Suite from Der Geburtstag der Infantin (The Birthday of the Infanta (1923)

Suite from Der Geburtstag der Infantin (The Birthday of the Infanta (1923))

By Edward R. Reilly, Professor Emeritus, Vassar College

Written for the concert Fin de Siècle, performed on May 12, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It is difficult to imagine the enormous impact that Franz Schreker’s operas had upon his times. They were among the most widely and frequently staged works in the contemporary repertoire, and their blend of bold fantasy and sensual allure made them seem both dangerous and compelling. The first public exposure to Schreker’s operatic world came with the premiere of his Nachtstück, an orchestral interlude from the opera Der ferne Klang (the distant sound). Schreker was by then a known quantity in Vienna’s musical world, having found a distinctive compositional voice with his 1908 pantomime Der Geburtstag der Infantin (based on Oscar Wilde’s novella “The Birthday of the Infanta”), but nothing Viennese audiences knew by Schreker could have prepared them for what they heard on that night of November 25, 1909. The premiere of the Nachtstück was the composer’s first scandal. There were whistles and catcalls from the audience, and in the days to follow the abuse continued in the press. This one performance catapulted Schreker to the front ranks of Vienna’s “difficult” composers (it was, incidentally, around this time that he began his lifelong friendship with Arnold Schoenberg) and paved the way for the premiere of the opera that would make him famous.

Schreker probably began Der ferne Klang around 1903 or 1904. After having searched in vain for a suitable subject he had decided to write the libretto himself, and one cannot overemphasize the autobiographical aspects of this opera, whose very genesis traces the emergence of its composer’s artistic personality. Many to whom he showed his work-in-progress were shocked; his own teacher, Robert Fuchs, called it “crazy nonsense”, and by 1905 Schreker, discouraged and disillusioned, broke off composition midway in the second act. By his own account it was acquaintance with Strauss’s Salome that convinced him he was on the right track. When he returned to Der ferne Klang at the end of 1906 it was not to the second act but to the interlude that separates the two scenes of Act III. A few weeks later he could boast to a friend: “I have never written anything like it. You’d be amazed–it is quite different from anything else I’ve ever done–big–a climax the likes of which I’ve seldom heard before…The piece has turned out to be extremely difficult, but really fabulous. Magical, I tell you.”

It is little wonder that Schreker’s score encountered so much resistance among Vienna’s critics and audiences, for it was a work of nearly unprecedented difficulty. In his letters Schreker himself spoke of “harmonic curiosities that are without parallel” and of a network of thematic relationships that was “enigmatically intricate”. The key to unraveling the Nachtstück’s complexities lies in an understanding of its dramatic function within the opera. Der ferne Klang is the story of a young composer, Fritz, who leaves his fiance, Grete, to search for the distant sound he hears. A decade later, and no closer to his elusive goal, he encounters Grete (Act II), who is now a courtesan in an elegant Venetian bordello. Although their love is rekindled he rejects her in disgust when he realizes what she has become. Act III takes place five years later; Grete is now a common streetwalker and Fritz a famous composer, whose opera, Die Harfe (the harp), is receiving its world premiere. The two scenes of Act III portray Grete’s reaction to the failure of Fritz’s opera and her reunion with the dying composer, who realizes too late that it is only in Grete’s presence that he hears his distant sound. The Nachtstück connects these two scenes. In it Schreker creates a dreamscape, whose motivic, harmonic, and rhythmic layerings, and brilliant and luxuriant orchestration, are an evocation of the fevered thoughts that follow upon the failure of Fritz’s opera. Gösta Neuwirth has described the Nachtstück as a kind of nerve center of the opera, a psychogram of its “sonic symbols.” Dream-like recall of earlier motives lies at the heart of its structural logic, and Neuwirth sees a direct parallel between Sigmund Freud’s description of the retrograde dream process in The Interpretation of Dreams and Schreker’s use of closely related musical forms and techniques. In another study of the opera, Ulrike Kienzle calls the piece a “musical drama of the soul” in which Schreker develops motivic and thematic techniques that are analogous to contemporary literary explorations of the stream-of-consciousness.

Like so much else in this autobiographical opera, the Nachtstück is a mirror of that state of nervous, sleepless agitation in which Schreker wrote the work, a state in which he felt he was being bombarded by ever changing motivic combinations that were forcing their way, as it were, out of his subconscious. It was an experience not unlike that which would characterize Schoenberg’s composition of Erwartung three years later. But unlike Erwartung’s uninterrupted flow of thematic generation, Schreker’s Nachtstück, like Der ferne Klang as a whole, is a web of tightly woven motivic and harmonic interrelationships unlike anything else Schreker had written to that date. Harmonically the score approaches the brink of polytonality and explores the use of timbral fields that would have a significant influence on, among others, Alban Berg, who helped prepare the piano vocal score of Der ferne Klang. The present performing edition of the Nachtstück returns to the original conception of the work: 79 bars cut for the premiere of the opera have been restored and the concert ending Schreker wrote for the 1909 performance of the work has been added.

Orchestral interludes play an important role in all of Schreker’s mature operas, although only the interlude from Act III of Der Schatzgräber was ever published independently. These interludes form a remarkable body of orchestral works that focus and distill the essence of Schreker’s gifts as a musical dramatist. It was the Nachtstück from Der ferne Klang that first established beyond question the originality and scope of that gift.
Christopher Hailey, President, The Franz Schreker Foundation