Nowadays, Franz Schreker is, together with Richard Strauss (1864–1949), Alban Berg (1885–1935) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957), seen as a central figure of the rapidly developing opera genre in the German-speaking countries in the first three decades of the 20th century. Schreker’s composing style combining influences of romanticism, symbolism, impressionism, expressionism and even the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) combined with his experimenting with sound colours and expanded tonality – all those factors coincided to develop a movement in the early years of the 20th century that we now call European modernism.
His father Ignaz was a recognized photographer, whose patrons included Franz Liszt, Franz Joseph I, the crown prince Rudolf or the royal family of Belgium. He was born in Golčův Jeníkov in Bohemia. His mother, Eleonore von Clossmann, was a member of a prominent catholic noble family from East Styria. Ignaz Schreker established a very successful photographic studio in Budapest, which he passed to Maximilian, his son from his first marriage, in 1876 and set out for a journey. Eleonore accompanied him. The family moved several times: during their stay in Monaco, Franz, Celje and Pule were born. In 1881, the ever-growing family settled in Linz, Austria. When Ignaz died unexpectedly, his widow took the children to Vienna, where Franz – fourteen years old at that time – started his studies at the Vienna Conservatory. First, he took on the violin under Ernst Bachrich (1892–1942) and Arnold Rosé (1863–1946), switching later to composition under Robert Fuchs (1847–1927), whose pupils included Gustav Mahler (1890–1911), Hugo Wolf (1860–1903), Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942) or Jean Sibelius (1865–1957). During that period, Schreker focused especially on smaller musical forms. In the later years, he himself declared that he had been swimming happily in ‘Brahmsian waters‘, thus escaping the barbs of the reactionary Neue freie Presse critic Eduard Hanslick. But first successes came soon, including a Neue musikalische Presse prize awarded for his Intermezzo for strings, Op. 8, in 1901. Encouraged, he moved on to his first opera Flammen (Flames) in 1902 based upon the libretto written by his friend, Dora Polla (publishing her works under the pseudonym Dora Leen), and later to his second opera, The Distant Sound (Der Ferne Klang), for which he wrote the libretto himself – a model to be followed in all his future stage works.
From zero to Olympus of Europe
Having graduated from the conservatory, Schreker first sought to get a steady job as a conductor in one of the local opera houses. For a short period (from March 1907 to 1908), he worked as an opera coach and assistant conductor at the Volksoper. In 1907, he started his own Philharmonic Choir, which became a major platform for performing contemporary music in Vienna (he remained its director until 1920). With the choir, he performed Mahler’s Third and Eight Symphonies, Zemlinsky’s Psalm 23 or Schoenberg’s Peace on Earth (Friede auf Erden) and Songs of Gurre (Gurre-Lieder). It was in the same choir, where he also met his future wife, Maria Binder, whom he married in 1907. Even though their relationship was “spiced” by a number of affairs, their daughter Ottilie was born in 1910 and their son Imanuel in 1914.
In 1909, Schreker signed a contract with the Universal Edition publishing house and resumed working on his unfinished opera The Distant Sound. The third-act intermezzo, known today as Nachtstück, premiered in Vienna on 25 November 1909 conducted by the Czech conductor and composer Oskar Nedbal (1874–1930). And when the full opera was first produced in Frankfurt am Mein in 1912, Schreker was finally catapulted among the most original composers of contemporary opera. The success helped him to get a tenure as professor at the Vienna Music Academy and The Distant Sound was performed by opera houses in Munich, Hamburg, Leipzig, Prague (at the New German Theatre in 1920) and Leningrad (1925).
The First World War slowed down Schreker’s promising career but it was also a period of heightened creative activity for the young composer. He composed his Chamber Symphony and two of his most successful operas: The Branded (Die Gezeichneten, 1913–1915) and The Treasure Hunter (Der Schatzgräber, 1915–1918). Both were produced by the Frankfurt opera as soon as the war ended. Again, Schreker enjoyed the standing of an elite German opera composer, being compared to Richard Wagner himself. Between 1925 and 1932, there were four hundred performances of The Treasure Hunter at more than fifty opera houses all over Europe.
Schreker as a teacher
In 1920, Schreker got the important post of director of Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, following in the footsteps of Engelbert Humperdinck (1854–1921). His coming became a breath of fresh air for the very conservative institution. He also changed many of the teachers there. During his tenure, the faculty included the pianist Artur Schnabel (1882–1951), violinist Carl Flesch (1873–1944), cellist Emanuel Feuermann (1902–1942), pianist Edwin Fischer (1886–1960) or the composer Paul Hindemith (1895–1963). Schreker’s class was quite the opposite of his colleague and friend Arnold Schoenberg’s class at the Prussian Academy of Arts. Schreker too was searching for a modern musical expression, however without the intention to leave tonality behind. In 1927, Johnny Strikes Up (Johny spielt auf, 1926) by Ernst Krenek (1900–1991) took Europe by storm, soon to be followed by Max Brand’s (1896–1980) Maschinist Hopkins (1929). Schreker’s pupils include also Alois Hába (1893–1973) famous for his experiments with microtonality. Also worth mentioning here are Berthold Goldschmidt (1903–1996), Victor Babin (1908–1972), Jerzy Fitelberg (1903–1951), Wilhelm Grosz (1894–1939), Paul Höffer (1895–1949), Jascha Horenstein (1898–1973), Alois Melichar (1896–1976), Karol Rathaus (1895–1954), Artur Rodziński (1892–1958), Josef Rosenstock (1895–1985), Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (1900–1973), Herbert Windt (1894–1965) or Grete von Zieritz (1899–2001).
Brave until the end
While Schreker was successful as a teacher, the same cannot be said of his career of a composer at that time. After moving to Berlin, his operas Irrelohe (1924) and The Signing Devil (Der singende Teufel, 1928) were received lukewarmly by both the audiences and critics. In the ambience of music composed by young and radical German composers, works developing the tradition of late romanticism suddenly seemed outdated. Other negative influences included the Great Depression and the rising power of the Nazis, who managed to cancel the production of Schreker’s last opera, The Smith of Ghent (Der Schmied von Gent, 1932) after mere five performances. Also, the delayed premiere of the opera Christophorus (1929) dedicated to Arnold Schoenberg was cancelled. Still, Schreker kept working hard. He was one of the first to take interest in the development of recording and broadcasting technologies in the second half of the 1920s in relation to classical music. In 1932, he directed a series of audio-visual recordings of life concerts conducted by Leo Blech, Fritz Busch, Erich Kleiber, Max von Schillings, Fritz Stiedry and Bruno Walter. Under his guidance, Hochschule für Musik created its first electroacoustic studio. Schreker also composed some works directly for the new media, for example for the radio (Kleine Suite) or cinema (Vier kleine Stücke).
Growing antisemitism forced Schreker to resign from the post of the director of the Hochschule and to take on a less prestigious job at the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1932. Like Arnold Schoenberg, he was dismissed from the Academy due to his Jewish origin in 1933 (it should be mentioned here that Schreker received catholic upbring from his mother, as well as his father, who had converted to Catholicism). In addition, he had to undergo many hardships to acquire a pension. He felt rejected as a composer and a teacher, financial problems were suddenly imminent, and he was feverishly preparing to emigrate. All those factors probably contributed to his heart seizure in late December 1933. Further health complications followed, and he died in Berlin on 21 March 1934.
No one seemed to have noticed. Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg were – together with a few pupils – practically the only ones to express their sympathy to the family. Last official mention of Schreker’s music in Nazi Germany was in 1938, when his work was included in the infamous “Degenerated Art” exhibition in Düsseldorf. And then, Schreker’s music remained forgotten for decades. It was not until a production of The Distant Sound in Kassel in 1964 and the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1978 that Schreker’s work finally began attracting the attention of the public again. Deservedly so, as Franz Schreker was and remains a leading figure among the artists of the first half of the 20th century.
Legacy of music
Already as a young man, Franz Schreker was fascinated by relations between harmonies and timbres – a fascination, which is often apparent in his works. Firmly grounded in the aesthetics of Viennese classicism, like many of his contemporaries, he was originally inspired especially by the music of Johannes Brahms. His interest in chromaticism and looser harmonic structures became apparent only at the turn of the century in his songs and his first opera Flames. In his pantomime The Birthday of the Infanta (Der Geburststag der Infantin) ordered by the dancer Grete Wiesenthal (1885–1970) on the occasion of the opening of the Kunstschau Wien 1908 exhibition organized by a group of artists around Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), Schreker, for the first time, employed a looser harmonic expression with swiftly shifting tonal centres and polytonal structures combined into long, irregularly phrased melodies and new timbre combinations. Further shift in his style can be observed in the second half of the 1920s: his music becomes sharper and more dissonant, while remaining firmly grounded in tonality. His opera Christophorus parodies styles of the time: jazz, popular chansons, New Objectivity aesthetics, as well as radical avant-garde. His last opera Der Schmied von Gent, has many features in common with the comical „Zauberoper“ (magic opera), popularized all over the world by Jaromír Weinberger (1896–1967) and his Schwanda the Bagpiper of 1927. Unlike Weinberger however, Schreker’s theme deeply resonates with the question of personal fate and social responsibility, which makes it a counterpart to other iconic contemporary works: Matthias the Painter by Paul Hindemith, Moses and Aaron by Arnold Schoenberg, or Karl V. by Ernst Krenek. Schreker’s final works document the personal suffering that he had to undergo while composing them.
More information on Franz Schreker
Franz Schreker Foundation