Ein Lied geht um die Welt originally was to have been titled Der Sänger des Volkes (The People’s Singer), but the censors balked because Schmidt was a Jew. But popular he and his films were and this one, his fourth (out of a total of seven), was the most so. The press wrote that “the voice of Joseph Schmidt is recorded in its full clarity and natural warmth” and that the audience was “delirious” at the premiere, on May 9, 1933. Then and there, at the crowd’s insistence, he performed songs from the film. Even Goebbels applauded enthusiastically–he reportedly said he was going to have him declared an honorary Aryan. The film is noteworthy for, among other things, Schmidt’s sensitive portrayal of a man consumed by love. In the Buzzi Peccia song “Mal d’amore” his shadings and, especially, his rubatos are so subtly graduated that one has to listen again and again to fathom them. (I’ve watched this segment of the film about 40 times.)
In general, Schmidt’s virtues are tonal beauty, accuracy of intonation, plasticity of rhythm, seamlessness of legato, ease of emission and brilliance of trills and other coloratura. His high Cs and Ds come easily, without his having to resort to “covering” the tone. Critics at the time sometimes claimed his voice was small, the middle and bottom weak. More like a Björling than a Gigli, Schmidt, I think, is inclined to be monochrome; however, this is not true of his “Mal d’amore.”
Had Schmidt had his way Ein Lied geht um die Welt would not have been made, at least as it stands. He had objected to the plot, which revolves around his short stature (in reality, five feet), but the director, Richard Oswald, convinced him to go ahead.
Throughout Schmidt’s career his height was a discussion topic. When he sang in this country, in 1937, he was billed as “The Tiny Man with the Great Voice” as well as “The Pocket Caruso.”
The part of the film that deals with Schmidt’s radio career also is based on his life: When he came to audition for Berlin radio, in 1929, they looked with amusement at this “midget” and asked what he wished to sing. “Whatever you want,” he replied. The pianist plunged in with “Di quella pira”–and Schmidt obliged. Jadlowker (whom he admired) had become too expensive for a radio Idomeneo. Schmidt sightread the principal aria, “Fuor del mar.” The result: his radio debut as Vasco da Gama, in L’Africaine.
Prior to April 1, 1933, when Hitler prohibited Jews from appearing on the radio, Schmidt broadcast nearly every week, including 42 remarkably disparate operas: La Muette de Portici, Robert le diable, Guillaume Tell, Louise, Idomeneo, Dinorah, Dom Sébastien, Il trovatore, Jean de Paris (Boïeldieu), I vespri siciliani, Benvenuto Cellini, Bánk Bán (Erkel), Don Carlos, La fanciulla del West, I masnadieri, Salome (in which he sang Narraboth), Le Postillon de Longjumeau, I due Foscari, Mefistofele, Boris Godunov, Semiramide, Euryanthe, L’elisir d’amore, Un ballo in maschera, Der Barbier von Bagdad and others; all were sung in German. Later, on Vienna radio he performed Il barbiere di Siviglia and I puritani, again in German.
As in the film, his real-life ambition was to sing opera onstage, a goal he reached only in 1939-40 when he performed La bohème 24 times, in Brussels and on tour in Belgium and Holland. (He did not, as is widely believed, appear in La Juive.)
Fleeing the Nazis, Schmidt went to what soon became Vichy France. In 1942 he entered Switzerland illegally and was interned in a labor camp where he died of heart failure, at age 38. His complaints of chest pains had been ignored. “They take me for a malingerer,” he had said. An hour before his death he was singing.–Stefan Zucker