There is no doubt that Franz Schreker has been seriously underestimated as a composer and this posthumous neglect may be attributed in good part to the misfortunes of his later career at a period when National Socialism was becoming increasingly important in Germany. Schrekers career and his subsequent reputation were equally victims of Hitler.
Son of the Court Photographer, Schreker was born in Monaco in 1878 and travelled widely during his childhood. In 1892 he became a student at the Conservatory in Vienna, where he was taught composition by Robert Fuchs, and even as a student achieved some success. His Love Song for string orchestra and harp was played in London in 1896 by the orchestra of the Budapest Opera, and there were other works in these years, capped, in the year in which he completed his studies, 1900, by his graduation composition, a setting of Psalm CXVI for three-part female chorus, organ and orchestra, which was well received at its first performance in Vienna by the Conservatory Orchestra.
Two years later, in April 1902, Schrekers first opera, Flammen (Marco Polo 8.223422), was performed privately, with the composer at the piano, and in the same year he completed his Symphonic Overture, Ekkehard, Opus 12, based on Viktor von Scheffels remarkable evocation of life in South Germany in the tenth century, a classic of nineteenth century German literature.
Schrekers first major success was with Der Geburtstag der Infantin, a ballet written for Grete Wiesenthal and based on the influential story by Oscar Wilde, The Birthday of the Infanta, a tale that was to appeal to other composers in Vienna. This was followed by the opera Der ferne Klang (Naxos 8.660074-75), performed in Frankfurt am Main in 1912 with sufficient success to bring the composer a position on the staff of the Vienna Music Academy. There were to be further successes in the opera-house, although Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin, welcomed in Frankfurt, provoked a scandal in Vienna at the Court Opera in 1913. Originally consisting of a prologue and two acts, the work was revised in 1916 as a one-act "Mysterium", and so performed in Munich after the war.
Die Gezeichneten (Marco Polo 8.223328-30), Schrekers next opera, to his own text like its immediate predecessor, was completed in 1914 and given as first performance at Frankfurt three years later. It was followed by the four-act opera Der Schatzgräber, which again had its first performance in Frankfurt under Ludwig Rottenberg.
In 1920 Schreker was appointed director of the Berlin Musikhochschule, a position he held until 1932, when growing anti-semitic pressure led to his resignation. His forced resignation from the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1933 brought a heart-attack and death. The final years of what had been a career of some distinction were marred by demonstrations against his work. His opera Christophorus was cancelled in 1931 as a result of pressure from the National Socialists and there were demonstrations in the following year at performances of his last opera, Der Schmied von Gent at the German Opera in Berlin.
Of Schrekers operas Der ferne Klang remains the best known, while the composers own favourite was Das Spielwerk, as the revised version of Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin became known. This latter, ill-received in Vienna, is set in the Middle Ages and centres on an imagined instrument, a carillon of bells, created by the old master-craftsman Florian. The land is ruled by a wicked princess and Master Florians wife and son have fallen into her power. The sound of bells, misused by the princess for her wild orgies, has lost its purity, but their music is restored for the moment with the appearance of a wandering flute-player, whom Master Florian entertains in his house. The original opera ended in tragedy with the destruction of the bells and Master Florians house. The revised version, however, replaced this ending with one of greater serenity.
The first version of Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin opened with a prologue in which four men were seen making a bier on which to carry a dead man, performing their task by torch-light. The men are to re-appear later in the opera, bearing the body of Master Florians son. In the ghostly scene of the prologue they disappear with their burden into the dark, while the slow Overture begins, music that leads, when the curtain rises, to a scene that shows, in the background, the castle, with the ancient house of Master Florian in the foreground.
Die Gezeichneten, a title that defies adequate translation, "The Marked Ones" perhaps, or "The Doomed", owes its origin to a request by the composer Zemlinsky for a libretto dealing with the tragedy of an ugly man. Schreker wrote the libretto, which he used himself, contrasting his misshapen hero with the beauty of Renaissance Genoa. The story concerns the rivalry of the crippled nobleman Alviano Salvago and the practised seducer Count Andrea Vitelozzo Tamare for the love of Carlotta Nardi, the daughter of the Podestà of Genoa, Lodovico Nardi. The conflict ends in tragedy, enacted in an underground grotto, scene of the orgies in which the young men and girls of Genoa indulge. The Prelude to Die Gezeichneten, which opens calmly, makes use of thematic material representing Alviano and Carlotta and the music associated with the dissolute Tamare.
Der Schatzgräber (The Treasure- Seeker) owed much of its success to its medieval setting and the use that Schreker made once again of German fairy-tale symbolism, in a story that he may have come across in the work of Heine. The opera opens with a Prologue in which the King announces the loss of the Queens jewels. The fool advises that the Singer should be summoned, whose lute-playing will surely find what has been lost: for his counsel the Fool demands the reward of a wife, the very idea of which provokes him to a dance of joy. The symphonic interlude from Act Ill is a night scene as the moon disappears and all is darkness. Dawn approaches and Els, the supposed daughter of the inn-keeper, lays before the feet of the Singer, beloved Elis, the Queens jewels that have come into her possession, telling him to take them to the Queen. Although it seems that all might end happily, the fourth act brings its own tragedy, with Els accused of witchcraft and only saved from burning by the intervention of the Fool, who claims her as his bride. Elis, now old, comes, in his wandering, on the Fools dwelling in the mountains and sings of Elis and Els, Prince and Princess, and how from the storm of life the treasure of good fortune may be saved. His song is of a land of fantasy, while the Fool is left to pronounce a closing Amen.
Viktor von Scheffels novel Ekkehard, a romance of the tenth century, written in 1857, was one of the most widely read German novels of the late nineteenth century. Scheffel, by training a lawyer and by inclination a painter and poet, left his position in the legal service of Baden in 1853 to devote himself to literature. The following year he published his narrative poem Der Trompeter von Säckingen and three years later his historical romance Ekkehard, based on the conflated lives of two of the monks of the monastery of St. Gall, Ekkehard I and his nephew Ekkehard II. Scheffels Ekkehard, depicted in the Klangstil of Schrekers symphonic overture, is a young monk chosen to teach Latin to the Duchess Hadwig of Swabia. Love grows between the two, something of which Ekkehard is unaware until he exercises his martial prowess in battle against the Huns. He attempts to embrace the Duchess, who rejects him, and is imprisoned, later to escape and conquer his passion in solitude as a hermit. He subsequently returns to become Chancellor to the Emperor. The music follows something of this progress, from the monastic medievalism of the opening chords through battle to its serener conclusion.
Schrekers Fantastic Overture was written in 1903. The work demonstrates again the composers ability in handling the orchestra in music that carries no overt extra-musical programme in its title but seems, nevertheless, to follow a narrative course.