Helmut Schmidt stuck to the ivory whites

ByQuyen Anne

Nov 29, 2023

Condolences on his death have been pouring in worldwide, also from the music world. Even as Chancellor, Schmidt took time for daily piano practice – and he participated in two respectable recordings.

“From Johann Sebastian Bach comes the apt statement that music is for the recreation of the soul. And that’s how it’s always been with me.”

Never prone to self-pity, Helmut Schmidt did make one very personal statement at age 90: “It is of great pain to me in my old age that, after the loss of my hearing, I can no longer hear music.” Instead, he heard only noise. Despite this severe reduction in his quality of life, the former chancellor would sit at the piano twice or three times a week – to remember, and to relax.

The Chancellor at the third keyboard

Although Helmut Schmidt will not go down in music history, recordings document a pianist of notable ability. In 1981, in the late part of his tenure, the Chancellor took a call from London. It was his friend, Justus Frantz, musical professional and fellow northern German. Franz had wanted to record Mozart’s Triple Concerto with another pianist, Christoph Eschenbach. The third party, tenor Placido Domingo, had cancelled; could Schmidt come to the Abbey Road studio and step in? “Yes, but am I up to it?” Schmidt asked, astonished. “Sure you are. It’ll be great,” came the reply. After some practice, the Chancellor was game and reported for duty in London.

Helmut Schmidt as Pianist At the Tonhalle in Zurich, 1983. Copyright: dpa - Report
At the Tonhalle in Zurich, 1983Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It was a solid performance. Schmidt described himself as a “mediocre talent.” Mozart had originally intended the third solo part to be played by an amateur, Duchess Lodron, so he kept it simple.

But listening, one would never come to the conclusion that a head of government sits at the keyboard. Cultivated and nonchalant, the rendition may lack artistic vision – but that would have been out of character anyway, coming from a man who once quipped, “If a man has a vision, he should make an appointment with the doctor.”

From cabinet meetings to Bach fugues

In an interview with North German Broadcasting after the death of the onetime statesman, Franz described him as “highly gifted” and recalled that portraits of two composers, Bach und Gershwin, adorned his grand piano at home.

Schmidt was a passionate pianist. Supposedly a head of government would only find time to plunk out a few notes now and then. Wrong, says Frantz: “As Chancellor he practiced a lot, maybe more than at any other time. He would say to me: ‘It was a day with a thousand discussions and as many people,’ depleting his strength – and afterwards, he needed music. And he stuck to it. Even if he got home at 1:00 a.m., he’d sit down at the piano for an hour and play Bach fugues. And then he’d say, ‘So, now I’m in back in touch with myself. I can work well again tomorrow.”

Leonard Bernstein with Helmut Schmidt and Justus Frantz, Copyright: picture-alliance, Cornelia Bisagno
With Justus Frantz (l.) and Leonard Bernstein (m.)Image: picture alliance / Cornelia Bisagno

Schmidt’s musical interests weren’t limited to classical. He adored jazz, swing and rock ‘n’ roll; Dave Brubeck and the Beatles were among his favorites. As Defense Minister in the Brandt administration, Schmidt founded the Bundeswehr (Federal Army) Big Band. Later, in the chancellery, he maintained close contact with the conductors Herbert von Karajan, Kurt Masur and Leonard Bernstein.

A lifelong passion for music and the arts

Born in a working class district in Hamburg, the politician-to-be took music lessons as a child; home was a place where music was played and sung.

As a young soldier, he was permitted on several occasions to visit an artists’ colony in Fischerhude. That “sole oasis in the Nazi era” points to his longtime interest in the pictorial arts as well. Schmidt’s own watercolors have been described as “talented work.”

The author of 30 books, he was a co-publisher of the newsweekly “Die Zeit” after leaving office. His lively mind also reached out to the thoughts of men of letters such as Immanuel Kant, Max Weber, Karl Popper and Mark Aurel.

Helmut Schmidt and his wife Loki in Lübeck , Copyright: picture alliance/dpa
His interest in the arts was shared by his wife of 68 years, LokiImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In 1985, Deutsche Grammophon released a recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto for four pianos and orchestra. The soloists: Christoph Eschenbach, Justus Frantz, Gerhard Oppitz – and, once again, Helmut Schmidt.

Keenly interested in Bach, Schmidt seems to have found a kindred spirit and a figure of identification in him: “Bach was certainly aware of his status. He was fully self-confident. Yet, with a certain humility, he found his place in the scheme of things. He didn’t desire to create something colossally new – yet his music was progressive in the sense that it points to the future.”

Then there is this passionate appeal from Schmidt’s pen: “It’s all about maintaining and continually creating living music culture anew. Let us insure that music is made and sung in our homes and schools, so that those who come after us can learn to find joy and pleasure in it.”

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