Franz Schreker

Franz Schreker, circa 1930. With permission of the Franz Schreker Foundation.

In recent decades there has been a revived interest in musicians suppressed by the Third Reich.  One of the most striking of these losses to music history was the Austrian-Jewish composer Franz Schreker.  Neither an experimental modernist like Schoenberg nor a committed leftist like Kurt Weill, Schreker was considered by some to be one of the most promising twentieth-century composers.  In the eight years between the peak of his popularity in 1924 and his forced resignation in 1932, however, the Nazis managed to ensure the almost total disappearance of his music from the public consciousness, not just within the Reich but throughout the world.

The toast of German opera in the early Weimar years, Franz Schreker was born in 1878.  His family travelled around much of Europe before his father died suddenly in Linz in 1888, after which they moved to Vienna.  As a young aspiring musician, Schreker worked at various odd jobs to help care for his mother and three siblings, before being awarded a scholarship to the Vienna conservatory in 1892, where he studied violin and composition.

Schreker gradually built a reputation as one of the most talented young artists of turn-of-the-century Europe.  In 1909 he married the soprano Maria Binder, who subsequently sang in several leading roles in his productions.  During these years he produced several sets of songs and pieces of symphonic music. However, it was as an opera composer that he was to make his name. One of his earliest works – a one-act opera titled Der Ferne Klang (The Distant Sound) – frankly explored issues of sexuality and eroticism.  In 1912 he was appointed professor at the music academy in Vienna, where he developed a reputation for being a talented and committed teacher.

 

Franz Schreker, circa 1915. With permission of the Franz Schreker Foundation.

Schreker's next opera, Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin (The Music Box and the Princess), was less well received, and the outbreak of World War I the following year interrupted the continuing success of Der Ferne Klang.  Schreker continued to teach in the Vienna Conservatory during World War I, and it was the inter-war years that were to see the brief blossoming of his career.  He was made the director of the prestigious Berlin Academy of Music in 1920. During these years Schreker was the focus of much positive publicity.  An influential Frankfurt critic, for example, wrote that the composer represented an important trend in German music:

There are currently three [major] German opera composers: Hans Pfitzner, Richard Strauss, Franz Schreker ... First with the emergence of Franz Schreker has the transition been perfected ... For the first time in decades we have a row of works that is outside any following of trends, any speculative theories, beyond mere artificial style or any sort of formal experimentation ... Schreker sees the stage of the opera with the eye of the irrational and emotional fantasy man.  From this basic attitude emerges the difference not only to the doctrinal idea-opera of Pfitzner or the intellectually restricted artfulness of Strauss ...  Schreker is in comparison to these ... a natural force.

By the late 1920s, Nazis had begun to boycott Schreker's performances and to interrupt them with anti-Semitic threats.  The premiere of his new opera, Christopherus, which was dedicated to Schoenberg, had to be cancelled in 1932 due to threats of violence; (it was first premiered 47 years later).  By this point, Schreker's musical fate was sealed, and he resigned from the Academy in March 1932.  He died in Berlin in March 1934, barely a year after Hitler came to power.

Sources

Prieberg, F.K., 1982. Musik im NS-Staat, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.  

Dümling, A., 1993. On the Road to the "Peoples' Community" (Volksgemeinschaft): The Forced Conformity of the Berlin Academy of Music under Fascism. Musical Quarterly, 77(3), 459-83.