Music From the End of Time: Franz Schreker 1878-1934
In nearly every book on Vienna’s fin de siècle, the only composers dealt with in depth, are Mahler and Schoenberg. It is, however, only a partial representation of what music was expressing at the time. If fin de siècle is inevitably seen as the age when artists and intellectuals began unlocking doors to the cellars of human nature, then Mahler appears innovative but chaste, a relic of the more puritanical 19th century. The world of early Schoenberg offers a morbid nihilism that unsettles as well as seduces, presenting imageries of love and death that recalled Tristan while managing to anticipate the approaching century. As Schoenberg changed, his musical vision became more apocalyptic and moved into a wild expressiveness that could only be tamed with the imposition of 12-tone order following the catastrophe of the War.
Vienna’s artistic, intellectual and literary fin de siècle have been dealt with at length, but music has remained short-changed. The reason for this lacuna is down to the removal of its most central composer: Franz Schreker. Musically and intellectually, he more than his better known contemporaries, represented a synthesis of cultures, ideas, morals and sounds that grew out of a 19th century grown tired of repression, frustration and respectability. To understand this transition, it’s important to understand the turn of the century that preceded it.
(Der Wind, performed by members of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra)
1800 saw events that brought down an aristocratic and clerical hegemony. These events ushered in an age that the middle classes could call its own. It was a period of both liberalism and Liberalism, with the gradual extensions of civil rights and enfranchisement along with a promotion of industry, commerce and trade. Land was no longer de facto the sole source of enormous wealth. The business of manufacturing, buying, selling, exporting and importing left the landed aristocracy as relics of a superseded former age. They still held sway in government, the civil service and the military but were easily out-purchased by the newly enfranchised. With the great wealth of an expanding middle class came an artificial expectation of respectability and decorum, in the assumption that such attributes defined the newly created ‘moneyed nobility’ or ‘Geldadel’. Women remained hardly more than the chattel of men, sold and traded between wealthy families in imitation of the aristocracy. The Revolutions of 1830 and 1848 may have been the birth pangs of this emerging power-class, but it would not be until the final decades that prosperity, security, science and education would give the newly empowered bourgeoisie the confidence to question the very foundations on which their world was constructed.
That Vienna brought forth people such as Sigmund Freud, Arnold Schoenberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the notorious Otto Weininger would indicate that this questioning and dynamic middle class was uniquely Jewish. Why this was the case is another story, but Franz Schreker would represent a synthesis of all of these elements.
I began ‘Forbidden Music’ with the story of Franz Schreker’s father and it’s worth briefly repeating here. In 1874 Isak Schrecker, or in its original Czech, ‘Schrečker’, divorced his Jewish wife, converted to Protestantism and changed his name to Ignácz. Only in the previous five years had it been possible for Jews and non-Jews to intermarry in Austria-Hungary, and he placed an ad in the paper in the probable anticipation of finding a suitable, non-Jewish second wife. He was an established photographer in Budapest and held the royal seal with many wealthy and important clients. The ad resulted in his marriage to the penniless but aristocratic Eleonore von Clossmann, the god-daughter of Princess Windisch-Graetz.
Eleonore was related to the bluest of blue-blooded families in Central Europe. Franz, their son, would thus be a physical synthesis of this new, freer yet questioning age. His first cousin Wilhelm Pickl von Witkenberg would compile something called ‘The Semigotha’, initially meant as a ‘celebration’ of Jewish social achievement, but eventually becoming a notorious Nazi reference to Europe’s aristocratic families inter-married with Jews.
Despite the success of Ignácz, (Franz was born while his parents were in Monaco), his death in 1888 left the family destitute and Eleonore moved to Vienna’s Döbling suburb where she worked as a seamstress until she acquired a small general goods shop. Her son Franz, the eldest of four children, was clearly bright, gifted and precocious. Not only was he showing early signs of musical talent, but he was progressing as a writer with a vivid dramatic imagination. To earn additional income, he tutored other children in reading, writing and mathematics, while playing organ at the local parish church. His studies at the conservatory were paid for by Princess Windisch-Graetz and he graduated as a violinist having completed his diploma under Arnold Rosé. More interesting than his studies with Rosé were his composition and music theory lessons with Robert Fuchs, the teacher of Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Alexander Zemlinsky, Franz Schmidt and Jean Sibelius. He later admitted, that with his first public compositions, he swam happily in ‘Brahmsian waters‘, thus escaping the barbs of the reactionary Neue freie Presse critic Eduard Hanslick.
(Early ‘Brahmsian’ Schreker choral work: ‘Schwanensang’)
The first public performance of Schreker, was in 1901, his choral setting of the 116th Psalm, conducted by Ferdinand Löwe. An early opera Flammen with a libretto by his friend Dora Pollak who wrote under the name of Dora Leen was reasonably well received at its piano and voice premiere in 1902.
Schreker (having dropped the ‘c/č presumably to avoid being called ‘Mr Frightful’, the German meaning of ‘Schrecker’) was moving in Döbling’s finest circles – indeed, this is where he met Dora Leen, and was a frequent guest at the salons of the home of Josephine von Wertheimstein and her daughter Franziska. The focus of these salons was the naturalist writer Ferdinand von Saar who became Schreker’s literary mentor.
Given Schreker’s aesthetic closeness to composers such as Alexander Zemlinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Karl Weigl and admiration for Mahler, it’s surprising that he was not part of their Association of Creative Musicians (Vereinigung Schaffender Tonkünstler). Schreker’s biographer Christopher Hailey, speculates that this was because Schreker moved in the Wertheimstein circles of suburban Vienna and not in those of the inner-city cafés. Also taking part in the various Döbling salons was an attractive, albeit married woman named Grete Jonasz. There was undoubtedly mutual infatuation, though whether there was more, must remain speculation. Certainly, genuine closeness is documented by often intimate correspondence. In one telling letter, Schreker, who was raised a Catholic, defends himself against a charge of anti-Semitism levelled by Jonasz. He goes on to write that his own father was Jewish. Jonasz would latterly remarry and be mother to the Austro-British music theorist, commentator and writer, Hans Keller. Coincidentally, the soprano role in Der ferne Klang is also named Grete. It was a work he most likely started as early as 1903 or 1904 and based on a self-penned, semi-autobiographical libretto.
Schreker began to make a name for himself in Vienna, first by working at the Volksoper then by founding the Philharmonic Choir, an ensemble that would become an important participant in Vienna’s Modernist movement. Together with the orchestra Tonkünstlerverein (one of forerunners of the Vienna Symphony), he conducted the premieres of Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erde and Gurrelieder; Zemlinsky’s 23rd Psalm along with the Austrian premiere of Delius’s Mass for Life, as well as historic performances of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and Das klagende Lied.
Schreker’s first important compositional success came with Vienna’s 1908 ‘Kunstschau’ (‘Art Show’), something that today might be referred to as a ‘Modernist happening’ with a large pavilion standing where later Vienna’s Konzerthaus would be built. The Kunstschau was organised by Klimt and a circle of artists and artisans who had recently broken away from the Secessionists, a movement paradoxically founded by Klimt and fellow artists in the salon of Berta Zuckerkandl in 1897. It was part of the alternative programme taking place around the official events surrounding the celebrations of Franz Joseph’s 60th year reign.
Part of the Kunstschau ‘happening’ was a pantomime of Oscar Wilde’s The Birthday of the Infanta by the Isadora Duncan inspired ‘Expressive’ dancers, the Wiesenthal sisters. In fact, it would be the beginning of a fruitful Wiesenthal association with a number of works such as Festwaltzer as well as der Wind offered above.
(opening of Schreker’s ‘Geburtstag der Infantin’ scored for chamber orchestra)
The success landed Schreker a publishing contract with Universal Editions, who acquired Der Geburtstag der Infantin, the Five Songs of 1909, as well as a number of earlier works published elsewhere.
(Valse Lente Lucerne Festival Orchestra, conducted by John Axelrod)
When in 1909 Schreker’s colleague Oskar Nedbal performed the orchestral interlude Night Music from his still unfinished opera Der ferne Klang, it caused one of Vienna’s many musical scandals, denounced and praised in equal measure as something never heard before.
With encouragement from Bruno Walter (the dedicatee of the work), Felix Weingartner the music director of the Imperial Opera in Vienna agreed to take on the premiere of Der ferne Klang. Weingartner’s sudden departure from Vienna in 1911 left the work’s fate in question until UE managed to secure its premiere in Frankfurt. The piano vocal score was completed by Alban Berg. Hans Gregor, Weingartner’s successor, having lost Der ferne Klang to another theatre backtracked and commissioned Schreker’s other work in progress Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin, or the Carillion and the Princess.
Der ferne Klang stands out for a number of reasons. One was its location in the here and now – something it had in common with Charpentier’s Louise, an opera Schreker would have seen in Vienna in 1903. With his use of popular dance music of the day, however, he anticipated the trend of ‘Zeitopern’ or contemporary operas, a genre that his future composition pupils would more or less make their own. In the Venetian bordello act, Schreker creates a dizzying kaleidoscope of ensembles playing from different perspectives at the same time, creating an effect that is at once cinematic and even reminiscent of Charles Ives.
(the opening of the second act of der ferne Klang with its kaleidoscopic mix of perspectives and rhythms)
At this time, it’s important to realise that ‘Modernism’ had only just started to loosen itself from the coherency offered by the safe harbours of tonality and the strictly representational. ‘Modern’ at the time was seen as an uncomfortable and challenging confrontation with often grim reality. In Italian verismo, the ignorance and dirt of village life had already established itself in drama, literature and music. The trend had yet to reach German speaking Europe where opera was still mythical, metaphorical or placed in the romance of the Renaissance. Der ferne Klang introduced the opera public to itself, and its hypocrisy, its double standards and the artifice it took to be true art. In the end, Fritz, the idealistic and ambitious composer discovers that the distant sound he was searching for, was ultimately found in his love for Grete, a young village girl he rejected and who ended first as a glamorous courtesan then a pitiful street-walker, fainting just outside the theatre where Fritz’s latest opera is being premiered. She’s brought into Fritz’s dressing room later where upon he recognises the origin of the ‘distant sound’, and dies in her arms. This galvanising sense of contemporaneousness had not been seen or heard on any opera stage since La Traviata.
There were of course other ‘contemporary’ operas such as Madama Butterfly, and even Eugene D’Albert with Tiefland offered a version of German versimo. Yet Schrker’s approach was unique. The libretto was original and not based on either a popular novel or play. His musical language was a heterogeneous mix of contemporary Viennese with French Impressionism, often culminating in intoxicating Wagnerian climaxes. His keenly sensitive ear was able to create different moods using harmonic colour and orchestration as none but Richard Strauss before. The end of the first act, a scene for soprano alone in the forest at night is an example of this mixture of delicacy and ecstatic delirium.
(The Forest Scene, end of Act I of ‘Der ferne Klang’)
The success of Der ferne Klang exceeded the expectations of both composer and publisher. UE felt a clear obligation to Frankfurt for Schreker’s next opera Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin, whereas Hans Gregor, under pressure from Richard Strauss no less, felt he had fumbled badly with Der ferne Klang and wished to make amends with a full-scale premiere in Vienna. The decision was for a joint Frankfurt and Vienna premiere on March 15th, 1913. Again, Schreker wrote his own libretto which recalled Gerhard Hauptmann’s play Und Pippa tanzt , (And Pippa Dances). Indeed, Julius Korngold, the successor of Hanslick at the Neue freie Presse, and thus the most powerful critic in Vienna, could hardly contain his schadenfreude in uncovering the Hauptmann play as the basis for Schreker’s opera. In truth, the stories are quite different, but both deal with the eternal conflict of young love under assault from unhappy circumstance and ending in a kind of redemptive annihilation. The work is heavily influenced by Symbolists writers such as Maeterlinck and indeed Hauptmann and was quite far from the contemporary drama of Der ferne Klang.
The work was politely received in Frankfurt, while mercilessly savaged in Vienna. The story was seen as too obscure, dangerously French in feel with the narrative reduced to symbolist sign-posting and little development of character. Even his most vociferous critics had grudgingly to admit that Schreker was a master orchestrator, a magician in creating aural effects and conjuring moods. Despite the weakness of the subject, the music was evocative and received support from Ethel Smythe and Karol Szymanowski, and even a certain grudging admiration from Alban Berg.
In 1908, Schreker met the beautiful and talented conservatory student Maria Binder. They married the following year on Maria’s seventeenth birthday. Schreker was nearly twice her age, but her beauty, wit and intelligence captivated everyone. Peter Altenberg wrote to Schreker that he found her ‘an other-worldly countenance’ and though not as socially prominent as Vienna’s many salonnière, together they were seen as an attractive and glamorous couple – especially once they moved to Vienna’s more central fifth district.
There are few indications of Franz’s infidelity during the marriage, though Maria would later go on to have affairs with women – a situation that must surely have coloured Schreker’s representation of female sexuality in his subsequent works, and may also explain Altenberg’s impression of ‘otherworldliness’. One affair that spectacularly did take place was between Franz and Alma Mahler only a year after Gustav’s death and two years into his marriage with Maria. Franz’s infatuation overwhelmed any sense of decorum or even the most fundamental consideration to his young and no doubt sexually inexperienced wife. His passion for Alma was sufficiently unhinged to change the dedication of Das Spielwerk from Maria to Alma though by the time of the work’s completion, Alma had moved to the greener pastures offered by the artist Oskar Kokoschka, seven years her junior. Everyone agreed that the dedication had to go. It went – but not until a subsequent print-run was requested.
Das Spielwerk ran for only three performances in Frankfurt and five in Vienna. Schreker would revise the work in 1920 as a one-act opera for Bruno Walter in Munich. The Viennese critics were particularly harsh and in Julius Korngold’s summing up, one encounters all of the characteristics of Schreker’s style that make him uniquely representative of his time and place. The focus on colour (‘chord-bending’ according to Julius), with musical momentum coming from harmony rather than melody – all were musical attributes that Julius Korngold despised. It can also be assumed that there were other unspoken ‘agendas’ lurking in the background. The most obvious was the effect Schreker’s sound-world might have on his son Erich. It had taken a huge amount of trust on Julius’s part to follow Mahler’s advice and entrust Erich’s musical education to Alexander Zemlinsky, who was close to both Schreker and Schoenberg.
The other prong of Julius’s attack lay in his blind devotion to Mahler and his inability to accept any of the Imperial Opera’s subsequent directorships. Mahler had agreed to Zemlinsky’s opera Traumgörge for the season following his departure. Weingartner cancelled it. Weingartner agreed to the Vienna premiere of Schreker’s Der ferne Klang only for Gregor to cancel. As far as Julius was concerned, everyone who followed Mahler was not just a disaster, but an affront. All of them, including Richard Strauss from 1919, would fall victim to his ceaseless press campaigns and effectively be run out of town. Given the intimacy of Vienna and the incestuousness of its circles, Julius was probably aware of the affair between Schreker and Alma. Schreker, who had only just been appointed as ‘Tonsatz’ (harmony, counterpoint, composition) professor at Vienna’s Music Academy the previous year, began to despair of any future in Austria. Korngold was only one voice of dissent, but as principal critic for the powerful Neue freie Presse, he was the most influential music journalist in Austria-Hungary.
Schreker’s Chamber Symphony from 1916 composed for faculty members of Vienna’s Music Academy demonstrates how adept Schreker was at achieving moods and colours with reduced forces. Such sensitivity to orchestral texture must have been admired by the young Korngold, who was inclined to thicken harmonies and over-orchestrate. 15 year-old Erich Korngold had already shown how capable he was of ignoring his father and dedicated his Sinfonietta to Weingartner, despite the stream of attacks in the Neue freie Presse. In his memoirs, Julius suspects that Weingartner’s support for Erich was merely an ingratiating ploy to get around Erich’s powerful journalist father.
Schreker was also an assiduous writer of opera libretti, a number of which were never set, though subsequently published separately in several volumes by UE. In this spirit, Zemlinsky approached Schreker in 1911 for a libretto that expanded on a popular theme circulating around Vienna’s salon discourses at the time, a subject that Zemlinsky through his own unsuccessful affair with Alma, had come to experience first-hand: masculine ugliness in the face of feminine beauty. Schreker’s treatment focused on inner beauty versus outer deformity contrasting against outer beauty suppressing its animal sexual drive. Schreker took up the project with gusto only for the results to be so persuasive, that he wrote to Zemlinsky begging to set the libretto himself and asking forgiveness in not passing it on. Paradoxically, Zemlinsky’s opera Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), from 1921 went on to deal with the subject of ugliness and beauty using the same material as Schreker in his 1908 pantomime adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Birthday of the Infanta.
Thus was born Die Gezeichneten or The Branded, Schreker’s most opulent and erotic work. It tells the story of Alviano a wealthy nobleman of Renaissance Genoa and his debauched aristocratic friends who abduct young brides and bring them to a grotto on an island ‘Elysium’ where they’re kept as sex slaves. Alviano condemns this behaviour, not least because he’s so physically deformed that even the cheapest, ugliest and most desperate prostitute is unwilling to go with him. He resolves to give the ‘Elysium’ to the citizens of Genoa. Upon the official presentation, he meets and falls in love with the mayor’s daughter Carlotta, a painter who gives every appearance of being able to look beyond his physical deformities into the purity of his soul. Alviano believes that at last he has found happiness and the two resolve to marry. On the night of the wedding, with all of Genoa invited to the Elysium, Carlotta disappears only to be discovered by Alviano being ravished by the handsome Tamaro, one of Alviano’s aristocratic friends. She is enraptured to the point of death. Alviano murders Tamaro, before descending into insanity. The overture was published in 1914 under the title Vorspiel zu einem Drama and premiered by Felix Weingartner and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1914. It was dismissed by Julius Korngold as being ‘unmelodic’, but quickly established itself as a popular orchestral work in its own right.
(Carlotta’s seducation scene with Alviano)
(The Crowds enter ‘Elysium’ Act III ‘Die Gezeichneten’)
The success of Die Gezeichneten redrew operatic boundaries. Had the First World War not interfered, its march into the international repertoire was surely guaranteed. By 1919, critics following a pamphlet published by the Frankfurt based music journalist Paul Bekker, were declaring Schreker the only credible successor to Wagner. It was not just the complexity of his music, but the self-penned libretti that had taken Wagnerian ideas to the next stage. Given that a number of popular, more established composers such as Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner were initially evaluated before being dismissed by Bekker, there was uproar that suddenly took an unpleasantly anti-Semitic tone. Neither Bekker nor Schreker were practicing Jews, nor had they been brought up Jewish. Both had single, non-practicing Jewish parents and accusations of anti-Semitism would have seemed so preposterous as to be unworthy of response. In the case of Schreker , it was the first dose of a poison that ultimately killed him, his career and even his legacy.
The war left German speaking Austria a ‘rump state’, without industry, port or agriculture. While all of its constituent holdings were granted the status of nation states, Austria’s German speaking territories, wedged between Germany and Italy and constituting present day Austria, were kept separate. That German speaking Austrians were deprived of their own national destiny by not being allowed to join with Germany into a single German speaking state seemed a grave, cruel and calculated injustice.
Schreker’s fourth opera Der Schatzgräber (The Treasure Digger) was awaited with great anticipation and already contracted by a number of prominent German opera houses. By 1922, it resulted in Schreker becoming the most performed living ‘German’ composer. In fact, it was the very strong sense of being German rather than Austrian that possessed Schreker and millions like him. To his generation, ‘Austria’ was not a Germanic country, indeed, German speakers had been in the minority. For the generation that experienced the loss of Empire, ‘Austria’ was a meaningless, redundancy. The language and culture of what remained was German and the mood was such that one of the first things its newly appointed parliament did was to vote for its absorption by its larger neighbour to the north, an act that was instantly struck down by the conquering Entente allies. Schreker completed Der Schatzgräber on the day the reluctant Austrian Republic was declared: 12th November 1918. He wrote at the bottom of the score’s final page: ‘An the day of the proclamation of German-Austria and the annexation of Austria by Germany’.
The story of Schatzgräber concerns Els who has persuaded suitors to buy jewels, which unbeknown to them are stolen from the Queen. With every acquisition, Els has the suitor murdered by a henchman. She falls in love with a minstrel named Elis who has a lute that magically finds treasure. The King puts out a search for Elis as the only means of recovering the Queen’s stolen jewels. Elis is subsequently accused of murdering Els’s latest suitor, but is rescued from execution by the King’s jester who tells him of the King’s assignment. Els fearing discovery, hands Elis all of the treasure she’s acquired and makes Elis swear never to ask where it’s come from. Giving up the Queens jewels causes her to grow ill and upon being discovered as the perpetrator, she’s condemned to death. Though now rejected by Elis, the jester rescues Els by promising to marry her, thus obtaining the King’s pardon. In the Epilogue Els and Elis are reunited as Els lies dying. The opera ends with the jester singing a blessing on the two lovers whom fate has kept apart.
(‘Der Schatzgräber’ finale of Act III – as Els gives Elis the Jewels and makes him swear never to ask where they came from)
The opera was premiered in Frankfurt on January 21st 1920. The dedicatee of Der Schatzgräber was the city itself, in appreciation of its long-standing support. In retrospect, it’s very difficult to fathom the near delirium the opera created in audiences and critics of the day. It seems far less characteristic of Schreker’s ability to paint moods and colours and lacks the intoxicatingly ecstatic moments found in earlier works. Yet it would seem that it was quite specifically the ‘slimmed down’ musical expression of Der Schatzgräber that appealed immediately after the war. It has less of the obvious influence of French Impressionism and even offers contained numbers, such as a lovely lullaby sung by Els. Others saw it as a synthesis of everything Schreker had developed to this point and easily his most ‘mature’ work. With Der ferne Klang, Die Gezeichneten and Der Schatzgräber, only Richard Strauss approached Schreker in the number of performances throughout Germany and Austria. Germany’s inflation meant that Schreker would never profit financially from his success.
The opera also brought about a change in Schreker’s domestic life. His wife had continued to study singing throughout the war and participated in her husband’s operas in private performances accompanied by piano. In 1922, Maria was asked to fill in for the role of Els due to a soprano cancellation in Münster. It would be the start of a short but extremely glamorous career. Her looks, charisma, acting skills and slim but perfect soprano caused a sensation. Over the next seven years, she would be identified with all of the female leads in her husband’s operas, making only occasional forays into other repertoire such as La Bohème or even more surprising, as Li in Hans Gál’s Die Heilige Ente in Berlin’s Charlottenburg Opera.
(Maria Schreker sings the ‘Waldszene’ (‘Forest Scene’) from the end of Act I of ‘Der ferne Klang’)
With Schreker’s established success and growing fame, it was only a question of time when he would leave Vienna. In any case, Berlin had become the magnet for all talent and ambition. 1920 saw the start of an annexation of Berlin by disaffected Austro-Hungarians. As the humourist Anton Kuh wrote, he moved to Berlin in order to spend more time with his fellow Viennese. Vienna, on the other hand, was being overrun by provincials arriving from the towns and villages of the Danube valley.
The Hungarian Leo Kestenberg was advisor to the Social Democratic Prussian Ministry of Culture and after a number of unsuccessful attempts to persuade less glamorous candidates, approached Schreker to become director of Berlin’s Musikhochschule, or Music Academy. He agreed after receiving commitments that would make it possible for him to continue composing, as well as funding to bring his exceptional class of composition students with him from Vienna. . These included amongst others, Ernst Krenek, Karol Rathaus, Alois Hába, Jascha Horenstein and Julius Bürger. Former pupils were already making careers for themselves, such as Wilhelm Grosz, Josef Rosenstock and Felix Petyrek.
Irrelohe, or Flames of Madness is a transitional work that delineates clearly between the aesthetics of Vienna and Berlin, though at the time, it must have appeared a more logical transition. The title comes from misunderstanding the name of a town shouted on a station platform on a journey from Dresden to Nuremberg. Schreker finished the libretto in the summer of 1919 and began composing the music five months later. If the music of Schreker’s previous operas seduced and slid seductively between chromatic tonal centres, Irrelohe comes like an abrasive explosion. His use of nearly resolved dissonance is uninhibited and places the work closer to the same Expressionist world as Schoenberg’s Erwartung.
(‘Irrelohe’ beginning of Act III As Peter senses the onset of his inherited madness)
The Story of Irrelohe concerns Lola, raped 30 years before the curtain opens and now mother to Peter, whose father is the former count from the castle overlooking the village. Lola’s deranged betrothed at the time of the rape was the musician Christobald who has become a pyromaniac revisiting the village each year to avenge Lola’s rape and their thwarted marriage. He tells Peter during his visit who his father is and that he is the half-brother of the present Count Heinrich, a quiet, reflective individual who does not appear to suffer from the family curse of madness that causes its men to rape before succumbing to insanity and death. Peter is betrothed to Eva who meets and falls in love with Heinrich. Heinrich who lives in fear of the family curse, feels a passionate violence rising in his body. He begs Eva to marry him in order to save him. At the marriage festivities, it is Peter, who succumbs to the family curse and tries to force himself on Eva before he’s strangled by Heinrich. The family seat suddenly explodes into flames, Heinrich realises he’s murdered his brother as the curtain falls on Eva’s redemptive love.
Female sexuality plays an important part in Schreker’s works. His explicit portrayal of feminine sexual aggression, and/or masculine aggression against women is shaped by a world that was still uncovering the secrets of human sexuality hidden beneath a century of bourgeois hypocrisy and denial. Freud had diagnosed women as being ‘hysterics’ due to repressed sexual needs. More sinister was the work of Otto Weininger, whose dissertation on Sexuality and Character was published in 1903. It was anti-Semitic and misogynistic which was remarkable given that Weininger was both Jewish and in all likelihood, homosexual. He committed suicide spectacularly at the age of 23 in the house where Beethoven died, thus assuring ‘best-seller’ status on his work for the coming decades. Women were, according to Weininger, weak but predatory, whereas men were strong but pure. Just as women destroyed masculine purity, Jews as a ‘feminine’ race destroyed German masculinity. His only solution was self-annihilation with the result that one of his biggest admirers was Adolf Hitler. Another admirer was Ludwig Wittgenstein, also a troubled homosexual of Viennese Jewish provenance. Schreker admitted in correspondence with Paul Bekker that though he felt Weininger could not be ‘right’ intellectually, he felt emotionally, ‘that he probably was’.
Schreker had over the years made a huge amount of money for his Viennese publishers Universal Edition. In recognition, a special edition of UE’s new music monthly Musikblätter des Anbruch was published for Schreker’s 50th birthday in 1928. As effusive as the tributes appear to be, the publication was an act of contrition by the young firebrand head of opera Hans Heinsheimer who had little time for Schreker and did not mind letting him know. In any case, Kurt Weill was now bringing in far more revenue than Schreker and appeared to be setting the pace for the future. Only after letters of protest at his shabby treatment, and a letter of apology from Heinsheimer, was the special ‘tribute’ edition of Anbruch published. What cracks were opening up between the composer and his publisher, were merely papered over. The future appeared to be leaving Schreker behind. But what did this ‘future’ look like? A fair impression of it could be found in Schreker’s own composition class.
Paradoxically, Schreker in his youth had anticipated a development that would overtake him in middle age: The ‘Zeitoper’ or the contemporary opera. Der ferne Klang could have served as the model for Krenek’s Jonny Spielt Auf! (Jonny strikes up!), or Max Brand’s Maschinist Hopkins (Mechanic Hopkins), two immensely popular Zeitopern of the day. Both Krenek and Brand were pupils of Schreker and Krenek especially had kicked things off with a brazen account of New World energy symbolically and literally ravishing the old: The character of an African American jazz violinist, Jonny, steals the concert instrument of a classical performer. A composer and an opera singer form an unhappy, emotionally destructive relationship. The concert violinist in pursuit of his instrument is run over by a locomotive and the only people who enjoy themselves are Jonny and the lovely hotel maid he’s sleeping with. The opera was full of sirens, telephones, radios, cars and locomotives – all of the sounds of a modern urban landscape. Krenek composed an appealing syncopated beer-tent score that was intended to sound like jazz. Captivated Europeans who loved the idea of jazz without having a clear idea of what it actually was went crazy and Krenek’s Jonny chalked up more performances than ever recorded previously for a new opera. When it opened at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, audiences were both baffled and mystified. In truth, Kurt Weill’s ‘Jazz’ attempts were equally wide of the mark. Max Brand, on the other hand, decided in Maschinist Hopkins simply ‘to fly in’ a big-band playing a pre-fabricated ‘Black Bottom’ dance number. As a result, it sounds far more authentic but its lack of musical context is nothing short of an ear-sore. More convincing is his Berlin spin on the tango, a genre that was even more popular in the Berlin of the 1920s than American jazz.
(Tango from Brand’s ‘Maschinist Hopkins’)
Schoenberg’s arrival in Berlin to take up the master-class in January 1926 left vacant with Busoni’s death at the Prussian Academy of Arts, buoyed Schreker’s mood considerably. He had recently completed an updated version of the St. Christopher story to which he had added a dash of Faust. Schreker was feeling more experimental than ever, and both his location in the vibrant ambience of Berlin and the Zeitgeist seemed to demand change. With Schoenberg’s help in solving difficulties in the libretto, Schreker returned to work on the score of Christophorus, having started it the year before. Christophorus is Schreker’s clearest act of allegiance to Schoenberg’s sound world, though he does not use tone-rows, Schreker offers cinematic interlinking music between short scenes that recall Wozzeck. Certainly the young men working at UE were more Schoenbergian than Schrekerian, and Schreker tries hard to approach a musical world that was outside his ‘comfort zone’. It nonetheless represents Schreker’s mature thoughts on music, teaching and life. For UE, especially with much authority now coming from Heinsheimer, it was blatantly uncommercial. Indeed, despite the enormous admiration and store placed in Schoenberg by the young Turks at UE, he too was uncommercial. The publisher was losing money with Schreker as theatres demanded premieres of whatever was outrageous, and above all, modern. Christophorus was rejected by UE and never performed in Schreker’s lifetime.
Schreker was nothing if not ebullient and the lack of support for Christophorus seems to have focused his creative energies on a work that he had started around the same time, which initially carried the working title of Die Orgel (The Organ), but would become Der singende Teufel, (The Singing Devil). It’s a work set in pagan Germany and from today’s perspective, offers a prescient view of proselytising religions. The Christian priest Pater Kaleidos encourages Amandus to complete an enormous monastery organ begun by his father. Upon its completion, Amandus realises that Kaleidos wishes only to use the instrument as a means of subjugating non-believers. When warned by the beautiful pagan daughter Lilian, that the monastery was to be attacked, Amandus devises a plan to overwhelm the non-believing hoards with the sound of the organ. As the mob hears the instrument boom through the open doors, they fall to their knees in a collective conversion to Christianity. Kaleidos orders them slaughtered while defenseless in their state of religious ecstasy. Amandus, broken and disillusioned by the lack of Christian charity now lives with Lilian, who feels that the only means of rescuing him is to burn down the monastery. As the flames leap up, the organ’s silvery tones are heard ascending towards heaven.
It’s hard to imagine how Schreker believed this treatment would resonate in the hardened modernist world of Berlin in the 1920s. It was perhaps a work of personal avowal, while sceptically pointing towards the murderous potential of perceived religious differences. In any case, it offers some of Schreker’s most atmospheric and beautiful music from this period. If Berlin’s Zeitgeist influenced Schreker, it was in the sparseness of his orchestration, though as demonstrated by the Chamber Symphony, Schreker could achieve astonishing effects with very few instruments. Schreker’s biographer, the music theorist and historian Christopher Hailey, points out that Der singende Teufel is Schreker’s most linear opera, with fugal passages, canon and double fugues – all singularly appropriate in an opera about an organ. But Hailey goes on to point to the use of clusters, and the synthesis of off-stage, on stage and orchestra pit to develop even further the sonic kaleidoscope that was apparent in Der ferne Klang and to some extent, Irrelohe. Schreker’s response to the mood of ‘New Objectivity’ in der singende Teufel is counter-intuitive, as the work offers a subjective lyricism and richness of emotion that seemed to recall earlier works.
(‘Der singende Teufel’ Final scene)
On December 10th, 1928, Berlin’s State Opera gave the best the house could offer an important premiere. Erich Kleiber conducted and the cast with Delia Reinhardt and Emanuel List could hardly have been bettered. The public reaction was positive with cast and composer well received, but the press was devastating. Quite simply, despite Schreker’s best efforts, and the work is surely one of his strongest, it was dismissed as an irrelevance. UE withdrew all marketing support and Paul Bekker was left to console Schreker with the observation that operas, unlike operettas, did not have to be well received in order to verify their value. He was in good company in his artistic isolation: Schott’s new music magazine Melos described the ‘crisis’ of opera as being synonymous with the names of Richard Strauss and Franz Schreker.
Schreker’s last opera was a departure on two accounts. First, he took a pre-existing story to set, and second, it was intended as a comic, indeed, folk opera. There was clearly something in the air, as Jaromir Weinberger’s comic folk opera Schwanda the Bagpiper would wrack up more performances for a new opera than even Jonny spielt auf! Schreker had spotted the potential demise of the Zeitoper, and saw in common with Weinberger, the future as Lederhosen-folksy. Neither Weinberger nor Schreker could have guessed that unconsciously, they may have been responding to the underlying sense of nationalism that was starting to take hold. Nevertheless, Christopher Hailey sees in Der Schmied von Gent a more overt poltical statement, indeed anti-nationalistic and appealing for a sense of community. Both changes in Schreker’s normal practice were meant to counter-balance the misfortunes of his previous works, including the yet to be performed – or even published – Christophorus.
The story of Der Schmied von Gent, or The Smithy from Ghent, was originally one of Charles des Coster’s Flemish Tales from 1858. Smee makes a pact with the devil, but outsmarts him by undertaking a charitable act on behalf of the holy family. When he dies, he’s rejected by both hell and heaven until Joseph intercedes on his behalf, weighs his sins against his good deeds and ultimately allows him into Paradise.
(The end of Act II of ‘Der Schmied on Gent’ – as Smee sees off the last of the demonic emissaries sent to claim his soul after seven rich years)
The music makes obvious concessions to the clatter-bang world of Kurt Weill’s writing for woodwinds and brass. It’s more muscular and unafraid to show its corners and edges, indeed, Hailey refers to it as ‘brash’. Schreker was temperamentally incapable of adapting the sterile, neutral language of New Objectivity as heard in works by Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch, but he was prepared to forfeit the sensuousness of his previous operas with a score that offered much to rambunctiousness and little to transparency or lyricism. The music is more functional and clearly subordinate to the text.
Paul Breisach conducted the performance at Berlin’s Städtische Oper in Charlottenburg on October 29th 1932 with set designs by Caspar Neher and Wilhelm Rode in the role of Smee. The move to Carl Ebert’s opera house in Berlin’s Charlottenburg was a brilliant stroke and the premiere was turned into one of the principal events of Berlin’s social calendar. The evening was warmly received and the work and performers loudly applauded. When Schreker took his obligatory composer’s bow, the theatre erupted into whistles and jeers, catcalls and raspberries. Carl Ebert had the most offensive troublemakers escorted from the auditorium, but how a work could be well received with its creator the object of opprobrium was a less than subtle indication of the poison to which Germany had already succumbed in 1932.
To view the life of Schreker through the prism of his operas is to see merely part of the picture. He was also a teacher and an extraordinary innovator. Before his arrival, Berlin’s Music Academy had lost out to smaller more progressive schools leaving the city’s premiere institution with a speciality in chamber music and little else. He increased the faculty with such important names as Emil von Rezniček for orchestration; Gustav Havemann, Carl Flesch, Georg Kulenkampff for violin; Leonid Kreutzer, Egon Petri, Edwin Fischer and Artur Schnabel for piano; Emanuel Feuermann for cello and Paul Hindemith for composition. Schreker’s day to day administrator at the Music Academy was Georg Schünemann who was responsible for initiating a number of innovations, such as a sound recording course or the sound archive of ethno-musicologist Erich von Hornbostel.
Schreker himself instigated the first series of conductors on film. The combination of Schreker- Schünemann catapulted the Music Academy into the top institutions in the world. Schreker’s own Berlin composition class included Berthold Goldschmidt, Jerzy Fitelberg, Vladus Jakubenas, Franz Osborn, Lotte Schlesinger, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Ignace Strasfogel, Zdenka von Ticharich, Herbert Windt and Grete von Zieritz. He took whoever came to him with an individual voice and something to say, regardless of background or indeed gender.
With technology, its limitations but possibilities in mind, he composed his Kleine Suite of six movements with the specific capabilities of the microphones in mind. There were at the time, any number of works being composed uniquely for broadcast and cast within the limitations of the studio. Of all of these works, Schreker’s is surely one of the most original. The style shows not only the influence of technology, but also the influence of his pupils. It’s lively and linear, without sacrificing harmonic richness in the interest of broadcasting limitations. He recorded the work with the Berlin Philharmonic, now reissued on Symposium with all of Schreker’s recordings as conductor. Below are two movements conducted by Schreker, followed by a youtube performance of the entire work with the Berlin Radio Symphony conducted by Hans-Georg Ratjen.
(Kleine Suite, ‘Canon’ conducted by Franz Schreker)
(Kleine Suite ‘Intermezzo’ conducted by Franz Schreker)
How did things go so horribly wrong? Schreker’s own ebullient nature seems to have undermined his best efforts. Krenek in his memoirs is insultingly dismissive of him, describing him as ‘looking like a Jewish photographer from the outer suburbs’. The tone of Krenek’s description implied that ‘suburban Jewish photographers’ were obvious low-life. Schreker was always eager to please and like many gifted people, couldn’t comprehend that what was natural for him, was not easy for others, while at the same time, preserving a childlike delight in using his art to give pleasure to others. Anti-Semitism along with his undoubted suburban Viennese manner made him an easy target. Regardless of how successful he was, everyone seemed to perceive him as guileless, eager to please and by the standards of brusk, metropolitan Berlin, unsophisticaed.
It was a confrontation in 1932, blown out of control between the violinists Gustav Havemann and Carl Flesch, that ended Schreker’s career as Academy Director. Havemann and a number of colleagues had joined the anti-Semitic League for German Culture and accused Schreker of having too many Jews on the faculty. A forced confrontation resulted in Schreker’s resignation. Leo Kestenberg hastily secured a composition master class for him at the Prussian Academy of Arts where he joined Arnold Schoenberg whose own masterclass had been held there since 1926. It was in the context of the scandal of Schreker’s removal from his position at the Music Academy, and its accompanying anti-Semitic subtext, that resulted in Schreker’s humiliation following the premiere of Der Schmied von Gent later the same year.
Though composed in 1923 (orchestrated 1927), his setting of two Walt Whitman songs called Vom ewigen Leben (From Eternal Life) offers a certain valedictory retrospective of Schreker’s own life. They were composed in the new surroundings of Berlin while remaining redolent of what Schreker did best: conjuring sounds and moods with lines drawn in the sky. They are ethereal yet childlike and evoke an uncharacteristic melancholy.
(‘Ein Kind Sagte’ one of the two Whitman songs that make up vom ewigen Leben)
The appointment at the Prussian Academy of Arts would be short-lived. Max von Schillings became its new director following the elections in January 1933 that saw Hitler installed as Reich Chancellor. He informed both Schoenberg and Schreker that their contracts were to be terminated within the coming months. Schoenberg went to Paris and Schreker retreated to his home in Portugal.
Letters to former students, potential patrons and colleagues went unanswered as he tried to find employment abroad. Maria was in any case, strangely blind to developments and may have had personal reasons for staying in Berlin. With the announcement that his pension was being curtailed to an existence of near penury, Schreker returned to Berlin hoping to make final arrangements for his emigration. The stress proved too much, however, and toward the end of December he suffered a debilitating stroke, from which he died on March 21st, just shy of his 56th birthday.
Like ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ it was more than just a single knife that killed Schreker in 1934. Indeed, the date of his death itself was a major protagonist in the suppression of his legacy. It was to be expected that he would become a Nazi hate-object, but his students seem to have fallen into the categories of either having to flee Germany themselves, or stay and become ardent supporters of Hitler’s murderous regime. With the need to distance themselves from the past, few of Schreker’s students would go out of their way to encourage revivals of his music after the war. The memoirs of his former colleagues, such as Schnabel and Flesch, distance themselves from him, confident in the knowledge that as he was dead, there was nobody prepared to defend him. The greatest damage to Schreker, however, was the age his creativity was forced to endure. It was a time when ‘different’ and ‘new’ were no longer synonymous. ‘New’ was the highest artistic goal and individuality required more than just a mutation from the norm, it required a destruction of everything that formerly had counted as a rung on the ladder of progress. The age that killed Schreker was not only poisoned by anti-Semitism, but poisoned by a desire to destroy everything that had ever been, in the vague hope that something better would come in its place.
For the final decade of Schreker’s life, he had been trying to set his libretto Memnon in which the colossi of Memnon themselves would have a musical role that seemed to spring out of the earth itself. In their home in Estoril, Schreker’s daughter Haidy (Ottilie) recalled him telling her one evening that he could hear music rumbling through the ground. The opera was never completed, indeed, with so many recent disappointments, he lost interest. His final composition, however, was its ‘colossal’ overture, entitled Vorspiel zu einer großen Oper – Prelude to a large Opera.
(Vorspiel zu einer großen Oper)