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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHREKER: Ferne Klang (Der)
Franz Schreker (1878 – 1934)
Der ferne Klang
Recent years have brought a revival of interest in the music of the Austrian composer Franz Schreker, whose reputation has been eclipsed partly through political circumstances and partly through the fame of other composers who seem to have learned much from him, his older contemporary Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Schreker spent a dozen years, from 1920 until 1932, as director of the Berlin Musikhochschule and enjoyed the greatest respect both as a composer and as a teacher. !n the latter year he was forced by the government of Franz von Papen to resign his position, and in 1933 he was dismissed by the National Socialist Party from the work in charge of the master-class in c composition. The destruction of his career brought about a heart-attack and he died in March 1934.
Son of the Austrian court photographer, Franz Schreker was born in Monaco, where his father Ignaz Schrecker - the spelling of the name was later changed - was employed briefly in the same capacity. His father was a native of Bohemia, born in Golc-Jenikau, not far from Kaliste, Mahler's birth-place. His mother was from Styria, a member of an ennobled but impoverished family. The death of Ignaz Schrecker in 1888 left his wife and four children to make a life for themselves in Vienna in relative penury, a fact that made Franz Schreker value all the more the security his later fame was to bring him and no doubt increased his distress, where racial persecution brought disaster.
In 1892 Schreker entered the Vienna Conservatory with a scholarship, studying there with Zernlinsky's teacher Robert Fuchs. Four years later his Love Song for harp and strings was performed in London by the orchestra of the Budapest Opera, while his graduation composition in 1900, a setting of Psalm CXVI, attracted some favourable attention in Vienna. This was followed by his Intermezzo for strings, Opus 8, later included in the Romantic Suite. The work was awarded first prize in a competition held by the Neue Musikalische Presse and given its first performance in the Musikverein in 1902.
Schreker was to go on to establish a reputation for himself in the theatre. The one-act opera Flammen was given a concert performance in 1902 at a time when he already seems to have started work on Der ferne Klang. In 1908 his pantomime, based on the work of Oscar Wilde, Der Geburtstag der Infantin, was given in Vienna, bringing the composer his first significant success. There were delays, however, in completing Der ferne Klang, caused by the criticisms of his friends and natural misgivings about the subject of the work and its erotic content. In 1905, after the appearance of Richard Strauss's opera Salome, Schreker took up the opera again, writing the Nachtstuck, the interlude that falls between the two scenes of Act III. This was given its first concert performance in Vienna in 1909 and the generally favourable reception given to it encouraged the composer to complete the opera, a task he accomplished in the space of four weeks. There followed various delays and disappointments before the work was finally mounted in Frankfurt-am-Main on 18th August 1912, when it won some success.
The stage-work that followed, Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin, later subject to revision, was not so well received. In Vienna the work provoked open hostility, while in Frankfurt it was received coolly, if without animosity. Schreker achieved greater success with Die Gezeichneten and Der Schatzgriiber, produced in Frankfurt in 1918 and 1920 respectively. These works were followed by Irrelohe, given in Cologne in 1924 under Klemperer, to be damned by the most influential critics, and by the opera Christapharus, which was never staged, owing to opposition from the National Socialists, whose influence was increasing. Der singende Teufel was mounted at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 1928 under Kleiber, but failed to impress the public, while Der Schmied van Gent, completed in 1932, had the briefest of runs at the Oeutsches Opernhaus in Berlin, two months before Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.
Schreker's reputation as a composer of opera was to rest largely on Der feme Klang, Die Gezeichneten and Der Schatzgriiber, and this principally among his contemporaries. His fame, in fact, came to an end with the decline of the Weimar Republic and with the prohibition of performances of his works, in common with those of other composers of Jewish ancestry or allegedly decadent tendency, during the period of the Third Reich. It is only in recent years that more general interest in his music has been rekindled.
Schreker has a claim to our attention, of course, as a teacher. His pupils included composers of the stature of Ernst Krenek and Alois Haba, while Berg, who prepared the unplayable original vocal score and piano transcription of Der ferne Klang, later revised by Ferdinand Rebay, clearly learned much from the exercise, particularly in the subtle and original techniques of orchestration used by Schreker, As a composer he must seem in many ways characteristic of the period in which he flourished, a late romantic, whose style sorted equally ill with the mood of the Neue Sachlichkeit proposed by Hindemith, the world of Brecht and Kurt Weill as with conservative tastes and Aryan cultural policies of the new regime. Nevertheless a closer examination of his music suggests a much profounder talent than might at first have seemed the case.
Der ferne Klang is remarkable in a number of ways. In the first place Schreker handles a large orchestra with the greatest subtlety of nuance. In addition to the orchestra in the pit, with triple woodwind, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, varied percussion, two harps, celesta and strings, there are orchestras on stage. The Venetian ensemble for Act II consists of flute, clarinet in A, three mandolins, two guitars and strings, and the gypsy band in the same act has a clarinet in D, strings and cembalom. In the third act there is an off-stage theatre orchestra, consisting of a clarinet in A, two horns, timpani, harp and strings. There is, in the orchestration, a meticulous attention to timbre and colour, general avoidance of doubling, and an original and innovative treatment of effects. A particular feature of the score and of the libretto is the use of superimposed elements, both musical and verbal, not only in noises off, which are relatively commonplace in opera, but in a technique of musical and dramatic collage which has its strongest effect in the Venetian scenes of Act II. Startling contrasts of harmony add to the atmosphere of the drama in a score that may now be seen to be seminal in its influence on younger composers, a work of the greatest power and relevance, part of an existing operatic and musical tradition, which it served very considerably to extend.
 Scene 1 In the living-room of the Graumann's house, Grete, the daughter of the family, is pleading with her lover, Fritz, who stands outside the window, in the street. Fritz tells her that he must leave, in pursuit of the far distant sound that haunts him and for which he must strive. The sound of revelry can be heard from the inn opposite, where the sound of a door opening is heard. Fritz leaves, bidding Grete a hasty farewell.
 Scene 2 An old woman puts her head round the door, apparently looking for Grete's mother. She voices her disapproval of Fritz's behaviour in leaving Grete and of Graumann. She hobbles out, promising Grete help, if she should need it, to the latter's puzzlement
 Scene 3 Frau Graumann comes in and scolds her daughter for crying. She goes on to complain about her husband's drinking, but is shocked at Grete's offer to work, to go into service.
 Scene 4 There has been increasing noise from opposite. Now Graumann comes home, bringing with him his friends, the lawyer Vigelius, a ham actor, the landlord of The Swan, and other customers, bar-maids and waiters, the customers, at least, the worse for drink. The actor makes a formal speech declaring himself a marriage-broker on behalf of the landlord, who seeks to marry Grete. During the scene the old woman is seen occasionally, looking curiously through the window. It seems that Graumann has staked his daughter in a game of skittles and has lost, as Dr Vigelius explains.  The lawyer Vigelius gives a graphic account of the game, but Grete is horrified and announces that she is promised to another. Graumann is urged out by his friends, who attempt to calm his drunken anger.
 Scene 5 The landlord urges Grete to think the matter over. The landlord makes his own proposal, making it clear that he will not be jealous if Grete flirts with the customers.  Grete, left alone with her mother, who approves the match, seems to relent She asks her mother to help her dress.
Scene 6 While her mother is out of the room Grete makes her escape.
 Orchestral Interlude
 Scene 7 The second part of the act is set in a mysterious wood Grete is alone and contemplates death, since she cannot find Fritz. Suddenly the moon comes out, and Grete, charmed by its magic, falls gently asleep.
 Orchestral Interlnde
 Scene 8 The old woman who had appeared mysteriously in the first part hobbles in and rouses Grete, again offering her help Then the two leave together, as the moon passes again behind a cloud.
 Scene 1 It is ten years later The act is set in La casa di maschere, a dance-establishment on an island in the Gulf of Venice. In the open hall girls sit lounging and smoking, while others go up and down the marble steps at each side. During the act there is music from a gypsy band and Venetian music.
Scenes 2-4 A gondola is seen drawing near to the shore, onto which the hall abuts, and the singing of the girls and men on the shore mingles with the conversation of Mary, Mizi, Milli and a Spanish girl about the handsome young
Count and Greta's rejection of him, because he looks like someone she once loved. The Count's gondola reaches the island, and he asks for Greta.
 Scene 5 The Count is joined by the Baron, an older man, who is sceptical of Greta's response to the Count's advances.
 Scene 6 Greta appears at the top of the stairs and is greeted by the Baron and by all the men. She tells of a bad dream, the mysterious wood, the promise of pleasure, its sordid emptiness and the recurrence of a distant sound that reminds her of something better.
 As the voices of women singing are heard, Greta pulls herself together and proposes a contest for her favours, which will go to the teller of the best story.
 The Count tells the tale of the Burning Crown, that tormented the King, whenever he felt love: it is thrown into the waves from which a pale woman emerges to drag him down into the sea again.
Act II (continued)
 The Count's story is followed by a frivolous confession by the Chevalier, who sings of the flower-girl of Sorrento, who sold flowers and favours, and became his wife, after his previous marriages to a seamstress and a chamber-maid. The company proclaims the Chevalier the winner.
 The Count is angry at the decision, which must be Greta's, and remonstrates with her.
Scene 7 At this point a sailing-boat can be seen approaching, black against the darkness of the sea. As Greta and the Count converse, the boat comes to land.
 Scene 8 Fritz, bearded and at first unrecognised, comes into the hall. He gives an account of his vain search for the distant sound that had inspired him, and his subsequent search for the love of his youth, Greta, whom he now asks to be his wife.
 Greta congratulates Fritz ironically on the timing of his arrival. The nature of the establishment in which he finds himself eventually dawns on him, and he withdraws in horror at what Greta has become. The Count challenges him, but Fritz refuses to fight for a whore, and returns to his boat.
Scene 9 As the gypsy band plays, Greta agrees to go away with the Count.
 Scene 1 It is five years later. In the garden in front of a restaurant in a big city Dr Vigelius and the actor are talking. The actor, drinking more heavily, explains his resignation from the theatre, after being asked to play the role of a ham in a new piece.
Scene 2 A member of the cast comes in for refreshment and pronounces the new playa success.
 The actor and Dr Vigelius recall the events of fifteen years ago, when old Graumann gambled away his daughter. Dr Vigelius, haunted by regrets at his own part in this proceeding, thinks he has recognised Grete.
 Scene 5 An individual of obviously dubious character approaches Grete, whom he greets as Tini, claiming to know her well.
Scene 6 Grete rejects his advances, saying that she is not Tini.
Scene 7 Another actor from the theatre joins the company, bringing news of the failure of the new piece, which has disappointed the audience, after a good start.
 Grete docs her best to repel the man who has accosted her, and calls on the others to help. The man is pushed out.
Scene 8 The noise of people leaving the theatre is heard, and some members of the audience come in, discussing what they have seen, and talking of the illness of the writer. Grete faints.
 Coming to her senses, Grete recalls the distant sound that Fritz had sought. Dr Vigelius promises to take her to Fritz, the writer of the piece, which is clearly the story of his search for a magic and distant sound that had in the end proved vain and elusive.
 Orchestral Interlude
 Scene 9 The second part of Act III is set in Fritz's study, early in the morning. Fritz is listening to the song of the birds in his garden.
 Scene 10 Fritz is joined by his friend and doctor Rudolf, who urges him to revise the drama, and write a new ending, but Fritz declares that to be impossible. He still regrets his treatment of Grete and his early rejection of love in favour of the pursuit of his artistic ambitions, which now seem purposeless. He suspects that the woman who cried out in the theatre the night before might have been Grete, but Rudolf tells him it was only a prostitute.
 Scenes 11-12 Rudolf nevertheless agrees to go and search out the woman. A servant announces a visitor
 Scene 13 Dr Vigelius is shown in and gradually reveals the purpose of his visit, which is to bring Grete to Fritz.
 Scene 14 Grete now comes in, no longer dressed as a woman of the street, and they embrace. At last Fritz hears the music he has sought for so long, as he lies dying in the arms of his beloved.
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SCHREKER: Ferne Klang (Der)