Once upon a time (1850) the well-noted composer and music critic Robert Schumann in a now famous letter to the also famous violinist Joseph Joachim scribbled this about the soon-to-be-famous Johannes Brahms: “…I believe him (Brahms) to be the true Apostle, who will also write Revelations…” However, this premonition was not to be fulfilled by said Brahms but eventually that came to fore with Franz Schmidt’s (1874-1939) Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book of Seven Seals) oratorio. He composed this choral work in 1935-37 based on the last chapter of the Christian Bible New Testament’s The Revelation of Saint John the Divine, which is also the last book of the Bible as we know it now. Briefly, Schmidt had studied music theory and composition in Vienna with Anton Bruckner and his classical tonal influence permeates the whole of this lengthy composition with appropriate doses of Wagner-style chromatics. This oratorio is sung in German and was premiered in Vienna by the composer himself in 1938 after Austria had been annexed by you-know-who to Germany – the composer died shortly thereafter in 1939.
The oratorio is organized in three main parts, as follows: (1) “Prologue in heaven” (D1 – Tracks 1-8); (2) Part One (D1 – Tracks 9-16) and Part Two (D2 – Tracks 1–11). The “Prologue in heaven” has St. John as the narrator and principal soloist (tenor Johannes Chum) declaiming words of praise and devotion to the Christian God and to his son Jesus Christ the Redeemer. Part I begins with a brilliant fugal fantasy on the great organ which is based on the so-called Book theme (D1 – Track 5) and also serves as a prelude to the opening of the Book’s seven seals. The story begins in earnest here with the history of mankind and of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’s prophesies. Part II also begins with a brilliant organ solo softly in the beginning and after the exposition a full organ plenum arrives the tone of the work changes from a death-bed attitude to one of exultant invocation which reminds me of another work by Sir John Stainer (1840-1901) – The Crucifixion – technically the latter is not an oratorio but has the same attitude toward “sacred passion.”
Part II in general follows the narrative that begins in Chapter 12 of The Revelation and ends in Chapter 22, which is in fact the end of the Christian Bible’s New Testament. The end of the story comes after God speaks (the great bass-baritone Robert Holl) and proclaims to be both Alpha and Omega (The Revelation Chapter 22-13) and culminates after an exuberant Hallelujah chorus (D2 – Track 9) and the final declaration by St. John that all the “preceeding” was given to him by the prophets as a revelation. Finally the chorus sings Amen (which in Hebrew signifies “agreed” or “so be it”). These last three tracks are absolutely marvelous from the musical point of view – Schmidt’s scoring for a large orchestra, organ, soloists and chorus is superlative. With its sheer impact this last part has no equal among modern choral sacred music (remember this was 1937!) and it reminds me much of Wagner’s Parsifal for its tremendous acoustic and emotional impact. Kudos to Kristjan Järvi the conductor for the great control he exhibits throughout the whole work.
This oratorio is to my mind all about death and was Schmidt’s last composition; was he talking about his own impending death which came shortly after the premiere? Or, more likely, a prelude to the impending conflagration that World War II was and everybody knew was in the making?
The 5.0 hi-def surround provided by Chandos is brilliant, clear, transparent and almost in our faces with great visceral impact – especially on those sections where the organ sounds very distant (just a pp) to suddenly explode with incredible impact together with the orchestra’s brass and voices in beautifully-constructed chorales.
Final words: this is a work that grows as it develops and in the end we are much better musically. In itself it is a revelation…about an almost unknown composer. This piece is a must for those who are devoted to sacred choral music although it does not nearly have the impact and pathos we find in Mozart’s Requiem.
— John Nemaric