Max von Schillings, Mona Lisa

by Walter Frisch

Written for the concert Mona Lisa, performed on February 20, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born April 19, 1868, in Düren, Germany
Died July 24, 1933, in Berlin
Composed in 1913–15
Premiered on September 26, 1915, at the Stuttgart State Theatre conducted by Schillings
Performance Time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 3 oboes, 1 English horn, 1 heckelphone, 3 clarinets, 1 E-flat clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 6 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (chimes, glockenspiel, xylophone, castanets, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, tam tam, snare drum, field drum), 1 celesta, 1 organ, 1 mandolin, 2 harps, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double-basses, chorus, 3 sopranos, 1 mezzo-soprano, 4 tenors, 1 baritone, and 3 bass-baritones.

Although his music is virtually unknown today, even in his native Germany, Max von Schillings was recognized during the decades around 1900 as one of the leading figures of early musical modernism in the Austro-German sphere. Along with Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner, Schillings dominated the post-Wagnerian operatic world, especially with his three early operas: Ingwelde (1894), Pfeifertag (1897), and Moloch (1907). Schillings was also active as a conductor, and, with his friend Strauss, he helped program the annual new music festivals of the prestigious Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein (General German Music Association).

Schillings, who came from a prominent Rhenish family, was based initially in Munich, where he became associated with the so-called Munich School of progressive composers centered around Ludwig Thuille. In 1908 he joined the staff of the Stuttgart Opera House, where among other accomplishments he arranged for the premiere of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in 1912. After 1915, Schillings’ compositional output declined as he focused more on administration and conducting. From his position as President of the Prussian Academy of the Arts in Berlin, which he assumed in 1932, Schillings would prove a willing partner to the Nazis in purging the institution of “alien” elements (including its professor of composition, Arnold Schoenberg).

Schillings’ fourth and last opera, Mona Lisa, was composed between 1913 and 1915. Where his earlier operas had been strongly indebted to Wagner’s music dramas, Mona Lisa allies Wagnerian devices like leitmotivs and intense chromaticism to the fast-paced verismo of recent Italian operas by Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and Puccini.

Mona Lisa’s two acts, not divided into scenes, are continuous musically and dramatically. The plot, as in many verismo operas, revolves around the themes of jealousy, betrayal, despair, and revenge. There is also local color in the evocation of Florentine church bells and Renaissance polyphony. Critics praised Mona Lisa as an important departure from Wagner’s style. One noted that Schillings “places before our eyes a mirror of real life, which seizes us more strongly than any mythology.”

Schillings would never follow up on the achievement of Mona Lisa. Another opera begun at about the same time, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, projected a different and more powerful blend of modernism, realism, and Wagnerism that ultimately had a far greater impact on the twentieth century.

Walter Frisch is H. Harold Gumm/Harry and Albert von Tilzer Professor of Music at Columbia University.