Like Paderewski, Gabrilowitsch, Schnabel, and Isabella Vengerova, Franz Schmidt became a piano pupil of Theodor Leschetizky at the Vienna Conservatorium in 1890, where he studied composition with Bruckner, theory with Robert Fuchs, and cello with Ferdinand Hellmesberger. Born to a German father and Slovak mother in what was then Hungary, he was declared a "musical miracle child" by a priest with whom he took organ lessons in Pressburg (Bratislava today). This encouraged his poor but hopeful parents to move to Vienna in 1888, but chronic privation forced Schmidt to play in dancehall orchestras after graduation until he was chosen in 1896 by conductor Wilhelm Jahn to be a cellist in the Vienna Hofoper Orchestra, and the Philharmoniker drawn from its ranks.
A year later, Mahler succeeded the pedestrian Jahn as artistic director and proceeded to revolutionize performance and production standards for a decade, although his Philharmonic tenure was considerably shorter. Schmidt regarded him favorably at first, but animosity developed and persisted even after Mahler's "resignation" from the Hofoper in 1907. From 1901 to 1908, Schmidt taught piano and cello at the Conservatorium in addition to his duties in the opera house. He resigned the Philharmoniker in 1911, but continued to play with the opera until 1914, when the Staatsakademie appointed him professor of piano. He became professor of counterpoint and composition in 1922, director in 1925, and head of the Musikhochschule from 1927 to 1931. His service earned him the Franz-Josef Medal and for his 60th birthday, an honorary doctorate from Vienna University. Before his retirement in 1937, his most famous pupils included pianists Friedrich Wührer and Alfred Rosé (Mahler's nephew), and composers Theodor Berger and Alfred Uhl.
Schmidt was also respected by his peers, Schreker, Marx, Krenek, and Berg, for his soloist and chamber music performances. Schoenberg particularly admired him for directing Pierrot Lunaire in a performance by Schmidt's students.
Although Schmidt's financial and professional fortunes stabilized, his marriages were ill-omened. His first wife went insane, was institutionalized in 1919, and was murdered by the Nazis in 1940. Their only child, Emma, died after the birth of Schmidt's grandchild (he called his Symphony No. 4, composed in 1933, "a Requiem for my daughter"). A second marriage to a much younger piano pupil was plagued by Schmidt's ill-health, which worsened progressively until his death.
His mature career as a composer began with Symphony No. 1 (started in 1896, completed in 1899). The opera Notre Dame followed (1902-1904), then three more symphonies and another opera, Fredigundis. Most of his piano works were composed for Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in WWI. (Posthumously, Wührer arranged everything for two hands and as such, they were published.) Schmidt also wrote chamber music, Variations on a Hussar's Song for orchestra, and much organ music. However, The Book With Seven Seals (1935-1937), an oratorio, is regarded by admirers as his masterwork, more important even than the symphonies.
After the deaths of Berg and Schreker, and the flight of Schoenberg and Zemlinsky to the U.S., Schmidt was proclaimed Austria's "most important composer of the time." He continues to be honored as the Romantic successor of Schubert and Bruckner, although his music bears a didactic resemblance to Max Reger's. Elsewhere, his music remained little-known until CD recordings in the 1990s documented several important works for non-Austrian audiences to hear.