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It was Der ferne Klang, following its premiere in Frankfurt Opera House on 18 August 1912, that established Schreker as one of the most widely performed operatic composers in Germany. 20 years later, he was branded a degenerate. In the libretto that he had written himself for his drama about the failure of love and the decline of an artist, Schreker packaged together everything that was de rigueur at the time: fin de siècle artistic themes, Freud’s discovery of the unconscious and the naturalist poetry of misery. Schreker’s sound universe is characterised by stylistic diversity, with extensive use being made of instruments such as the harp, celesta and piano. With singular virtuosity, he brings together a wide cross-section of sound sources, fusing the standard orchestra with gypsy music and Venetian music played from various distances from the stage and adding a distant chorus as well. The unbelievable magic of Schreker’s orchestral sound is not easily forgotten.
The storyline for Schreker’s opera covers a period of 15 years. The opera takes place in Germany and Venice circa 1900. Young composer Fritz leaves his Grete, no longer able to stand the petit bourgeois confines of his surroundings and feeling that he is destined for greater things. His plan is to return when he is famous and offer her riches, celebrity and his undying love. Grete is gambled away by her alcoholic father to a landlord and goes on the run. At the end of her tether, she is taken up by a matchmaker and agrees to follow her. After some time, Fritz – driven by a yearning for Grete – finds her again in the dance salon “La Casa di Maschere”, where she is now a courtesan called Greta. Fritz calls her a harlot and leaves again. Greta succumbs to the advances of a Count who had been wooing her for a long time in vain. Five years later, Fritz succeeds in having his opera “The Harp” premiered in a court theatre. Grete, who has since been abandoned by the Count and is now a common streetwalker called Tini, was at the performance. However, when she recognises herself in the main protagonist, she feels faint. The premiere turns into a fiasco. Grete learns that Fritz is terminally ill. The two of them meet again. However, their new-found happiness together comes too late: Fritz finds his mysterious “distant sound”, the mirage of which he has been chasing all his life, while dying in the arms of his long-lost love, Grete.