The man who was twice general music director in Leipzig
Spectacularly virtuosic conducting was anathema to his
introverted nature. His domain was the rostrum in the
orchestra pit. There the modest Schmitz was able to work
persistently and continuously with the Gewandhaus
Orchestra and the singers. He succeeded in making a
united ensemble of them and to root that ensemble spirit
firmly in the Leipzig Opera over two decades.
Born on April 16, 1898 in Hamburg, died on February 6, 1992 in Munich
Paul Schmitz’s family was involved in business.
He was taught composition by Ernst Toch, piano by Willy Rehberg, organ by Arno Landmann and conducting by Wilhelm Furtwängler. A post as rehearsal pianist in Kiel gave him his first chance to put the “tools of his trade” to practical use.
“Journeyman years” followed in which he even became a lieder accompanist in the USA. Back in Germany, Schmitz earned his keep as pianist in a popular dance orchestra for lack of anything better. In 1921 he was at last given his first firm job as conductor in Weimar for two years, after which he was second conductor at the Stuttgart Opera until 1927.
Schmitz’s decisive breakthrough came in 1927, when he was appointed principal conductor of the Munich Staatsoper, where he succeeded Bruno Walter, Hans Knappertsbusch and his immediate predecessor Karl Böhm.
Quite unexpectedly, he was then appointed general music director in Leipzig and music director of the Leipzig Opera
in 1933. Hans Schüler, the artistic director of the Leipzig Opera, and Carl Goerdeler, the mayor of Leipzig, both tried to have him additionally appointed conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, where he would have succeeded Bruno Walter, who as a Jew had had to flee the Nazis.
The appointment committee turned down that request on account of his youth and lack of experience as a concert conductor; they were however also concerned over the double burden of holding both offices, which Arthur Nikisch had complained about after serving in the dual function for a year in 1905.
Schmitz nevertheless did take over the direction of the Gewandhaus Chamber Orchestra (recordings
of which are also to be released in the Gewandhaus Orchestra Edition). Schmitz also organized
concerts at the Opera House and appeared as guest conductor at the Gewandhaus each season.
In the eighteen years of his first term of office in Leipzig, he increased the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s experience in opera to such an extent that Leipzig came to rank among Germany’s leading opera cities – not least because of singers like Margarete Bäumer, Irma Beilke, Friedrich (or Frederick) Dalberg and August Seider.
There were also world premieres in which the Leipzig Opera and Schmitz created sensations: Carl
Orff’s Catulli carmina has already been mentioned; there were also virtually forgotten operas
like Die pfiffige Magd by Julius Weismann, Die Windsbraut by Winfried Zillig, Schlaraffenhochzeit
by Siegfried Walther Müller and Die Nachtschwalbe by Boris Blacher (1948).
And Schmitz also committed himself to performing works that had been prohibited in the Third Reich. He thus became the first conductor to revive Hindemith‘s Cardillac, Tchaikovsky’s The Enchantress and
Eugene Onegin and Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Drei Linden provisional theatre in Leipzig-Lindenau.
His farewell to Leipzig in 1951 was difficult not only for him but also for the Gewandhaus Orchestra and his audience. The stage was lavishly decked with flowers in his honour. Renowned for its unity, the ensemble had begun to fall apart.
Celebrated singers fled the increasingly doctrinal arts policy and general narrow-mindedness of the GDR.
With a heavy heart, Schmitz took up the offer of a post in West Germany – ultimately for the sake of affording his two daughters a humanist education.
He succeeded Karl Elmendorff in Kassel, where as general music director and music director of
the Opera, he was able to conduct the symphony concerts as well. Soon after having received the Goethe Badge, he was pensioned off in 1963 because he had reached retirement age. Leipzig leapt at the opportunity to invite him back to the city.
He didn’t hesitate for a second and after fulfilling a guest contract, he was appointed general music director of the Leipzig Opera for the second time the following year. This time his home venue was the first new opera house built in the GDR.
Dedicated in 1960, the opera house stood on the site of the previous one in classicist style built by Carl Ferdinand Langhans, which had burnt down in a bombing raid in November 1943 – a painful experience for Schmitz.
A 1973 performance of Verdi’s La Traviata saw Schmitz directing “his” Gewandhaus Orchestra from the orchestra pit for the last time, in culmination of an artistically bountiful working life.
He still managed to rehearse Joachim Herz’s now legendary production of the Ring cycle with the ensemble. The directors however no longer trusted him to conduct; Paul Schmitz was too old.