Panorama of Helena Havlíková’s opera (359) – The distant sound of the State Opera just faded

The State Opera has prepared a new production of the opera The Far Sound (Der ferne Klang) by Franz Schreker, staged by Karel-Heinz Steffens and directed by Timofej Kuljabin. As part of the “Musica non grata” project, the National Theater took over the work presented in the same building, then the New German Theater, in 1920 by its former musical director Alexandre Zemlinsky.

F. Schreker: Distant Sound – Světlana Aksenova – State Opera Prague 2022 (photo by Zdeněk Sokol)

Schreker’s story – real and lyrical
Does Remote Sound need a new story?
No magic with sound
Musica non grata in larger dimensions

Schreker’s story – real and lyrical

Austrian composer and conductor Franz Schreker (1878-1934) is one of the authors condemned to oblivion by the Nazi regime. His father came from a Jewish family from Golčov Jeníkov, and the fact that his mother was of Styrian Catholic nobility and the family had converted to Catholicism did not help him. Schreker is the author of ten operas and many other instrumental and chamber compositions, of which his songs are most often mentioned today.

Schreker was introduced to the composer’s elite in 1912 by the Frankfurt premiere Remote sound and his other operas were also successful – music box and princess (first version premiered in Frankfurt and Vienna in 1913, revised version premiered in 1920 in Munich), Note (created in 1918 in Frankfurt) and Treasure hunter (creation in 1920 also in Frankfurt). Schreker’s operas were performed in opera houses across Europe until the 1930s. With the rise of National Socialism, Schreker was exposed to increasing restrictions which affected the presentation of his works and his work education in Berlin. In 1934, the Nazis definitely put his work on the list of “perverse art”.

Maria and Franz Schreker (source Musica non grata, photo Fondation Franz Schreker)
Maria and Franz Schreker (source Musica non grata, photo Fondation Franz Schreker)

German theaters only started to return to Schreker’s operas in the 1960s. A greater wave of international interest can be seen in the last two decades, when Remote sound, performs in the opera theaters of Berlin, Bonn, Graz, Frankfurt, Strasbourg or Zurich or Stockholm. Other operas by Schreker also began to appear more frequently, not only in the repertoire of many ensembles in Germany, but also in Antwerp, for example (Blacksmith of Ghent), Lyons (Note and irrelevant), Amsterdam (Note) or Zurich (Note).

Schreker’s second opera Remote sound in its time it enjoyed triumphant success, still marked above all by German composers, for it escaped the influence of the great Wagner, although it also competed for public favor with Richard Strauss. The libretto, which Schreker wrote himself in a combination of romanticism and symbolism with the naturalistic setting of the story, was fascinating. To succeed Remote sound the score’s original instrumentation and Schreker’s sonic experimentation also contributed, as he involved the music of a group of gypsies and gondoliers in the second act in Venice.

According to the contemporary responses, as he introduces them into the program of the production Jitka Slavikovahas been Remote sound regarded as a work that opened up new avenues of modern musical drama. In this opera, Schreker used his art of carving in search of sound colors, but in a different way from French impressionism. It adhered to composed form with the use of leitmotifs (returning the harp and celesta theme), extensive solo performances, a large chorus, and instrumental interludes. His finely chromatic harmony goes to the limit of tonality, which he never left, even though he was one of the disciples of the composers of the 2nd Viennese school.

F. Schreker: Distant Sound - Světlana Aksenová and Aleš Briscein - State Opera Prague 2022 (photo by Zděnek Sokol)
F. Schreker: Distant Sound – Světlana Aksenová and Aleš Briscein – State Opera Prague 2022 (photo by Zděnek Sokol)

When we think today of Schreker’s success from a historical point of view Remote sound, then what then seemed to viewers an irritating novelty, spiced with Art Nouveau symbolism, eroticism and decadence, was more an echo of late Romanticism than an opening of new avenues for modern opera. And German musicologists refer to analyzes of Strauss’s libretto Ariane on Nax and other opera-within-opera-themed works, here on Puccini Bohemian or Verdi Traviatu and a whole bunch of operas with lovers, who will meet at the time of death, here on Nuremberg Mastersinger Where Tannhäusera with a singing competition., here on The Wandering Dutchman with the image of a pale man in search of an unattainable ideal.

From a historical point of view, we now know that it was not the late romanticism of Schreker, but the ferment of the interwar period of the “savage” 1920s, which with Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schönberg , Alban Berg, Ernst Krenek, Kurt Weill, Arthur Honegger, Sergey Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky or Dario Milhaud have fully opened the door to new experimentation and new musical styles. In this context and in the context of the lyrical development of Richard Strauss, there is a triumph at the time Remote sound more understandable for us – at the same time it is clear how difficult it is to repeat it today.

Schreker’s opera also makes us wonder how long and why it was Janáček’s opera Destinywhich preceded that of Schreker between 1903 and 1907 Remote soundalso on the subject of the composer in search of his former love and the completion of his opera, considered an “unplayable” work (first stage performance in Brno in 1958).

Schreker’s main characters Remote sound with autobiographical parallels are the composer Fritz and his mistress Grete, a daughter of poor and harsh conditions. Fate offers Fritz not only musical talent but also love. But Fritz is convinced that he should not be bound by a love affair, because his mission is music. Due to his obsession with finding the mysterious distant sound, he leaves Greta and promises her a return and marriage – when he’s famous and rich.

F. Schreker: Distant Sound - Světlana Aksenová and Daria Rositskaja - State Opera Prague 2022 (photo by Zdeněk Sokol)
F. Schreker: Distant Sound – Světlana Aksenová and Daria Rositskaja – State Opera Prague 2022 (photo by Zdeněk Sokol)

Disappointed, Grete is faced with the harsh reality of her difficult family relationship, an alcoholic Grobian father and a depressed mother. Gret’s indebted father bet in the pub as collateral and loses it in a game of bowling. As a bride, Grete is supposed to belong to an innkeeper who would offer her to his men’s customers without hesitation. A desperate girl escapes from the house and is struck with a suicidal depression at night by a moonlit forest lake by an old “good” lady – in fact, a pimp who offers her new opportunities.

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