A small man's big voice reaches across the years Singer: In a short career, Joseph Schmidt achieved acclaim on the Continent and in the United States.

September 14, 1997|By HANS KNIGHT

A grave in Zurich, Switzerland, holds the remains of a very small man. Perhaps someone places fresh flowers on the grave once in a while, perhaps not. I hope someone does. For, once upon time, that tiny body poured forth some of the loveliest sounds heard in this fading century.

In a country blessed with floral abundance, the flowers would not cost much, and they would signify a whisper of respect. Maybe even of contrition.

The man's name was Joseph Schmidt. His career lasted a mere decade, but in the late 1920s and early 1930s his fame in the music world equaled that of his rival, Beniamino Gigli.

I never heard Schmidt in person, but I played his songs in my father's record store near Vienna. Every evening, a crowd of unemployed people would gather around the store to listen to the impromptu request concerts over the loudspeaker, and they never seemed to get enough of Joseph Schmidt. He had a way with a song - opera arias and pop ballads - that defied prosaic description. Typically, the voice began with a soft, lilting tone, a faint echo from a dream. Gradually, it would swell until, finally, it would explode in a fiery shower of mountain-high notes. It was filled with youthful passion and wistful longing. It came from the heart to the heart.

Schmidt was born in 1904 in the Romanian town of Davidende. As a child, he sang along with a synagogue choir. In his teens, he wanted to be a cantor. But his uncle, Leo Engel, sensing wider horizons, scraped together enough money to send the frail youngster to Vienna for thorough vocal study.

From the Austrian capital, he moved to Berlin. On April 18, 1928, Schmidt summoned up enough nerve to beg for an operatic audition. In a scene resembling a schmaltzy Hollywood movie, a busy music director looked at the diminutive 24-year-old interloper with frosty condescension.

"Just what do you want from us?" he snapped. Hoarse with fright, Schmidt stammered that he was hoping to become an opera singer. The director barely suppressed a dismissive laugh - there was something touchingly suppliant in the young man's dark eyes. "All right, then," the director said, winking at the waiting pianist. "One song."

So, Schmidt sang the cascading tenor aria from "Le Postillon de Longjumeau." The rest, as they say, was musical history.

Radio studios clamored for his performances. After his operatic debut in a Berlin radio production of "Mozart Idomeneo" in 1931 (he was a last-moment replacement for an indisposed tenor and sang the part straight from the score), his career soared to world renown. He toured the Continent to ecstatic acclaim and also made several films. In 1935, he made his first appearance before an American radio audience. Two years later, he sang in New York's Carnegie Hall.

However, he never fulfilled his life's greatest dream - to sing on any operatic stage. His short stature denied him the chance.

Fate held a greater tragedy. Late in 1932, he had sung sacred Handel arias in Berlin's great Peace Synagogue. Soon after, Adolf Hitler came to power. Schmidt had to flee the country that had once hailed him as the "German Caruso."

Eventually, he wound up in the United States. Why he did not seek permanent asylum here remains something of a mystery. Probably his life was too deeply rooted in his native Europe. A year after his Carnegie Hall performance, he returned to the Continent. It was a disastrous move. In 1940, he barely managed to escape Nazi-occupied Belgium. His health weakened from his odyssey, he made his way through France to Switzerland. In that peaceful country, he would be safe.

He was mistaken. Instead of welcoming him as a cultural treasure, the fastidiously "neutral" Swiss officials determined that had crossed the border without the proper papers. They put him in an internment camp. Icy winds blew through the barracks. Uncomplaining, he tried to cheer his fellow internees with the songs the world had loved. But his tribulations - the flight, the anguish - had proved too much for his frail body.

Stricken with a heart attack, Schmidt died in November 1942, precisely 11 years after his debut in "Mozart Idomeneo." He was 38.

Schmidt was buried with little ceremony. The news of his death caused hardly a ripple. There were too many others to mourn at the time.

His gravestone bears the inscription, "A Star Falls." It was the title of one of his films, and it seemed to fit.

Hans Knight, a former reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin, spent his early youth in Vienna, Austria. He lives in Media, Pa.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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