Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Jeremy Eichler on Schreker's genius: Boston Globe

In search of a distant sound
A composer's opera finally makes its arrival in America
By Jeremy Eichler, Boston Globe

April 15, 2007
This afternoon at New York's Lincoln Center, the American Symphony Orchestra will perform an opera by Franz Schreker titled "Der Ferne Klang" or "The Distant Sound." It is, astonishingly, the first professional performance of any complete Schreker opera in North America. And herein lies a strange story, one of the great disappearing acts of modern music history.
Franz Schreker (1878-1934) was an Austrian composer of half-Jewish descent. His popularity in the German-speaking world rose to great heights in the 1920s, for a brief time approaching that of Richard Strauss. Of all the composers whose lives or reputations were eclipsed by World War II, Schreker was perhaps the most accomplished, and his vanishing from history has been the most eerily complete.
In the last two decades, his operas have begun returning to stages across Central Europe, buoyed by the politics of "cultural reparations" that have galvanized interest in music by once-banned composers ranging from Walter Braunfels to Alexander Zemlinsky. In this country, the recording industry has invested considerable resources in "degenerate music" -- a term the Nazis applied loosely to music they disliked, on either racial or aesthetic grounds -- but Schreker's operas have not gotten their due in live performance.
The neglect remains a mystery. Schreker was a voice of startling freshness at a time when music was seeking bold new pathways to its own future. His artistic instincts grew out of the fertile soil of fin-de-siecle Vienna, and his operas grappled with psychological themes of intense Freudian resonance. Like many of his characters, the composer quested for a "distant sound," elusive yet intoxicating, a new way of writing opera that was grounded in history, especially Wagner, but open to the quiver and flux of the emerging modern world. Unlike Schoenberg, he did not call for harmonic revolution but instead renovated an existing musical grammar, conjuring up orchestral sonorities whose tactile richness and subtlety of timbral detail had scarcely been heard before. Most unusual of all, he was an avant-gardist who never gave up on the notion of a progressive music that could spread sensual pleasure beyond a narrow clique of connoisseurs.
Leon Botstein, a conductor who has devoted tireless energy to reviving forgotten 20th-century gems, will lead this afternoon's concert performance. When reached by phone during a week of rehearsals, Botstein's enthusiasm was palpable. "It's mind - bogglingly good," he said. "So fresh, and so direct, and so delightful. It requires not a shred of apology."
"Der Ferne Klang" was Schreker's first work of greatness, and its 1912 Frankfurt premiere made him a young star of modern German opera. The plot centers on a composer's search for a mysterious magical sound that leads him away from his true beloved, only to discover too late that the sound he seeks is a refraction of their own love. The writing in the libretto by Schreker cannot measure up to the symbolist mastery of a poet-librettist like Maeterlinck, but as Botstein points out, neither do the librettos used in "La Boheme" or "Madama Butterfly." And underlying "Der Ferne Klang" is the composer's youthful faith in the strange, nearly mystical powers of the orchestra.
He was a composer of tremendous intellectual richness, but he never disavowed his devotion to music as sound, to music as lived experience," said Christopher Hailey, the leading Schreker scholar, by phone from Princeton, N.J. "He wants to bring us to an understanding of our aural environment, in which the magic of sound is very much part of our experience of the magic of being. I think that comes out most clearly in 'Der Ferne Klang.' He's a young man breaking all the rules, and opening perspectives that weren't pursued with real consequence until after the Second World War."
The near-disappearance of music that offers so much is difficult to grasp. According to Hailey, there was talk of bringing Schreker's operas to the United States in the 1920s, a time when the Weimar blockbuster "Jonny Spielt Auf" (by Ernst Krenek) received its American premiere. But the plans were never realized, possibly due to the giant scale of the works themselves and the prohibitive costs of mounting a production.
When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, Schreker was forced out of his teaching positions and his operas were strictly banned, not only for their progressive musical language but for their frank embrace of sexual themes. In the words of one infamous Nazi poster: " There was no sexual-pathological aberration he would not have set to music."
But the fevered lushness of Schreker's oeuvre seemed to offend not just the zealots of the extreme right, but also the chaste mandarins of the left. Theodor Adorno, the most influential theorist of musical modernism, displayed a marked ambivalence about Schreker, calling him on the one hand "a minstrel in a world without minstrels" and superior to Strauss in "orchestral imagination," but also cruelly denouncing Schreker's work as "music for puberty" or the fruit of a utopia that was too "unsublimated."
To be sure, Schreker's music was a far cry from the austere 12-tone path taken by Schoenberg and his disciples, a model that, after World War II, came to be cast as the only true and legitimate path for modern music. This heavy bias toward Schoenbergian flavors of modernism held strong well into the 1980s and gasped its final breaths only within the last decade. As a result, there are now new paths to sunlight opening up for works long buried in the rubble.
Schreker's operas are among them, but don't expect "Der Ferne Klang" to muscle out "Tosca" anytime soon. This is music with a certain inner volatility, a dearth of easily quotable tunes, and a peculiar undertow toward the dark, unmapped regions of the soul. With the right advocacy, these works might achieve sumptuous rare-bird status in the repertory, but even that is far better than extinction.
After today's performance, the next domestic glimpse of a Schreker opera will probably be given in Los Angeles, where James Conlon and the Los Angeles Opera have plans to stage Schreker's "Die Gezeichneten" ("The Stigmatized") in a future season, as part of its essential multiyear "Recovered Voices" project devoted to music repressed by the Third Reich.
The location of this project in Los Angeles is also fitting, as that city became home to so many émigré composers who were forced to flee Hitler's Europe. Schreker was almost among them. He made contacts in Southern California and considered emigrating.
In preparation for his journey, Schreker began practicing English, and one of his notebooks was on view in an exhibit at the Salzburg Festival in 2005, offering a poignant window into the almost painfully basic preparations for a new life. On one page, the composer wrote simple equations: "Ja = Yes" and "Nein = No."
Schreker's second act did not take place, as he died at 55 after a stroke for which it is speculated that the Nazis' treatment was to blame. More than seven decades later, his music has now made it to this country. Much credit goes to Botstein and the ASO for taking the initiative.
But perhaps the final word here should belong to Schreker himself. At the bottom of one page in the same notebook, the composer scrawled a short and strangely haunting sentence with no surrounding context. He seemed to be practicing his more formal English, perhaps anticipating the demands of a new chapter -- one that is now, finally, taking place.
"Ladies and gentleman," he wrote with open-ended grace, "let us begin."

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