In 2012, Tõnu Kaljuste, famous Estonian conductor and director of the Nargen Festival, commissioned the English composer-writer-performer Dominy Clements, residing in The Hague, to compose a one-act play about the Estonian optician and inventor Bernhard Schmidt, who was born in 1879 on the island of Naissaar (Nargen) off the coast of Tallinn and grew up there. Bernhard Schmidt was the inventor of the famous Schmidt camera (also called Schmidt telescope) which is still used in astronomy today.
At the premiere in 2013 the soloists Endrik Üksvärav (tenor) and Maria Valdmaa (soprano), the Nargen Opera Choir and the Dutch ensemble Fluitoctet BlowUp! were involved in the opera. Costume designer was Reet Aus. Directing and setting were in the hands of Giuseppe Frigeni.
The life story of Bernhard Schmidt
As a 15-year-old Bernhard Schmidt experiments with gunpowder, losing two fingers. However, the local doctor amputates his entire hand. Despite this, Schmidt continues to experiment, now with lenses and photography. While studying at the technical universities of Gothenburg and Mittweida (Saxony), Schmidt began to specialise in mirrors for telescopes, first for amateur astronomers, later for professional researchers.
Based in Germany, his fame grows rapidly and he receives important assignments to sharpen lenses and mirrors for, among others, the astrophysical observatory in Potsdam. He also takes spectacular photographs of the sun, moon, planets, and other galaxies.
Between 1904 and 1914 Schmidt is a wealthy man who owns a car – a rare luxury in this day and age – and allows himself to be driven by a driver. With the outbreak of World War I, however, his life changed drastically. As an official citizen of Russia (to which Estonia belonged) he is now considered an enemy of Germany and was arrested. Even after his release from the prison camp he remains under police control and his business is curtailed. After the war and as a result of the high inflation that caused the German economy to collapse, Schmidt went bankrupt in the mid-twenties. He returns to his homeland Estonia – now an independent republic – and tries to set up a new company with one of his patented inventions, a counter wind propeller boat. When this fails, he returns to Germany and joins the Hamburg Observatory.
There, in 1930, he made his greatest invention: the so-called Schmidt camera with the Schmidt correction plate, also named after him. This invention caused a sensation in the world of astronomy. However, the depression of the 1930s prevented principals from putting the invention into practice, something which ultimately drove Bernhard Schmidt to mental despair. On December 1, 1935, he dies of an acute brain disorder. Shortly before that he had been in Leiden on business. The Schmidt camera is used internationally in astronomical research after the Second World War. In 2009 another satellite was launched, equipped with a Schmidt camera.
Dominy Clements talks about his libretto and opera An Enlightened Disciple of Darkness (2011-13): In 2009 I met Tõnu Kaljuste, to whom I told that as a flautist I had specialized in playing the sub-contrabass flute and played with other ‘low’ flutists. His reaction was surprising: ‘new sound!
An invitation to his Nargen Festival 2011 followed. On the programme was my composition for choir and flute orchestra, which Kaljuste apparently appealed to, because after that he suggested that I write a chamber opera for small ensemble about the life of Bernhard Schmidt. He wanted to bring this exceptional inventor and his birthplace, the Estonian island off the coast of Tallinn, Naissaar, back to the attention of the audience. There was no libretto yet, so I began to delve into Bernhard Schmidt’s life. In the end it was the easiest solution to write the whole work myself, both the libretto and the music.
Bernhard Schmidt was a brilliant and idiosyncratic figure who, partly due to the distrust of the society around him, solved all the problems himself; from making the equipment that could be operated with one hand, to sharpening lenses and mirrors himself in the finest detail and sharpness. He found machines ‘stupid’; he relied more on the feeling of his one hand to remove the smallest irregularities from the glass. Unfortunately, recognition for his most important invention, the Schmidt camera, only came after his death. Many old photographs have been preserved that Schmidt himself made of the universe, including images of his working drawings and, of course, of his own work.
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Other work by Dominy Clements performed by the Nederlands Fluitorkest