic glissandi on all strings - but he is a modern man, and the culmination is not the same as a resolution. With no transition he brings in a Coda with a quite different, playful character, and the movement ends with a repetition of the dancing introduction, which has now become a postlude.
String Quartet no. 5
String Quartet no. 5 is from 1977 and thus belongs to the same period as a couple of striking solo concertos: the Guitar Concerto from 1976 and the Violin Concerto from 1977, where Ole Schmidt mainly experiments with sonorities. One also senses an urge to take things to extremes in this quartet, which with its duration of a good twenty minutes is one of the composer's longest string quartets. It is in five movements, the first and the last, with the titles Quasi introduzione and Epilogue, building on the same material.
The main weight of the quartet is in the three middle movements, where Ole Schmidt reveals a new intensity. Not only does he go to the attack with extreme sonorities; he also works very consistently with his thematic ideas. The sound is quite special in its own right. Ole Schmidt is by this time so much a master of the resources of the string quartet that he can apparently demand the utmost and produce soundscapes that cross all aesthetic thresholds: ugly, harsh, thin-worn, grating noises mix with compact, balanced sounds, always challenging our ears. When at the same time Ole Schmidt tries out musical ideas, going to extremes - and in some places beyond them - the result becomes disturbing.
A persistent flurry of ascending and descending motifs - almost scale runs - create the second movement, Allegretto moderato. In most cases they are built up from thirds, but they do not cohere logically: they are like small cog wheels that cannot engage. At some points the tempo heats up, at others it comes to a complete halt; and yet the movement is symmetrically built up so that one experiences the satisfaction of an architectonic totality. The third movement, Adagio, is a painful affair. It is expressive in every detail: from large sweeping solo passages to small details like howling tones (created by harmonics) and percussion effects, just as the timbres spread across the whole register of the string quartet from bottom to top. The movement falls calm with an inward, reflective solo in the first violin. But this is not the end: Ole Schmidt tacks on a powerful epilogue where the four strings return to the clashing thirds of the second movement - now in the same melody (in unison) with a violent force that forms a stark contrast to the scanty material.
The fixed metre switches to a dancing 6/8 in the fourth movement, Allegro moderato, which opens with an appealing melody in the two violins. But the movement quickly tightens up and focuses on a single melodic phrase: an ascending figure and a tritone leap. This phrase holds the movement together for better or for worse. In some cases it takes the four strings deep into conflicts, in others it offers some release and opens up new possibilities. Here Ole Schmidt demonstrates his unusual talent for varying given musical material, and he deploys all his resources: contrasts in timbre and dynamics and a tempo that cannot find a basic pulse. It is a unique movement - musically and structurally - but it only finds its balance in relation to the above-mentioned Epilogue, which puts things in their place - on the basis of a catchy motif.
String Quartet no. 6
String Quartet no. 6 was composed in 1997 and bears the subtitle In Memory of My Mother. Ole Schmidt himself says that it is a highly personal work. It is in five movements, each of which is characterized by a particular temperament and musical idea. The music can hardly be called directly descriptive, but it captures various moods in the composer. At the same time each movement is extremely structured and is based on very specific musical ideas - one could almost say that each of the movements is an exercise in the structural sense: the composer has set himself challenges - and has set out to resolve them.
In the first movement, Allegro, the music is built up from a canon over a motif, or more precisely a connection among characteristic intervals that shoot out to all points of the compass. The motif develops into an evanescent weave of parts where the major seventh constantly strikes one's ear. Its character becomes more and more diffuse until the movement ends with the first strophe of A Mighty Fortress is Our God in broad chords as in a chorale. The transience of the beginning of the movement meets pious resolve here.
The next movement is in the slow tempo Largo. Its character is more inward and questing, but this movement too takes on a somewhat transitory colouring: the intervals shift, rhythms are played off against one another, keys fail to meet - until the four strings nevertheless manage to hit a shared C major chord. After this the movement proceeds to a pizzicato section that becomes more and more ‘patchy' and distorted. Like the first movement, this movement too ends in a chorale, but this time with no reference to a well known hymn.
The third and fourth movements have the character of brief intermezzi where Ole Schmidt tries out very concrete material - in the third movement a merry motif built from fourths, presented in a canon that is gradually intensified and becomes more and more compact until it dissolves into scattered points. This movement too ends in a chorale, which stands as a painful opposite pole of the preceding lightness. The fourth movement consists of a forceful theme that is played out with broad strokes of the four strings in unison. This unity then ramifies, but the intensity is maintained, and is only attenuated in the final bars.
It is not until the fifth movement that Ole Schmidt arrives at true ‘movement work', where a motif is elaborated and encountered by other motifs. The actual ‘subject' is characterized by its triplets - and triplication - and the mixture of chromaticism and abrupt intervals. A couple of solo passages make an appearance: first a narrative-like solo in the viola, then a teasing solo à la Stravinsky in the first violin. However, the characteristic thing about the movement is not just the textural writing. The music works at two levels, one of which is light, gay and forward-looking, as opposed to a painful fragmentation that puts a spanner in the works, for example in the form of agitated, abrupt chords. It is this duality that turns out in the fifth movement to be descriptive of the whole quartet - and thus also demonstrates why this particular quartet is so close to Ole Schmidt's heart.
The Piano Quartet from 1956 also bears the title Divertimento and there is a generally teasing tone in the two movements of which the quartet consists. The first movement with the tempo marking Tempo di adagio is written as a march in the Shostakovich vein; but a march on the spot full of irony and ambiguities. The tonal idiom is typified by scales with augmented intervals and small rhythmic shifts that make the music stumble, although the mood is merry and forward-looking. A characteristic motif - built up around a small turning figure - recurs several times, but in the larger perspective this first movement develops through a sonata form, with a clear recapitulation that leads into a subtle ending, as ambivalent as the whole movement.
The second movement is more concrete and purposive. Again the piano begins - this time with a clear, appealing motif later elaborated by the strings. Diversion - entertainment - still takes pride of place, although the musical treatment of the subjects is more serious than in the first movement. Like much of Ole Schmidt's music - not least the string quartets - this piano quartet is firmly rooted in the major--minor harmonic system - except that the system doesn't fit together properly - here the composer demonstrates his unusual ability to create a musical idiom that is at once familiar and alien.
It is as if the music is screwed together wrong, and this is exactly what gives it its diverting character - a hallmark of Ole Schmidt's music, which does not take itself too seriously. He wrote it with a twinkle in his eye, mixing tradition and experiment (as well as inspiration from jazz), so that it welcomes both the musician and the listener. Communication around music has always been an important side of Ole Schmidt's work.
Steen Chr. Steensen, 2003