Magazine article The New Yorker

All about Schreker; Musical Events

Magazine article The New Yorker

All about Schreker; Musical Events

Article excerpt

A friend once borrowed a history of opera from the library, only to find that every other page had been marked up by one of those hyper-punctuating annotators who stalk the pages of library books around the world. Whether the topic was Monteverdi, Wagner, or Gilbert and Sullivan, the voice in the margins kept returning to one agonized, enigmatic question: "WHAT ABOUT SCHREKER???" My friend, who understandably knew little of the Austrian opera composer Franz Schreker (1878-1934), began to use that graphite cri de coeur as shorthand for the cult of obscure art, which sees repertories and canons as conspiracies against neglected genius. Any gathering of aesthetes will sooner or later have a "What about Schreker?" moment.

It's a good question, though. Schreker was better on his best days than most great composers are on their off days, which is why canons of genius are suspect. A child of fin-de-siecle Vienna, he delighted in the traumas of hypersensitive artist types, capturing them inside a glistening spiderweb of orchestral sound. At the height of his career, around 1920, he was anything but obscure: his operas were staged in all the major German and Austrian houses, and he became the director of the prestigious Hochschule fur Musik, in Berlin. There were various reasons for his subsequent decline: he grew less sure of himself as he passed the age of forty; the ever-changing stylistic trends of the Jazz Age left him bewildered; he was of partly Jewish descent, which meant that after the Nazi takeover of 1933 he could no longer earn a living. He tried to learn English, in preparation for possibly emigrating to America. "Ladies and gentlemen, let us begin," he wrote in his notebook. But he did not get the chance, dying, literally and figuratively, of a broken heart.

An attempt at resuscitation is under way. Schreker's operas are sidling back into the repertories of Central European opera houses. This summer, the Salzburg Festival mounted a beautifully disturbing production of "Die Gezeichneten," or "The Branded," which, between 1918 and 1930, played in twenty-two cities, and then went unheard for decades. Nazism consigned Schreker to obscurity; now German-speaking opera lovers seem determined to make amends. Heinz Fischer, the President of Austria, who is trying to quell yet more antiSemitic noises from the country's far right, made a point of attending "Die Gezeichneten" and visiting an exhibition of Schrekeriana which the Jewish Museum of Vienna had put together. But it's tricky to frame Schreker as a virtuous victim of history. Nikolaus Lehnhoff, who directed "Die Gezeichneten," rightly perceives that there is something dangerous and strange at the heart of Schreker's music, an unstable, implosive energy, which guarantees that it will have an uneasy future.

Schreker had sharp features, a high forehead, and incisive eyes. He looked a little like Mahler, which may explain why Alma Mahler had an affair with him after her husband's death. His father was a portrait photographer for the European aristocracy; his mother came from an old Austrian Catholic family. He was one of the few young composers of his generation who refused to be overwhelmed by Richard Wagner, paying heed instead to international contemporaries, notably Debussy, Puccini, and Paul Dukas, whose opera "Ariane et Barbe-Bleue" is another hidden gem of the fin de siecle. (New York City Opera will revive it this fall.) Schreker's first major opera, "Der Ferne Klang" ("The Distant Sound"), first heard in 1912, stood out from myth-based, swords-and-sorcery operas of the period, because it was set in the present day, in the salons and cafes of the bourgeoisie. An ambitious young composer goes in search of a "distant sound," turning away from the woman who loves him. She descends into the dregs of society, not unlike Wedekind's Lulu, and only when it is too late does the artist realize his error.

From the start Schreker had an urge to make art about art, to show the exhilarating possibilities and creeping dangers of the creative path. …

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