A Distant Sound Now Nearer

Of the “degenerate Jews” whose work and lives were erased in the Nazi deluge, one of the most remarkable is Franz Schreker. He is also among the least known.

Yet in the early years of the Weimar republic, Schreker was the most important German opera composer — in his heyday more highly regarded than Richard Strauss, and even hailed as the new Richard Wagner. Schreker’s operas were presented hundreds of times, to great acclaim, conducted by the likes of Bruno Walter, Fritz Reiner and Otto Klemperer. So why has no opera of his ever been presented here?

“Schreker should be on anyone’s list of the 10 most important opera composers of the 20th century,” claims Leon Botstein, who conducted the American Symphony Orchestra in a concert performance of Schreker’s “Der Ferne Klang” (“The Distant Sound”) at Lincoln Center last Sunday. Botstein said he is still shocked that he had the honor of giving the Western Hemisphere premiere of this major opera — the first of any of Schreker’s nine operas to be performed here.

“I was waiting for somebody else to do it. I would have done it a long time ago if I thought it would have taken so long,” Botstein said. “That not a single Schreker opera has been done on the stage of an American opera house is simply a flabbergasting fact. It’s a symptom of something that’s deeply wrong.”

Schreker’s operas have ripe, late-romantic, expressionist music, but with a difference. Unlike Strauss’s music, Schreker’s is the music of an outsider, neither self-satisfied nor nostalgic, not story telling but something stranger — embodying a multiplicity of ideas, sometimes freely conflicting each other, in sound. Musicologist Christopher Hailey, who has devoted his life to getting Schreker’s operas the attention they richly deserve, describes it as a “musical fabric of disjunctions and pluralities not unlike that which we find in Mahler.” Very unusual for a composer, Schreker also created his own librettos. Their plots have a fantastic, expressionist atmosphere, but always with a bracing earthiness.

Franz Schreker was born in Monaco in 1878, the eldest son of Ignaz Schrecker (the composer dropped the second “c” from his own last name), a Bohemian Jew who had become an extremely prominent portrait photographer, and the much younger Eleonore van Clossman, née Baroness Bretfeld zu Kronenburg. The baroness’s family disowned her for marrying beneath her — and a Jew, no less.

After years of travel, hobnobbing with the rich and royals, Ignaz and his wife settled in provincial Linz when Franz was 4.This brief period of stability ended when Franz’s father died six years later. His mother moved her four children to Vienna, where she worked at a general store and took up sewing. Franz and his mother struggled in desperate poverty, which gave the composer a lifelong appreciation of the fragility of circumstances. He himself was eventually rescued by a countess, who gave him a scholarship to study music in the conservatory. In addition to composing, he became a prominent conductor who gave the world premieres of such major works as Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” and Zemlinsky’s “Psalm XXIII.” The premiere of “Der Ferne Klang” in 1912 instantly put Schreker on the map. In recognition, he was given a professorship at the University of Vienna.

His reputation grew, and in 1920, Schreker was appointed director of the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. Rather than using the position to promote himself, he transformed the school into a dynamic center representing the best, without litmus tests of any kind, bringing on board a legendary faculty: Artur Schnabel, Carl Flesch, Emanuel Feuermann, Edwin Fischer and even colleagues representing opposing esthetics, like Paul Hindemith. The students were equally legendary: Victor Babin, Berthold Goldschmidt, Alois Hába, Jascha Horenstein, Ernst Krenek, Arthur Rodzinski, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt.

Botstein — who himself has been criticized for holding the office of president of Bard College in conjunction with those of music director and principal conductor of both the American Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalem Symphony — identifies with this nurturing side of Schreker. “We live in a time when artists are so narcissistic, so self-centered,” Botstein said. “Mozart, Beethoven were not great teachers. Brahms never taught, and was actually cruel to the younger generation. Which great composer was also a great teacher? Well, Rimsky-Korsakov, okay. And Schreker. This is a guy who’s fighting for his own career, fighting constant battles to get stuff produced, and he was unbelievably not only generous toward his pupils, he also didn’t require pupils to imitate him. It wasn’t ‘Do as I do!’ It wasn’t ego gratification in that sense.”

Fighting battles was not just a figure of speech. As the Nazis rose in power, more and more protesters interrupted Schreker’s operas, denouncing this “degenerate Jew.” At the same time, he began to be attacked by critics for not being “modern” enough. To this crucifixion by two opposing forces, Schreker defended himself defiantly with a wicked sense of humor:

“I am an Impressionist, Expressionist, Internationalist, Futurist, musical Verist: Jewish, and raised high by Jewry’s might; Christian and became a ‘made’ man by a Catholic clique under the patronage of a Viennese arch-Catholic countess. I am a sound artist, sound fantasist, sound magician, sound aesthete, and have no trace of melody (other than so-called short-breathed empty phrases called ‘melodielein’). I am a tunesmith of the purest blood, as harmonist a bit anemic, but perversely in spite of this a full-blooded musician! I am (unfortunately) an erotomaniac and corrupt the German public…. But what — in heaven’s will — am I not? I am not (yet) out of line, megalomaniac, embittered, ascetic, bungler nor dilettante, and I have never written any criticism.”

Schreker unfortunately never sought to emigrate. When the increasing antisemitism forced him out of his job as head of the Berlin Hochschule, he suffered a stroke. He died in 1934, two days short of his 56th birthday, and his works soon disappeared from the stage. After World War II, so-called “modernism” triumphed and Schreker’s legacy was doomed. Now that Schreker is distant enough in time for us to listen without worrying about extraneous “isms,” let us hope that Botstein’s triumphant performance is the dawn of a revival of his remarkable operas. Once heard, this shockingly neglected master will never again be forgotten.

Raphael Mostel is a composer. The Royal Concertgebouw and Chicago Symphony orchestras recently premiered his “Night and Dawn” for brass with shofars.

A Distant Sound Now Nearer

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