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Max von Schillings. Photograph, c.1900.

Max von Schillings. Photograph, c.1900.

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MAX VON SCHILLINGS and the opera MONA LISA
(first performed 26 September 1915)

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

Mona Lisa. Opera in two acts. First edition of the libretto. Munich, 1915.

Max von Schillings (born Düren, Lower Rhineland, 19 April 1868 – died Berlin, 24 July 1933) is one of the forgotten figures of music. At one time second only to Richard Strauss in fame and eminence, by the time of his death in 1933 he had been laden with honours and titles as a composer, conductor and teacher. Indeed, his relationship with Strauss was significant. The two composers were very close friends for almost 40 years and both occupied important administrative roles - Strauss at the Vienna State Opera and Schillings at its Berlin equivalent. Moreover, both endured severe criticism for each promoting the other's work.

The early compositions of Schillings were written under the overwhelming influence of Wagner (Schillings began his career at Bayreuth), but by the time he came to write the opera Mona Lisa (arguably the only work of his to be remembered today) he had gravitated towards a curious blend of impressionism and verismo somewhere between Schreker and Pfitzner.

Mona Lisa was composed in 1914, apparently in a matter of weeks, following an earlier meeting in 1911 with the poet Beatrice Dovsky, whose play on the life of Lady Godiva Schillings had intended to set for the opera stage. When she handed him her poem Mona Lisa he was immediately inspired by the romantic, albeit entirely fictional, story of the woman with the most famously enigmatic smile in history, her husband and her lover - a classic operatic ménage a trois.

He was perhaps further encouraged when, with perfect timing, the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci was actually stolen from the Louvre, and after two years recovered in Florence in 1914. The projected opera could not have been more topical.

Dovsky wrote the libretto with the melodramatic and ultimately tragic story framed by a contemporary prologue and epilogue. Schillings completed the lavish orchestration of his intensely romantic score during military service in France and Belgium. Scored for a very large orchestra, including a prominent part for heckelphone, the opera received its world premiere on 26 September 1915 at the Hofoper in Stuttgart, where Schillings was Intendant, with soprano Barbara Kemp in the title role. The opera appeared at a time when Renaissance dramas were extremely popular.  Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violanta, Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten and Alexander von Zemlinsky's Eine Florentinische Tragödie  were all staged during this period. Schillings actually conducted the world premieres of the latter two works in Stuttgart. 

Mona Lisa  was an immense success, the greatest Schillings ever had as a composer.  In the following two years, Vienna (with Maria Jeritza), Berlin (conducted by Strauss), Breslau, Hamburg, Budapest, Kiel and many other cities presented the work. It reached the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1923, again with Barbara Kemp (she was by then Schillings' wife).

Recent revivals in Germany in the 1980s (Karlsruhe) and the 1990s (Kiel) have not led to its return to the mainstream repertory, possibly because of Schillings' perceived close connection to the emerging Nazi regime in the 1930s and his own declared anti-semitism. Indeed the expulsion and exclusion of important Jewish artists from the Prussian Academy of Arts began during his time as its President - an appointment conferred on him as soon as Adolf Hitler had been appointed Chancellor of Germany in March 1933.

Some of the artists affected by Schillings' zealous purge included Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Alfred Doblin,  Max Liebermann (whom he replaced as director of the Prussian Academy, following his dismissal), Franz Werfel and Jakob Wassermann.

He also immediately (and enthusiastically) dismissed Arnold Schoenberg from the teaching staff of the Academy, and ordered Franz Schreker, the leader of master classes in composition at the Academy (and a former friend), into early retirement. The shock of this, together with other events, brought on the stroke which ultimately killed Schreker in 1934.

In April 1933, Schillings was reinstated as Intendant of the State Opera in Berlin (he had been dismissed in 1925 after a major dispute with the Ministry of Culture over budget and artistic matters) and thus became the most powerful musical figure in Germany. However it was to be short-lived. He died suddenly on 24 July 1933 from an embolism following surgery for bowel cancer. While his music was enthusiastically promoted in Nazi Germany until 1945, it has never regained its former eminence since.

This is regrettable, as there is much to admire - particularly the melodious G minor Violin Concerto, the remarkable Das Hexenlied for tenor and orchestra, a symphonic prologue on Oedipus Rex, three earlier operas and some very fine chamber music, especially his last completed work, the String Quintet in E minor.

Schillings was also a renowned teacher (Wilhelm Furtwängler was perhaps his most famous pupil) and was the dedicatee of Sea Drift by Delius, who also admired him. His many recordings from the late 1920s (happily available again on CD) reveal a conductor of great finesse, especially in the works of Wagner and Beethoven.  On 26 April 1929 he recorded the Vorspiel to Mona Lisa with the Berlin Staatskapelle.  We are happy to be able to offer a hearing of this very rare historic recording below.

Brendan G Carroll  © 2015

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