March 21 is a fairly famous day in the history of music – many of you might know it as the birthday of J.S. Bach, one of the most renowned and prolific composers ever. However, it was also the day in 1934 when Franz Schreker, formerly lauded as one of the greatest opera composers of the 20th century, passed away in obscurity in Berlin at the age of 55.
Schreker, once the sensation of the Weimar Republic, had his music almost totally erased by the Nazis in less than ten years – he is one of many composers from this time who suffered tragic fates and whose places in music history are still being rediscovered. Today, I’ll endeavor to bring to light the details surrounding Schreker’s rise and fall – but, above all, I hope to share with you his singular and unquestionably beautiful music.
Of Austrian descent, Franz Schreker was born in 1878 in Monaco to the Jewish court photographer Ignaz Schrecker and his wife, the aristocrat Eleonore von Clossmann. He grew up around Europe, settling in Vienna after the sudden death of his father in 1888. Four years later, Schreker won a scholarship to the Vienna Conservatory, initially studying violin with Sigismund Bachrich and Arnold Rosé before becoming a student in Robert Fuchs’s composition class.
The highly expressive Intermezzo for strings, composed shortly after Schreker’s graduation from the Conservatory in 1900, was his first success, winning a notable prize sponsored by the Neue musikaliche Presse the following year.
In 1902, Schreker completed his first opera, Flammen. Although his work in the same medium medium. would catapult him to the height of his fame two decades later, Flammen failed to receive a staged production.
In addition to developing his compositional craft in the early 1900s, Schreker was also heavily involved in conducting. In 1907, he formed the Vienna Philharmonic Chorus and would go on to premiere such pioneering works like Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder with them.
While these early flourishes first established Schreker’s reputation as a composer, his mature operas were the works which elevated him to the height of his fame. In 1909, the orchestral interlude Nachtstück from his opera Der ferne Klang was performed for the first time, and the full opera was premiered to great success three years later – recordings of both are linked below. I myself have not yet seen the whole of Der ferne Klang, but the Nachtstück contains all the delicate sensibilities that make Schreker’s music so easily identifiable; as Wikipedia puts it, his “conception of total music theatre in the narrative of 20th-century music” set him apart from his contemporaries.
Opportunities began to open up for Schreker shortly afterward; in late 1912, he was given a provisional teaching appointment at the Vienna Conservatory, and he became a full professor the following year. During this particularly productive period of his career, Schreker continued to concentrate on opera but also gave plenty of thought to his instrumental music. In fact, it was during the mid-1910s that he wrote what is probably his most famous work, the Chamber Symphony.
Schreker’s work is now overshadowed by many pieces with the same name, such as the famous examples by Schoenberg. However, it is by no means inferior to any of the more renowned works that surround it. Lushly orchestrated despite its minimal instrumentation and full of incredibly compelling moments throughout its 24 minutes, it would not be amiss to call Schreker’s Chamber Symphony a forgotten masterpiece of the 20th century.
Despite seeing less success with his third opera, Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin, and seeing his career interrupted by World War I, Franz Schreker’s reputation continued to grow. His operas Die Gezeichneten (linked below) and Der Schatzgräber – premiered in 1918 and 1920, respectively, by the Frankfurt Opera House – brought him to the forefront of contemporary German opera. Between 1925 and 1932, Der Schatzgräber alone was performed almost 400 times in fifty different opera houses and theaters!
As with Das Ferne Klang, I’ve also linked the most famous instrumental excerpt from Die Gezeichneten, the “Prelude to a Drama”.
Schreker’s influence on European music in the early 20th century was not limited to composition and conducting – he also transformed the renowned Hochschule für Musik in Berlin after becoming its director in 1920, appointing as teachers such luminaries as Busoni, Schoenberg, Schnabel, Flesch, Zemlinsky, and Hindemith.
Sadly for Schreker, things would soon take a turn for the worse; with the rise of atonality, his music was already too antiquated for the tastes of some. None of his operas of the mid- to late 1920s – Irrelohe, Christophorus, and Der singende Teufel – met with any real success.
This reversal in fortune was worsened by the rise of the Nazis and rapidly increasing anti-Semitism in Germany. In 1932, the first signs of trouble became evident for Schreker when his opera Das Schmied von Gent was canceled by the Nazi party after just five performances. Although he continued to partake in musical activities – including supervising the production of the first concert films – by July 1932 he was forced out of his position at the Hochschule, effectively ending his career.
Schreker desperately sought opportunities outside Germany but was unable to find a position. Concerns over his future and a battle over his retirement pension took a toll on his health; in November 1933, Schreker suffered a stroke, and he passed away in Berlin just four months later on March 21, 1934.
For years, Schreker’s suppression by the Nazis rendered him virtually forgotten in music history. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, revivals of his operas generated new interest in his work, and since that time performances of his instrumental and operatic music have been steadily increasing. Looking at recordings of Schreker’s work on YouTube, it’s been particularly pleasing to see his music taken up by ensembles ranging from the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin to high school string orchestras!
Despite the growing recognition of his work – which likely makes him more famous than some of the more obscure names I’ve covered before – Schreker remains an unknown to the vast majority of classical music listeners. I hope orchestras, opera houses and chamber ensembles around the world will continue to dazzle audiences with with the incredibly beautiful works of this forgotten master!
With that, I’ll leave you with two pieces for instrumentations Schreker used only sparingly: his early choral orchestral work Schwanengesang and the Impressionistic chamber work Der Wind for violin, cello, clarinet, horn, and piano.
Thank you for reading – I hope you’re staying safe and healthy! As usual, if you enjoyed this post, please leave a like, follow, and/or comment.