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To hear Joseph Schmidt's singing today, on any of the 80-plus songs and arias that he left behind to posterity, is to encounter one of the most glorious and tragic stories in the annals of music. Schmidt, one of the most celebrated tenors of the 1920s and 1930s, once dubbed "the Jewish Caruso," captivated audiences in Germany and throughout Europe with his singing for a decade — he was unable to appear on the operatic stage, however, as a result of his diminutive stature, not even five feet in height (he was called "the pocket Caruso" on one American tour). Worse still, from the standpoint of pure survival, Schmidt had the misfortune to be a German national in the era of the Nazis' rise to power, and although he was able to appear in recitals with his friend and colleague Richard Tauber, it was impossible for Schmidt to pursue a life or career in Germany. He fled across Europe, through Belgium and then to France and finally to Switzerland, where his health began to fail, and Schmidt died in an internment camp, one of many victims of that "neutral" country's policies toward Jewish refugees.
Joseph Schmidt was one of three children of Wolf and Sarah Schmidt, living in a community that included Poles, Romanians, Ukrainians, Germans, and Gypsies in its ranks. He studied languages as a teenager living in Cernowitz, becoming fluent in Romanian, German, French, and Hebrew, and he sang in the local synogogue. It was there that his voice began to show serious promise, and as a teenager he sang operatic arias in addition to Jewish folk songs. He studied voice in Berlin, interrupted by three years of military service in the late 1920s, and upon his discharge, Schmidt began a career as a cantor in the synagogue in Cernowitz. His work there led to a performance in Berlin, which, in turn, led to an engagement to sing the role of Vasco de Gama in the opera L'Africaine by Meyerbeer in a broadcast performance on radio.
That broadcast led to an international career for Schmidt as record companies scrambled to sign this man, whom the opera-loving public desperately wanted to hear more of. He was signed briefly to Telefunken's predecessor, Ultraphone, and HMV, but for most of his career, Schmidt recorded for the Odeon and Parlophone labels (both, like HMV, owned by EMI). By 1931, amid an ever-growing list of singing engagements, Schmidt began his movie career with Der Liebesexpress, in which he had a supporting part as a singing bartender. He made a handful of additional films in which he played starring roles, and which were released in English-language versions, all of them successful.
Schmidt had major audiences in England and America, as well as the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and much of the rest of Europe and South America, but his greatest renown was in Germany. The sad irony was that he was massively popular in the country whose political system would put him in the greatest jeopardy conceivable. Schmidt tried to ride out the ban on Jewish performers imposed after the election of the Hitler regime, and with help from people like Richard Tauber, he did get to perform on occasion, although films were now a thing of the past. He left Germany in 1937 for an extended tour of the United States, where he performed in concert with such legends as Metropolitan Opera star Maria Jeritza, movie/concert legend Grace Moore, and Erna Sack.
He returned to Europe, taking up residence in Belgium and then the Netherlands, where he was nearly as popular as he had been in Germany, and toured the countries where it was still possible for him to perform. He missed his chance to escape Belgium for America by a matter of days, and took refuge in Switzerland. Without proper documentation, however, he was eventually forced into an internment camp for Jewish refugees in Gyrenbad, where conditions were just short of brutal. The news of his failing health caused worldwide appeals on his behalf, but in the midst of the turmoil of a full-blown, multi-front world war, these were too little, too late — amid military campaigns on a dozen fronts, the time had passed when cultural forces could intercede effectively on behalf of one man, however beloved he was by the musical world. Schmidt died in the camp and was buried in a Jewish cemetery near Zurich.
Joseph Schmidt had one of the most powerful tenor voices ever recorded. To hear him, even as recorded in the 1930s, is to hear one of the most transcendent voices of the century. Had he lived a decade longer, he would have been a natural for the recording studio, singing all of the great lyric tenor roles of Italian, French, and German opera and operetta on late 78 rpm discs and early LP records; had he lived a normal life-span, into his 60s, his voice would have challenged all rivals right up through the advent of Luciano Pavarotti's career in the 1960s. And had he been of sufficient physical stature, he would have owned all of those same roles as surely as Caruso did at the turn of the century and Pavarotti did in the 1960s and 1970s. As it is, we have his records, made principally for EMI between 1929 and 1937, which still generate overpowering beauty.