Franz Schreker: Wenn der Abend kommt from the opera The Distant Sound
The Distant Sound
Music and Libretto: Franz Schreker (1878–1934)
You will not find the meaning of life if you chase a mirage and don’t listen to your heart. Such is the message of Franz Schreker’s magnificent opera Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound), in which the obsession with achieving the dreamt-of ideal precludes recognition of true beauty. “A high, noble goal hovers before my eyes, and I must be free – free!” sings the protagonist – the ambitious composer Fritz – in Act 1, to his beloved Grete, thus committing a grave error that will shake up the fates of the two lead characters.
Although as grandiose as that of Wagner’s and Strauss’s, Schreker’s music remains “à la Debussy” throughout. Tearing the listener’s heart to pieces from the very onset, voices levitate in pianissimos high above the orchestra, with the audience left breathless, engrossed by beauty. Schreker also plays with the acoustic perspective. His work with sound was appositely described as follows by the globally celebrated German conductor Ingo Metzmacher. He compared it to the principle of acoustic cameras, where the listener stands in the middle, constantly moving between four or five sound sources. The audience can look forward to a chorus hidden backstage or small ensembles scattered in covert nooks. Schreker’s operas can be compared to radio plays, with their sound being like a montage, which makes them truly mesmerising in this respect too.
Schreker was in all likelihood inspired to write Der ferne Klang after suddenly falling in love with Grete Jonasz, a frequent visitor to art salons in Vienna (Döbling, to be precise). We can only speculate as to whether the infatuation was platonic or romantic, yet the episode can be deemed to have reflected in the choice of the name of the heroine, Grete. Schreker began writing the opera in 1902–1903, yet since the initial sketches did not meet his teacher’s Robert Fuchs expectations, he abandoned the project. He did not return to it until 1905, after attending performances of Richard Strauss’s Salome. Schreker first completed the orchestral interlude, titled Nachtstück, which in 1909 premiered in concert in Vienna under the Czech conductor and composer Oskar Nedbal. The performance’s success encouraged him to continue work on the opera, which he finished within an incredible four weeks. Yet it would be another three years before Der ferne Klang was staged. Originally scheduled to premiere at the Hofoper in Vienna, following the departure of its artistic director Felix Weingartner in 1911 Schreker had to find another company that would undertake his new opera. Der ferne Klang was first performed by the Frankfurt Oper on 18 August 1912. Its resounding triumph propelled Schreker, the son of a Jewish photographer from Bohemia and an Austrian Catholic aristocrat, to the upper echelons of avant-garde composers, a position he would retain until the 1930s. In the wake of his being ranked by the Nazis among the “degenerate artists”, his music would for decades disappear from concert halls and opera houses alike.
Der ferne Klang focuses on our perennial desire to take right decisions in life, yet it also pays attention to social and ethical issues, pondering art for art’s sake, as well as inquiring into the mystery of human sexuality. Fritz becomes our mirror, since, just like he, we often seek superficial inspiration, and, just as in his case, it sometimes takes us too long a time to realise that we can never attain our goal by pursuing that particular path. What is more, Der ferne Klang features a fairy-tale aspect, with the composer encapsulating the forces of evil in the roles of the Old Woman and Dr. Vigelius. "For me this opera was a revelation, [...] I literally drowned in this sensually sultry, passionate music. It accompanied my whole life. I know each note by heart, and it has turned me into a different man from the one I should otherwise have been. I dream of it incessantly,” is how the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, one of the most exciting 20th–century artists, described the opera.
The Czech premiere of Der ferne Klang was undertaken by Alexander Zemlinsky on 20 May 1920. Der ferne Klang, telling a mysterious story of that which is within our reach yet beyond, is now returning to Prague more than a century after its Czech premiere.