Franz Schreker, Vom ewigen Leben (From Eternal Life)
By Byron Adams
Born March 23, 1878, in Monaco
Died March 21, 1934, in Berlin, Germany
Composed in 1923
Premiered in 1929
Performance Time: Approximately 20 minutes
Franz Schreker was celebrated principally as a dramatic composer during his lifetime: his first success came in 1908 with a pantomime, Der Geburtstag der Infantin, based on The Birthday of the Infanta by Oscar Wilde. In 1910, Schreker completed his masterpiece, the opera Der ferne Klang, which enjoyed a veritable triumph at its 1912 premiere in Frankfürt am Main. Schreker consolidated his reputation as a leading German opera composer in 1918 with Die Gezeichneten. Music critic Paul Bekker ignited a firestorm of controversy by comparing Schreker to Wagner. In 1920, Schreker was appointed director of the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, one of the most prestigious music posts in Germany.
By 1923, however, when he composed his two “lyrische Gesäge” on passages adapted from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Schreker’s reputation had begun to wane. His 1924 opera Irrelohe garnered only an equivocal success; his next opera, Der singende Teufel, which premiered in 1928, was a disastrous failure. Due to right-wing pressure that resulted from his father’s Jewish heritage, Schreker was forced from his post at the Hochschule in 1932. This humiliation, combined with mounting financial difficulties, placed Schreker under enormous emotional and physical stress. He died of a stroke in December 1933, just short of his fifty-sixth birthday.
Schreker was extraordinarily responsive to literature: he wrote his own libretti for his operas. His two settings of Whitman’s verse, translated into German by Hans Reisinger, are testaments to Schreker’s ability to evoke fully poetry through music. These two songs resemble a concise lyrical cantata more than two disparate lieder. The text of the first song of Vom ewigen Leben comes from the twelfth poem of Calamus—“Roots and Leaves Themselves Alone”—in the ordering found in the final 1892 edition of Leaves of Grass. The text of the second is found in the sixth section of Song of Myself: “A child said, ‘What is the grass?’” Using a sensuous harmonic idiom hovering delicately on the brink of atonality paired with shimmering orchestral timbres, Schreker probes the metaphysical import of Whitman’s poetry in a manner both insightful and achingly beautiful.
Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.