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Biography >> Essay

Franz Schreker was the oldest of four surviving children born to Ignaz Schrecker, a court photographer and Jewish by birth, and Eleonore von Clossmann, a member of the Catholic aristocracy of eastern Styria. Ignaz Schrecker's restless travels took him and his family from Vienna to Monaco, Spa, Brussels, Paris, Trieste, and Pola before he settled at last in Linz in 1882. After Ignaz Schrecker's death in 1888 the family moved to Vienna, where, with the help of a scholarship, Schreker in 1892 entered the Vienna Conservatory. There he earned degrees in violin (under Sigismund Bachrich and Arnold Rosé) in 1897 and in composition (under Robert Fuchs) in 1900. His first public performance took place in London in July 1896 when the Budapest Opera Orchestra performed a work for string orchestra and harp, now lost, entitled Love Song. In 1900 the Andante from a symphony in A minor and a setting of Psalm cxvi (his graduation exercise) were performed by the conservatory orchestra, and during the following two seasons Schreker achieved notable performances with the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Psalm cxvi under Loewe), the Konzertverein (Intermezzo under Loewe), the Vienna Philharmonic (Ekkehard under Hellmesberger), the Singakademie (Schwanensang under Schreker), and the concert première with piano accompaniment of his first opera, Flammen, in the Bösendorfersaal on 24 April 1902. Several of his early works and most of his songs were published (by this time Schreker had dropped the second "c" in his surname), and his Intermezzo won first prize in a competition sponsored by the Neue Musikalische Presse. In the midst of this flurry of early success, though possibly as late as 1904, Schreker began Der ferne Klang, for which, as with all subsequent operas, he wrote his own libretto.

Schreker began conducting in 1895 when he founded the Verein der Musikfreunde Döbling, whose orchestra and chorus he led until 1899. After graduating from the conservatory he applied unsuccessfully for a number of theater positions until a year spent as a rehearsal coach and assistant conductor at the Vienna Volksoper (March 1907 to March 1908) cured him of any lingering illusions about a career in the opera house. In 1907 he formed the Philharmonic Chorus, which became a leading forum for new music in Vienna. Schreker conducted the group until 1920, and among its many premières were Zemlinsky's Psalm xxiii and Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden and Gurrelieder.

The success of his pantomime Der Geburtstag der Infantin, commissioned by Grete Wiesenthal for the opening of the 1908 Kunstschau, called attention to Schreker's development as a composer. In 1909 he signed a general contract with Universal Edition and resumed work on his unfinished opera Der ferne Klang, whose Act 3 interlude, "Nachtstück", was first performed on 25 November of that year by Oskar Nedbal and the Vienna Tonkünstlerorchester. The opera was completed at the end of 1910 and given its première on 18 August 1912 in Frankfurt am Main under Ludwig Rottenberg, an event that overnight established Schreker's fame. This auspicious première coincided with his appointment as a professor of counterpoint, harmony, and composition at the Music Academy in Vienna. Schreker's next opera, Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin, which was given a simultaneous première in Frankfurt am Main and Vienna on 15 March 1913, was less well received, and the outbreak of World War I the following year interrupted the continuing success of Der ferne Klang, which had been performed in Leipzig, Hamburg, and Munich, and accepted for production in Prague and Paris.

With the première of Die Gezeichneten (25 April 1918, Frankfurt am Main) Schreker moved to the front ranks of contemporary opera composers. A monograph on his work by the influential Frankfurt critic Paul Bekker unleashed a firestorm of controversy when Bekker compared Schreker's talent to that of Wagner. The première of Der Schatzgräber (21 January 1920, Frankfurt am Main) was the highpoint of Schreker's career, and in March of that year he was appointed director of the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, where he took up his duties the following autumn. Together with his vice-director Georg Schünemann, Schreker transformed that distinguished but tradition-bound institution into the preeminent conservatory of its day, with a renowed faculty that included Artur Schnabel, Carl Flesch, Emanuel Feuermann, Edwin Fischer, and Paul Hindemith. As a teacher Schreker was remarkably undogmatic. His emphasis on technical fluency and creative individuality produced an exceptionally diverse school of students, among them Victor Babin, Max Brand, Paul Breisach, Jerzy Fitelberg, Walther Gmeindl, Berthold Goldschmidt, Wilhelm Grosz, Alois Hába, Paul Höffer, Jascha Horenstein, Ernst Krenek, Alois Melichar, Felix Petyrek, Paul A. Pisk, Karol Rathaus, Arthur Rodzinski, Josef Rosenstock, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Ignace Strasfogel, Herbert Windt, and Grete von Zieritz.

Schreker's fame and influence were at their peak during the politically and economically unstable early years of the Weimar Republic. He toured widely to supervise and conduct productions of his operas, often with his wife, the soprano Maria Schreker, whom Schreker had married in 1909. During the later twenties Schreker developed expertise in both recording and broadcasting technologies and followed with interest the developments in the Hochschule's electronic music laboratory, the Rundfunkversuchstelle. Schreker's Kleine Suite was the first work commissioned specifically for German radio, and his Vier kleine Stücke for film were part of the same project as Schoenberg's op. 34. In 1932 Schreker supervised the development of the first concert films featuring performances by the conductors Leo Blech, Fritz Busch, Erich Kleiber, Max von Schillings, Fritz Stiedry, and Bruno Walter.
The decline of Schreker's artistic fortunes began with the lukewarm reception to his sixth opera, Irrelohe (Cologne, 1924), and the failure of Der singende Teufel (Berlin, 1928), and was accelerated by the economic turmoil of the late twenties, which threw German opera houses into a state of crisis. Right-wing demonstrations marred the première of Der Schmied von Gent (Berlin, 1932), and National Socialist pressure forced the cancellation of the scheduled Freiburg i. Br. première of Christophorus. In June 1932 Schreker was forced to resign his position at the Hochschule and took up a master class at the Prussian Academy of the Arts. He was placed on leave in May 1933 and officially dismissed in September of that year. In December 1933 he suffered a stroke, to which he succumbed two days before his fify-sixth birthday.

 Schreker mit seiner Frau Maria
Schreker with his wife Maria

By nature Schreker was drawn to dramatic music, and even as a child he was fascinated by the associative properties of harmony and timbre. His earliest works display a propensity for modal ambiguities and nonchordal tones, but this predisposition for coloristic effect was balanced by the strict conservatory education that imbued him with the aesthetic and technical precepts of the Viennese classical tradition. Most student works, such as his violin sonata (1898) and Psalm cxvi (1900), are Brahmsian in their formal balance, motivic interrelationships, bass-led harmonies, and rhythmic and contrapuntal refinements. His songs, most of which were written before 1902, and his first opera, Flammen, add to this mixture an increasing chromaticism and such devices of harmonic dislocation as chordal elision. Schreker's early works won praise for their craftmanship but were thought to lack originality, a criticism with which the composer himself concurred. His struggles to find his own style preoccupied him for most of the first decade after his graduation and bore their first fruit in the pantomime Der Geburtstag der Infantin, one of a series of dance-related instrumental works that reveal a freer harmonic language of rapidly shifting tonal centers and polytonal chordal constructions, long-breathed melodies of irregular phrase lengths, and a new assurance in timbral combinations. Significant, too, is the use of neoclassical forms and a contrapuntal texture of twisting, angular lines. Still more harmonically daring are his Fünf Gesänge (1909; orchestrated 1922), which were written after Schreker had become personally acquainted with Arnold Schoenberg.

The principal document of Schreker's self discovery is Der ferne Klang, whose social and ethical concerns, including a critique of L'art pour l'art idealism and a frank exploration of the enigmas of sexuality and eroticism, would remain central to his musical-dramatic oeuvre. As in most of his subsequent operas, the plot springs from and is encapsulated by a musical-dramatic symbol. Schreker's bold heterogeneity of dramatic devices and musical means and the sheer fecunity of his timbral imagination make Der ferne Klang one of the seminal works of twentieth-century opera. The collage of on- and off-stage vocal and instrumental ensembles, polyrhythmic juxtapositions, layering of styles, and improvised sounds in the second act bears comparison with contemporaneous experiments by Charles Ives and with the emerging visual vocabulary of the cinema. It is also a prime example of Schreker's lifelong preoccupation with Raumwirkung, the interaction of timbral effect and acoustic space. Arnold Schoenberg cited the opera's nonfunctional chord progressions in his Harmonielehre, and in its formal structure, orchestration, declamation, and dramatic characterization Der ferne Klang had a profound influence upon Alban Berg, who prepared the piano-vocal score of the work in 1911. The poor reception of Schreker's next opera, Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin, had more to do with the obscure symbolism of its libretto than with any musical weakness. The opera's succession of contrasting atmospheric scenes, meticulously differentiated lighting directions, and heightened sensitivity to timbral subtleties suggest a proximity to the stages works of Dukas, Delius, and Debussy. In turn, this opera influenced Karol Szymanowski, who heard the Vienna première. Schreker's one-act revision, Das Spielwerk (Munich, 1920), clarified and tightened the libretto and resulted in significant changes in the closing scene.

Schreker's mature style is most closely associated with a trio of works completed during World War I: Die Gezeichneten, the Chamber Symphony, and Der Schatzgräber. All three works employ an orchestra whose colors are defracted and reconstituted through divided strings, delicate use of percussion, and subtle doublings that tend to obscure the identity of individual instruments. In his harmonic language Schreker continues to juxtapose tonal with chromatic and polytonal passages, often heightening his effects by omitting bass fundaments. At the same time the vocal lines in these works have greater focus and, as Schreker's sketches suggest, serve as the central inspiration for his fundamentally linear style, a quality that is brought out in Schreker's own recordings of his music, as well as in radio performances from the 1950s and 1960s by a generation of conductors such as Robert Heger, Hans Rosbaud, Hermann Scherchen, and Winfried Zillig who were still familiar with the style. In this middle period Schreker's works have an undeniable element of Wagnerian harmony and dramaturgy. This is particularly true of Der Schatzgräber, his most popular opera, in which Schreker achieved a balance of harmonic languages resembling that achieved by Strauss in Der Rosenkavalier.

Schreker's next opera, Irrelohe, is in many ways a turning point. The libretto is dramatically taut, and in keeping with its menacing subject matter the orchestra is harder edged and more opaque. The score's writhing linear counterpoint and chordal juxtapositions, which are close to late Mahler and the Strauss of Elektra, produce a high level of dissonance, without, however, undermining overall tonal structure. Particularly striking is a second-act love duet in the form of a canon. In the years of crisis following Irrelohe Schreker's style was transformed by a number of influences, including the aesthetic climate of Neue Sachlichkeit and his interest in technology. Die kleine Suite and Vier kleine Stücke both employ the sparse textures and countrapuntal style -- an angular linearity that had been present in his music since Der Geburtstag der Infantin -- so ideally suited to the limitations of the contemporary microphone. Among Schreker's nonoperatic works of the 1920s his settings of Whitman texts (Zwei lyrische Gesänge, 1923; orchestrated as Vom ewigen Leben in 1927) must be counted his supreme masterpiece, characterized by an assured synthesis of pliant vocal lyricism, supple and sinewy accompaniment, and a harmonic language suspended between functional and nonfunctional tonality.

These same elements are present in Schreker's later operas. Christophorus, oder die Vision einer Oper is a Zeitoper that parodies contemporary styles, including jazz, the popular chanson, Neue Sachlichkeit, and the radical avant-garde. It is at the same time a deeply felt document of Schreker's own struggles with his times. Christophorus, which is dedicated to Arnold Schoenberg, contains Schreker's most advanced harmonic language alongside passages of tonal and modal harmony, broad cantilene beside spoken dialogue and Sprechstimme. The complexity of the work's dramaturgy, in which vision and reality intertwine, invites comparison with the most advanced constructions of contemporary film and theater. The dramaturgy of Der singende Teufel, by contrast, is far more traditional, but its brooding, medieval setting inspired an austerely archaic musical language that ranges from simple modal counterpoint and sharp timbral detail to massed, clustered effects for the full orchestra.

Superficially Der Schmied von Gent, based on a folktale by Charles De Coster, belongs to that genre of comic Zauberoper made popular by Jaromir Weinberger's Schwanda der Dudelsackpfeifer (1927), but its underlying themes resonate profoundly with contemporaneous works such as Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, and Krenek's Karl V, which explore themes of individual destiny and social responsibility. Der Schmied von Gent is a vibrant work, whose occasionally raw tone and grim satire helped provoke the politically inspired demonstrations at its première. Musically the opera combines the lush harmonic and timbral palette of Schreker's earlier operas with folk material and the more dissonant, neobaroque contrapuntal forms of the later works.

The rise of National Socialism brought an end to performances of Schreker's works and began the systematic corruption of secondary sources that haunts Schreker reception to this day. Performances in the postwar period were sporadic, and a genuine revival of interest in the composer did not begin until the 1970s. Schreker is a central figure in that remarkable flowering of opera in early-twentieth-century Austria that included Alexander Zemlinsky, Alban Berg, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Integrating Schreker's aesthetic plurality -- a mixture of romanticism, naturalism, symbolism, impressionism, expressionism, and Neue Sachlichkeit -- timbral experimentation, strategies of extended tonality, and conception of total music theater into the narrative of contemporary music has contributed to a more differentiated understanding of central European modernism.



++ "Die Schönheit sei Beute des Starken". Franz Schrekers Oper "Die Gezeichneten"
von David Klein,
Mainz: Are Musik Verlag 2010