Franz Schreker biography
1878 – 23rd March: born in Monaco, son of Isaak (Ignaz) Schrecker from Miskolcz (Hungary), photographer at the imperial court of the Austrian–Hungarian monarchy, mother Eleonore, née 'von Clossmann aus Dobrowna'.
1888 – 22rd January: his father dies (lung disease), economic plight of the family, move from Linz to Vienna (Döbling).
1892 – Gives lessons in reading, artithmetic, writing; takes violin, piano and organ lessons at the Böhmischen Musikschule. Organist at the Döblinger Pfarrkirche.
1893 – Preparatory class for violin at the Conservatory, from 1897 at the composers’ school of Professor Robert Fuchs.
1895 – Founds the association of the Musikfreunde (Friends of Music) in Döbling.
1895/96 – Member of the Döblinger Männergesangsverein (male choir).
1899 – 4th March: World première of König Tajas Begräbnis for male choir and piano.
1900 – Diploma thesis at the Music Academy: 116th Psalm.
1901 – Private lessons for piano, violin and music theory in Döbling.
1902 – World première (concert performance, with piano) of the first opera Flammen (1901/1902), conductor: Franz Schreker.
1905 – starts to compose Der ferne Klang.
1906/07 – Choral director and conductor at the Wiener Volksoper; founds the Philharmonic Choir Vienna.
1908 – World première of Der Geburtstag der Infantin, ballet pantomime for Grete and Elsa Wiesenthal at the Klimtschen Kunstschau in Vienna. Gets acquainted with Arnold Schönberg.
1909 – 9th November: marriage with Maria Binder, later the major interpreter of Schreker’s female figures.
1910 – first encounter with Alban Berg who produces the piano vocal score of Der ferne Klang. Birth of daughter Ottilie (Haidy Schreker-Bures).
1912 – 18th August: world première of Der ferne Klang (1905/1910) in Frankfurt/Main. Conductor: Ludwig Rottenberg, appointment as professor for composition at the Wiener Musikakademie.
1913 – 15th March: world première of Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin (1909/1912) in Vienna and Frankfurt/Main.
1914 – Der ferne Klang in Munich, conductor: Bruno Walter. Birth of his son Immanuel.
1917 – Kammersymphonie for 23 solo instruments.
1918 – 25th April: world première of Die Gezeichneten (1913/1915) in Frankfurt/Main, Conductor: Ludwig Rottenberg. Die Gezeichneten in Vienna with Maria Jeritza in the leading role. Death of his mother.
1919 – Die Gezeichneten in Munich. Conductor: Bruno Walter.
1920 – World premiere of Der Schatzgräber (1915/1918) in Frankfurt/Main, Conductor: Ludwig Rottenberg. Appointment as director of the Musikhochschule Berlin. World première of Das Spielwerk (Adaptation of Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin) in Munich, Conductor: Bruno Walter.
1923 – Zwei lyrische Gesänge on poems by Walt Whitman
1924 – 27th March: World première of Irrelohe (1919/1922) in Cologne, Conductor: Otto Klemperer. Failure of negotiations for his return to Vienna.
1930 – Vier kleine Stücke for big orchestra.
1931/32 – Plans to emigrate into the U.S. fail to materialise because of the world economic crisis.
1932 – 1st July: Under fascist pressure he resigns as director of the Berliner Musikhochschule; takes over the master class at the 'Preussischen Akademie der Künste'; 29th October: World première of Der Schmied von Gent (1929/1932) in the Städtischen Oper Berlin, Conductor: Paul Breisach. Anti–Semitic scandal of the Fascists.
1933 – World première of Christophorus (1925/1929) in Freiburg/Breisgau is put under political pressure; Vorspiel zu einer großen Oper ('Memnon'). 31st December: retirement. Victim of the fascist 'Cleansing' at the Academy.
1934 – 21st March: Franz Schreker dies in Berlin.
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About the music
Christopher Hailey on Franz Schreker
Discovering a Distant Sound
Der Ferne Klang (The Distant Sound), the title of Schreker’s best known opera, is the central metaphor of his entire oeuvre, a world of beguiling sonorities of such unprecedented originality that one can well believe the composer when he said that the themes, plots, and characters of his operas sprang from a musical vision.
There can be no more compelling argument for his assertion than the opening bars of the overture to Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatised, 1918), that mesmerising bi-tonal shimmer of violins, harps, celesta and piano hovering over a sinuous, serpentine melody in the bass clarinet and lower strings. This is the music of fin-de-siècle Vienna, a city on the precipice, teetering between breathtaking vistas and terrifying chasms.
Schreker was every bit the contemporary of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt, and Arthur Schnitzler. Like them he explored the dark recesses of the psyche and the labyrinthine complexities of the human soul, but he did so with an infinitely nuanced musical language that took as its starting point the rich resources of the orchestra. If Arnold Schönberg emancipated dissonance, Schreker, like Debussy, emancipated timbre, elevating instrumental colour to an importance equal to that of melody, harmony, and rhythm. And whereas Schönberg was drawn to the austere purity of the abstract idea, Schreker, a man of the theatre, was fascinated by the sensuous play of appearances, by dreams and illusions that both entice and entrap.
For this reason Schreker’s distant sounds are no mere Romantic utopia. They are metaphors of the fragility of human happiness, a theme that echoes in all his mature operas (whose librettos he wrote himself). The other thread running through these works is his deep compassion for human vulnerability, a trait he shares with Alban Berg, who knew Schreker’s operas well, having prepared the piano vocal score of Der ferne Klang; his Wozzeck and Lulu are unthinkable without the example of his older contemporary. Berg learned, too, from Schreker’s vocal writing, with its supple responsiveness to a mood, idea, or word. There is no shortage of soaring lyricism in Schreker’s work – think of Carlotta’s paean to the sun at the end of Act I of Die Gezeichneten – but all is in flux, continuously unfolding, and repetition is rare. And at every turn there is an exquisitely delicate interplay between vocal inflection and instrumental colour, beautifully exemplified in Schreker’s exquisite Walt Whitman settings, scored for orchestra as Vom ewigen Leben in 1927.
But for all its aching beauty Schreker’s music is not heavy with the nostalgia one finds in Berg, Mahler or Korngold. Its fragile immediacy and fleeting evanescence are at once intensely visceral and strangely elusive.
Naturalism and symbolism
Schreker’s modernity lies not so much in any revolution of musical language along the lines of atonality or dodecaphonic serialism, as in a shift of perspective. On the one hand he extends Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk with a visual and aural dramaturgy that anticipates the language of cinema, including split-screen effects, close-ups, and montage. On the other hand, Schreker embraces a stylistic pluralism that recalls Mahler in which the seemingly conventional and banal are found alongside the revolutionary and the sublime. As with Mahler these worlds cannot be separated, nor adequately reconciled by critical precepts. Schreker’s aesthetic world hovers between Naturalism and Symbolism, between Jugendstil and Expressionism, between Romanticism and Modernism, and this exhilarating mixture of elements is one of the reasons his music defies easy categorisation.
In his day Schreker’s most popular operas were Der ferne Klang, Die Gezeichneten, and Der Schatzgräber (The Treasure Digger, 1920), but recent productions have rediscovered the early pantomime, Der Geburtstag der Infantin (The Birthday of the Infanta, 1908), the apocalyptic Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin (The Carillon and the Princess, 1913), the expressionistic Irrelohe (1924), and the late comic masterpiece, Der Schmied von Gent (1932). Only Der singende Teufel (The Singing Devil, 1928) still awaits a full scale modern production. This is part of the long overdue reassessment of Schreker’s later works, written after his move to Berlin in 1920, when he became the director of that city’s renowned Hochschule für Musik. The remarkable transformation of Schreker’s style in the last decade of his life reflects his fascination with the new technologies of recording, radio, for which he wrote the Kleine Suite (The Little Suite, 1928), and sound film, for which he wrote his stunning orchestration of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody (1933).
Fixed place in the repertoire
Today, after decades of neglect, Schreker has reclaimed his place in the history of European musical modernism as a teacher, conductor, and administrator, but his principal legacy rests with a wide-ranging oeuvre that includes beyond his operas and orchestral works, choral works, chamber music, Lieder, and early keyboard works.
(First published in the Musikblätter, Issue 1, 2011)