1911 photograph of Franz Schreker (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Tomorrow Naxos will release an album consisting entirely of music by the early twentieth-century Austro-German composer Franz Schreker. The recording is a co-production with Deutschlandradio Kultur. The three selections on the album are all performed by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. The first of these is “Vorspiel zu einem Drama” (prelude to a drama), which is an expanded concert version of the overture to the opera Die Gezeichneten (the branded), which was still a work in progress when the “Vorspiel” was first performed on February 8, 1914. This is followed by a suite of music taken from “Der Geburtstag der Infantin” (the birthday of the infanta), composed for a pantomime commissioned by the dancer Grete Wiesenthal and her sister Elsa, based on the story of the same name by Oscar Wilde. The final selection is Schreker’s Opus 14 Romantische Suite. For those wishing to be “first on the block” to have this recording, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders.
I have James Conlon to thank for my first serious listening encounter with Schreker. In June of 2006, when I was just beginning to build up my writing chops, Conlon visited the San Francisco Symphony to present a program of music by Schreker, Richard Strauss, and Alexander von Zemlinsky. At that time, while I had a few vinyl recordings, Schreker was relatively new to me. On the other hand my familiarity with Strauss had been complemented, less than a decade earlier, by the opportunity to see a performance of Zemlinsky’s one-act opera “Eine florentinische Tragödie” (a Florentine tragedy, also based on Wilde, this time an unfinished play). That production, by the Santa Fe Opera, was such a knockout, that I could not resist the opportunity to listen to the music of that opera in a concert setting, which is what Conlon offered. (Conlon would subsequently go on to conduct a production of Die Gezeichneten by the Los Angeles Opera.)
Conlon’s program was a richly informative reminder that, in the German-speaking world, the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century involved far more than Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. By all rights, Schreker’s career was just as successful, not only as a composer but also as a conductor. He was the founder of the Vienna Philharmonic Chorus in 1907 and remained its conductor until 1920. In that capacity he was responsible from the premier performances of Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder and Zemlinsky’s setting of the 23rd Psalm. Nevertheless, Schreker’s career went into decline during the Twenties, due in no small part to the rise of National Socialism and its anti-Semitic agenda. Schreker would die relatively young (two days before his 56th birthday) on March 21, 1934 in Berlin. He died of a stroke, which may have mercifully spared him from the treatment that Jews were just beginning to endure and would subsequently become much worse.
Fortunately, Falletta has programmed her album in such a way that the attentive listener will appreciate the uniqueness of Schreker’s voice as a composer. What is missing, however, is an ability to recognize how Schreker could take dramatic situations that would strike audiences as controversial and supplement them with music that did not blunt the sharp edges. From that point of view, the Opus 14 suite is likely to strike many as innocuous, while those familiar with the dramatic overtones of the first two selections may find it a source of necessary emotional relief. Nevertheless, such listeners are drawing upon a context that is not explicitly provided by this album; and, in many respects, an account of Die Gezeichneten in its entirety would probably offer a more compelling recognition of Schreker’s legacy.