The Distant Sound

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Distant Sound, performed on April 15, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When the American symphony Orchestra decided some years ago to present a concert performance of Der ferne Klang in the spirit of the courageous and innovative mission bequeathed to it by the Orchestra’s founder Leopold Stokowski, neither I, nor the staff, nor the board of directors were aware that this performance would be not only the first performance in the United States, but in the western hemisphere. Stokowski consistently championed new and unusual repertoire. He gave the first American performances of Berg’s Wozzeck and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. But those performances took place in near proximity to the dates of composition and the premieres of those works. It is a sobering commentary on the programming habits of opera houses and orchestras in the United States that the premiere of a work of such historical importance as Der ferne Klang and by such a prominent figure as Franz Schreker should take place ninety-five years—nearly a century—after the work was first performed.

Of all the witnesses to the importance of Der ferne Klang, the most important may have been Alban Berg, who prepared the vocal score. What made Der ferne Klang so significant was not only the multiplicity of musical ideas and innovations, including the mixture of sonorities, the complexity and layering of musical materials, but Schreker’s almost prophetic concern with the connection between sight and sound. The emancipation of harmonic usage within tonality from short-term structure and the wide palette of orchestral sound suggests the influence of visual experiments at the turn of the century, particularly in Austrian and German painting. What we like to call expressionism, in which the illusion of realism is distorted by the counter-intuitive use of color, the variegation of the painterly surface, the focus on the subjective experience of the imagery as well as the imagination and fantasy of the viewer, needs to be remembered alongside the movement in the visual arts known as symbolism, in which the philosophical, the psychological, and the spiritual are evoked through the dramatic and often shocking departures from the traditions of nineteenth-century painting. Furthermore, as Christopher Hailey has persuasively argued, the music of Der ferne Klang, the way voices and language are treated, and the pacing of the drama all anticipate hallmarks of the emerging art of the cinema, particularly during the interwar years in Germany.

The fact that Franz Schreker’s name is not as well known as it ought to be is a tragic consequence of the intolerance and brutality of mid-twentieth-century politics. Schreker was born in Monaco in 1878. His father was of Jewish descent and a court photographer. His mother was a Catholic of aristocratic birth. Schreker was ten years old when his father died and the family moved to Vienna. He trained as a violinist at the Vienna Conservatory but later turned to composition. His graduation piece was Psalm 116 (performed by the ASO earlier this season). In the early part of the century his music enjoyed considerable success, and Schreker began to work in Vienna as a conductor. His first opera, Flammen, had its premiere in 1902 in a version with piano at the leading recital hall in the city of Vienna. He conducted at the Vienna Volksoper, and in 1907 he founded the Philharmonic chorus, with whom he premiered both Psalm 23 of his friend and colleague Alexander Zemlinsky (also performed by the ASO earlier this season), and most importantly, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.

The connection between Schreker and the cultural foment of turn-of-the-century Vienna is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that his music for Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Birthday of the Infanta” accompanied a dance pantomime (whose staged premiere in America was also performed by the American Symphony), that was created for the 1908 Kunstschau, an exhibition which featured the second wave of Viennese modernist painting after the Secession of 1897. The Kunstschau featured such artists as Kokoschka and Schiele. What captivated Schreker and those artists was, as many observers have noted, the hidden psychology of the individual. Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), its brilliance notwithstanding, was an achievement that cannot be understood in isolation from contemporary literature and philosophical speculation. The exploration of dreams and the unconscious and of hidden meaning was an obsession. The discovery of a geography of the unconscious suggested not only a new way to understand overt behavior, but also to reconsider the essence of the human spirit, particularly the role of sexuality, childhood, and memory. This metaphorical exploration into unseen dimensions of the psyche lent the power of music, especially in its sensual and atmospheric use (so audible in Schreker), enormous prestige. From Wagner to Schreker, music assumed the role of a coded language of understanding and revelation.

If the making of art and music in the nineteenth century was grounded in John Ruskin’s concept of art as possessed of a moral and spiritual power, by the first decades of the twentieth century, the making of art was perceived as having a unique capacity as expressive of the psyche. The complexity of human behavior and motivation and the hidden reaches of the psyche and imagination found their proper medium through art. The shattering of the conventions of literary narration, visual representation, and therefore the parallel habits of musical realism in use of harmony, melody, and form, were justified not merely by aesthetic criteria. The quest by Schreker, and for that matter Schoenberg and Berg, for new modes of musical expression was not driven only by a search for originality or radical individualism. Rather, new ways of painting, literature, and music were valued for the extent to which they could tell the truth about the inner workings of perception and consciousness. Clearly those revelations had a distinctly rebellious character, attacking the inherited hypocrisies regarding love and sexuality. Schreker’s connection to the visual artists from his Viennese milieu extended to the choice of designer for the production of Der ferne Klang, Alfred Roller. Roller had been a member of the Vienna Secession and Mahler’s colleague during the latter’s tenure at the Vienna Opera, during which radical new productions in the visual sense were mounted of Mozart and Wagner. Roller was also the designer for Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.

Schreker’s primary medium became the opera. By the time of his death in 1934, he completed nine operas. By 1920 he had become controversial but was also widely heralded as the most significant opera composer in the German-speaking world since the death of Wagner. A more logical choice might have been Strauss, which seems right from our perspective, but in the 1920s Strauss’s reputation was on the decline. He was considered old-fashioned, a holdover from the previous century and an enemy of modernism. What Schreker seemed to have that Strauss did not was the Wagnerian conceit of having created a new dramatic music for the future, with commitment to progressive musical innovation. For that reason, Schreker was singled out by the influential critic Paul Bekker and anointed—rather like Schumann’s anointing of Brahms—but this time as the true heir to Wagner. It was therefore no surprise when Schreker was appointed director of the Hochschule Fürmusik in Berlin in 1920. Under his tenure as director of that legendary school of music, he recruited not only Arnold Schoenberg and Paul Hindemith, but the pianist Artur Schnabel, the violinist Carl Flesch, and the cellist Emanuel Feurermann. To his lasting credit, Schreker was not only a great director; he was a great teacher. The list of his pupils is a veritable star chart of mid-twentieth century music, including the composers Berthold Goldschmidt, Alois Haba, Ernst Krenek, and Karol Rathaus. In an era where great performers were also composers, it is understandable that his pupils also included the pianists Victor Babin and the conductors Artur Rodzinski, Jascha Horenstein, and Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, as well as long time collaborator and friend of Karol Szymanowski, Jerzy Fitelberg.

Schreker’s wide-ranging style did not always endear him to critics, Bekker’s advocacy notwithstanding. Schreker had more than his share of difficulties with negative responses to his work. In one of the rare instances when a composer is compelled to respond to his critics and is able to do so, Schreker simply took complete quotes from a host of critics and listed them one after another. Each of them said something completely contradictory and all the claims canceled one another out so as to appear ludicrous. In this humorous and biting amalgam in “Mein Charakterbild,” all Schreker did was respond to his critics by revealing their lack of logic, their hypocrisy, and their prejudices and ignorance.

The 1920s were a productive and largely rewarding decade in Schreker’s life. He was at the height of his fame and pioneered in collaborations with new technologies of recording and broadcasting. In the early 1930s he also engaged in the production of films of concerts in an effort to use the new medium. But politics intervened. Not only was Schreker not Aryan, but his music fit directly into the pseudo-moralistic category of “decadent.” Performances of Schreker’s operas were routinely interrupted in the years leading up to 1933 by Nazi hooligans. Schreker was forced to resign even before the Nazis seized power. He was officially removed from all his posts in September 1933. The shock of the success of the Nazis was for him particularly acute. His colleague Schoenberg, who was born of Jewish parents but converted to Protestantism, had the option of embracing Judaism; he reconverted and turned into an ardent Zionist. But Schreker had no reason to consider himself Jewish except by the most regressive standards of racial thinking. He had little reason to expect the fate that befell him. He had a stroke in December of 1933 and died in March the following year, at the age of 56.

What doubtlessly infuriated the right-wing anti-Semites of the early twentieth century was the sacrilegious claim that Franz Schreker was modernity’s Richard Wagner. Even though Schreker’s achievement is unthinkable without the example of Wagner—including the scale of his ambition and his role as his own librettist—not only in Der ferne Klang but also in all of his subsequent operas, the idea that this visionary composer could somehow inherit the mantle of the apostle of the myth of the Aryan race was too much to endure. Furthermore, the comparison with Wagner highlighted the enveloping and seductive experience of Schreker’s use of sound. Here was a new kind of “total” work of art, in which text, the visual, and the audible worked together as a magical unity. And it did not help that Schreker’s ardent apostle Paul Bekker, the leading critic of interwar Weimar, was himself a Jew. Schreker’s case only fueled the idea that not only aesthetic modernism but also modern psychology and science, (e.g., Freud and Einstein) were part of a massive Jewish conspiracy to corrupt the moral fabric of European culture. Bekker fled to New York and died in 1937, reduced to writing criticism a daily German-language newspaper.

Since Schreker died well before the war and never had the chance to emigrate, he was not among those survivors who at least had the opportunity to restart their careers after 1945. Also, he was not a direct victim of the war or Holocaust, and although identified by others as Jewish, he remained a Catholic his entire life, and therefore his cause never seemed unique nor lent itself to a sympathetic, posthumous revival. Furthermore, since his forte was music for the stage, and music for chorus and voice, there was not the depth of repertoire for orchestra and solo instruments or chamber music sufficient to jumpstart a revival of interest in his music. Operas, even on a concert stage, are expensive and complicated to mount. Finally, the taste of the decades immediately following the Second World War were directed toward a more astringent and less expansive modernism. Only with the explosion of interest in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the literature, art, and architecture of turn-of-the-century Vienna, did serious attention begin to return to the achievements of Franz Schreker. The revival of interest in Vienna of that period also corresponded with the decline in taste in the kind of radical musical modernism more closely associated with Webern and Schoenberg. The postmodernist romance with turn-of-the-century Vienna led rather to a renewed appreciation for the early Schoenberg, in Berg, and finally Schreker. For members of the audience interested in hearing more of Schreker’s music, I would recommend, in addition to his later operas, his Kammersymphonie (1916), and his settings from the 1920s of the poetry of Walt Whitman.

Many individuals have made this performance possible, including Christopher Hailey, who deserves the overwhelming credit for pioneering a revival of interest in Schreker’s music, particularly to the English-speaking world; Thurmond Smithgall, a long time advocate of this opera who has been instrumental in bringing it finally to the United States; our intrepid cast; and also the musicians of the American Symphony Orchestra, who have worked hard to make the best case for this music. It is our hope that this performance of Schreker’s best known and most influential work can help spark a Schreker renaissance in the United States, leading to long-overdue staged productions of the musically cogent, dramatically engaging, and psychologically penetrating operas that are the distinguished legacy of Franz Schreker.