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Past Exhibition of the Month - April 2018

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The Brendan G. Carroll Collection.

The Brendan G. Carroll Collection.

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FRANZ SCHREKER (23 March 1878 - 21 March 1934) and the opera DIE GEZEICHNETEN (first performed Frankfurt, 25 April 1918)

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

St├Ądtliches Opernhaus, Frankfurt. Postcard photograph, c.1920. The Brendan G. Carroll Collection.

On August 28, 1919, the noted American periodical Musical Courier carried an article by Cesar Saerchinger entitled: Franz Schreker, an Austrian: hailed as the Messiah of German Opera. The reason for this extraordinary salute was the world premiere of Schreker's new opera Die Gezeichneten,that had taken place in Frankfurt the previous April.

Saerchinger wrote, in part:-

  1. "In the last year of the war, in the midst of that terrible spring offensive, which threw Germany into the abyss, Franz Schreker's great new work, Die Gezeichneten, was produced. The way in which the people received it seemed to say that here, at last, was what they had been groping for. Such a success, in the case of a serious work, is almost a miracle. People from everywhere travelled to Frankfurt to hear the opera, where it was produced a number of times throughout the summer. Munich followed last spring....and from there, the work began a triumphal progress through Germany such as has not been the lot of an opera in a generation..."

Photograph from The Musical Courier, 28 August 1919.  The Brendan G. Carroll Collection.

Yet after 1934 Schreker was to be almost completely forgotten until relatively recently. In the first two decades of the 20th century he was one of the most admired and performed operatic composers in Austria and Germany, at one point rivalling even Richard Strauss in the number of performances of his operas.  This month marks the centenary of the world premiere of Die Gezeichneten.

Franz Schreker was actually born in Monaco, the eldest son of the Imperial Court photographer Ignaz Schrecker (Franz dropped the c later), and his wife, Eleonore von Clossmann, who was a member of a notable Catholic aristocratic family from  Styria. His early years were itinerant, travelling across half of Europe wherever his father’s work took the family, before finally settling in Vienna in 1888 after the sudden, premature death of his father.

In 1892, with the help of a scholarship, Schreker entered the Vienna Conservatory. He initially studied violin with Sigismund Bachrich and Arnold Rosé, leader of the Vienna Philharmonic and brother in law of Gustav Mahler, but soon realised that a career as a performing musician was not for him.

He wanted to be a composer and subsequently joined the composition class of Robert Fuchs (1847-1927), probably Vienna’s most noted pedagogue at that time, whose students included Mahler, Korngold, Franz Schmidt, Sibelius, Enescu, Wolf, Zemlinsky and Robert Stolz. Schreker received a thorough grounding in harmony and counterpoint from Fuchs before graduating with honours in 1900.

His first real success was the Intermezzo for Strings, Op. 8, which won an important prize sponsored by the Neue musikalische Presse in 1901 but in spite of this, he spent the next several years taking various bread-and-butter jobs playing piano and teaching. He wrote his first opera in one act, Flammen, in 1902 but it failed to receive a staged production. (A concert performance with piano only was presented at the Vienna Bösendorfersaal by students from the Conservatory).

Schreker had begun conducting as early as 1895, when he had founded the Verein der Musikfreunde Döbling. In 1907 he formed the Vienna Philharmonic Chorus, which he conducted regularly until 1920, giving many important premières including Zemlinsky's Psalm XXIII and Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden and Gurre-Lieder. Schreker became much admired as a conductor and his formidable experience in this field was to develop his remarkable skills as one of the foremost orchestrators of the early 20th century.

Around the time he founded the Philharmonic Chorus, he received a commission to write a "pantomime" to a story by Oscar Wilde entitled  Der Geburtstag der Infantin, (The Birthday of the Infanta) for the famous dancer Grete Wiesenthal and her sister Elsa, who had been  invited by the painter Gustav Klimt to appear at the opening of the 1908 Kunstschau. This delightful score for chamber orchestra was the first to bring him real recognition as a composer. Schreker later made a sumptuous, much enlarged orchestration of the work as a suite (the version most often heard today), which he dedicated to Willem Mengelberg, who gave the first performance with the Concertgebouw on 18 October 1923.  The success of the Infanta led to Schreker composing several more dance-related works for the two sisters including Der Wind, Valse lente and Ein Tanzspiel (Rokoko) but his real musical ambitions lay in the field of opera and it was to this genre that he began to devote himself almost exclusively.

In 1908, Schreker became attracted to a beautiful young girl in the Vienna Philharmonic Chorus. Her name was Maria Binder and she was just 16 years old. Schreker was 30. In spite of the age difference, the two began a relationship and the following year, were married on her 17th birthday. The marriage was to endure (in spite of predictions to the contrary) although the relationship was highly complex.

It was an unusual, unconventional marriage because Maria Binder was bisexual and enjoyed extra-marital affairs with several women. Meanwhile in 1912 Schreker (like so many other men) was to fall under the spell of Alma Mahler, barely 6 months after she was widowed. Schreker bore a superficial resemblance to Mahler, which may have had something to do with her attraction to him.

Their affair was at its height during the period in which Schreker was beginning to write Die Gezeichneten, which might explain its extraordinary, erotic atmosphere and sensual harmony. The Schrekers' colourful private life perhaps also accounts for his predilection for sexually lurid subjects for his operas.

Schreker's affair with Alma Mahler ended abruptly when she fell passionately in love with the painter Oskar Kokoschka. Meanwhile, what was to become his most famous operatic work was about to receive its premiere. In November 1909, a complex orchestral interlude - Nachtstück (or night piece) - from that opera (which was entitled Der ferne Klang, or The Distant Sound) was given at a concert by the Wiener Tonkünstlerorchester conducted by Oskar Nedbal.   The piece was considered shockingly avant-garde and the performance caused a scandal (a century later this lovely music seems hypnotically romantic) as a result of which Schreker was immediately placed in the notorious company of Schoenberg, Berg and other Neutöner, or those who espoused new sounds over strong diatonic melody.

Schreker had been working on Der ferne Klang since 1903 and it finally achieved its first staging on 18 August 1912 in Frankfurt, where it enjoyed a huge success. It was regularly performed before 1933, even reaching Leningrad in the mid 1920s. Alban Berg (who much admired it) prepared the piano score. The same year that Der ferne Klang premiered, Schreker was offered a provisional teaching appointment at the Vienna Conservatory, now called the Vienna Music Academy. He made such an impact that, in early 1913, he was appointed  full-time professor there and his position in Vienna's musical life seemed assured. For the next decade, Schreker was to enjoy his greatest success as a composer - in spite of frequent critical altercations with Vienna‘s music press, led in particular by the much feared Julius Korngold, father of the composer.

Photograph from Der Merker, Vienna, 1912. The Brendan G. Carroll Collection.

Schreker's relationship with Korngold senior had never been cordial and when the publisher Universal Edition suggested to this irascible critic that Schreker be given the task of orchestrating his eleven year old son's ballet Der Schneemann for its premiere at the Hofoper in April 1910, Korngold adamantly refused and insisted that instead, his son's teacher Alexander Zemlinsky teach the boy by example and orchestrate the work during his lessons. As a result of this incident, which underlined his growing suspicion that Universal Edition was the Viennese hotbed of musical radicalism, he took the wunderkind's compositions away from the publisher and signed an exclusive contract with Schott in Germany. The rift between Schreker and Vienna's foremost critic was never to be healed.

This seriously affected the reception accorded Schreker's next opera, Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin, (The Carillon and the Princess - given simultaneous premières in Frankfurt and Vienna on 15 March 1913) which was less successful, particularly in Vienna where Julius Korngold wrote a scathing review and dismissed it as being 'unmelodic'.   Vienna has always loved a scandal and the furore caused by this opera, especially a critical and very public spat between Julius Korngold and rival critic Max Kalbeck over the latter's review boosted Schreker's fame and notoriety ahead of the serious critical approval that he sought. It was his next opera however, that would seal his reputation as the enfant terrible of the operatic world. This was Die Gezeichneten, arguably his most extravagant and fascinating work, scored for a vast orchestra and furnished with a deliciously decadent libretto.

The very title of the work presents a problem for non-German speakers. It has been translated in various ways – 'The Stigmatised', 'The Branded', 'The Marked Ones', 'The Doomed' are just a few. The ‘marking’ relates to the tragic, main protagonists of the story, a sexual ménage, all of whom are marked by fate and by the actions they take.

Schreker wrote his own libretto, as he did with all of his operas, and completed this as early as 1911, originally at the request of his friend and colleague Zemlinsky, the teacher of Schoenberg (as well as young Korngold) and just appointed as Musical Director of the Neues Deutsches Theater in Prague (now the State Opera). He had asked Schreker to write a libretto for himself – one which would tell “the tragedy of the ugly man”, and he suggested it be based on the 1904 play Hidalla by the noted German playwright Frank Wedekind.

Schreker became absorbed by the subject matter and decided to set the story himself, a decision that vexed Zemlisnky, who felt the idea of an ugly man loving a beautiful woman perfectly mirrored his own, earlier, tragic and largely unfulfilled relationship with the beautiful Alma Mahler, when she was still his pupil, and before he was supplanted in her affections by his mentor, Gustav Mahler.

Zemlinsky eventually returned to this theme later on, when he composed his opera Der Zwerg  (The Dwarf, 1922) based on the  Oscar Wilde story about a beautiful young princess who is given an ugly, caged dwarf as a birthday gift. The dwarf then falls in love with her and when she ridicules and rejects him, dies of shock when, upon seeing his reflection for the first time, realises how ugly he is.

This was the same story that had been set to music by Schreker for his earlier pantomime Die Geburtstag der Infantin in 1908.  Moreover, there are clear similarities between the ugly dwarf in the Wilde story and the deformed hunchback Alviano Salvago, who is the main character in Die Gezeichneten.

I mention the intertwining of works, conceptual ideas and the love of the same woman that existed between these two composers, with the underlying theme of the ugly being attracted to beauty and vice-versa, as it is one of the more fascinating aspects of the creative history of Die Gezeichneten.

Schreker composed the music of the opera between 1913 and 1914, completing the full score in 1915. The outbreak of World War One postponed the world premiere, originally scheduled for Frankfurt in 1916.

Unusually, Schreker created an enlarged version of the already grandiose prelude to the opera as a completely separate work entitled Vorspiel zu einem Drama  (Prelude to a Drama) which was completed in the autumn of 1913 and first performed at the Vienna Musikverein on 8 February 1914 by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Felix Weingartner. It became a successful work in its own right, even reaching America, where in 1921 in Boston it was conducted by Pierre Monteux.  Schreker himself conducted it many times, especially in Moscow and Leningrad in 1924.

The opera is a genuine fin de siècle drama and very much part of the prevailing trend at that time for works set during the Renaissance. Along with Korngold’s Violanta, Zemlinsky’s Eine Florentische Tragödie and Schillings’ Mona Lisa (all three of which have featured as earlier Exhibitions of the Month) Schreker's work is arguably the most successful and fascinating of them all.


The story takes place in Renaissance Genoa. The ugly and crippled nobleman Alviano Salvago has a paradise he calls Elysium, built on an island near the city and devoted to art and beauty. On account of his own ugliness, however, he has never set foot on the island himself. He would like to gift this paradise to the city of Genoa and make it accessible to all of its citizens. Against Alviano’s will however, the dashing young nobleman Tamare has set up a brothel on the island in which Genoese noblemen are able to freely abuse kidnapped young girls and he is not too keen on this secret enclave of perversion being discovered.

The two men are also both vying for the affections of the beautiful young painter Carlotta Nardi. Recognising the noble soul beneath Alviano’s deformed exterior, she expresses a desire to paint him. He agrees, and the two improbably fall in love. At the same time Carlotta is attracted by Tamare’s good looks and eventually allows herself to be seduced by him. Alviano catches them both in flagrante and kills Tamare. As Carlotta dies of despair Alviano loses his mind, bringing the opera to a tragic end.

Die Gezeichneten finally received its first performance on 25 April 1918 at the Frankfurt Opera, conducted by Ludwig Rottenberg with a cast including Else Gentner-Fischer as Carlotta, Karl Ziegler as Alviano and Robert Von Scheidt as Tamare.  

It was an enormous success, Germany's foremost music critic at the time, Paul Bekker, writing:

  1. "The most important question had been whether or not a talent such as Wagner's would ever reappear, or whether it was only to appear a single time. The question has now been answered. Franz Schreker is such a talent, the first since Wagner who is, by nature, related to him - the same phenomenon, only in a completely different form, an embodiment which at first glance, scarcely reveals the relationship"

  2. from Franz Schreker: Studie zur Kritik der modernen Oper first published in Deutsche Bühne  Frankfurt, 1919, and translated by Dr Christopher Hailey in his definitive biography of Franz Schreker, published by Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Postcard photograph by Franz Lowy, Vienna, c.1920. The Brendan G. Carroll Collection.

THE MUSIC OF SCHREKER and Die Gezeichneten

Like all great composers, Schreker has a highly personal and instantly recognisable voice. Frequently called the "German Debussy" during his lifetime, this title trivialises Schreker's unique musical profile. His use of iridescent orchestral colour and a remarkable skill in creating an unsettling, impressionistic mood is complemented by one of the most individual harmonic voices of the 20th century, quite unlike Debussy and the French school.

Stylistically, his music occupies a special place, somewhere between early Schoenberg, Mahler and the young Korngold. A predilection for arching 7ths, diffuse and disparate instrumental groups often in different keys and a frequent use of sparkling percussion and various keyboards to penetrate the often overwhelming orchestral wash of sound in a highly pointillistic manner (perhaps the aural equivalent of the paintings of Klimt and other great Secessionist artists) creates a striking musical canvas like no other.

Die Gezeichneten offers a perfect synthesis of Schreker's style. The opening bars introduce a unique sound world that uses bitonality in the most magical and seductive manner possible. A shimmering, undulating, sensual dissonance is immediately created that combines D major and B minor in multi-divided strings, penetrated by flashes of colour from the piano, harps and celeste followed by a yearning theme that gradually appears in the cellos; this is music that could be by no other composer. A similar, other-worldly sound occurs at the opening of Schreker's superb Kammersinfonie for 23 solo instruments, written around the same time (1916-17) and there are other examples in his operas. It is, perhaps, his musical carte de visite.

The opera, cast in three acts, requires an orchestra of 120 with an especially large brass section of six horns, four trumpets, three trombones and a bass tuba, together with a wind section requiring no fewer than 15 players! In addition, 2 harps, celesta and piano underpin a battery of percussion to provide a seductive glitter and romantic sweep to the music. As well as the vast orchestra, Schreker demands a full chorus and over two dozen soloists, which makes its impressive number of productions following the premiere all the more remarkable, especially when one considers that Germany and Austria entered a period of great financial depression following WW1.

After its successful world premiere on April 25 1918, a further two dozen productions followed in fifteen different cities in Germany and Austria. Indeed, advertisements were placed announcing the first performance in Vienna, in January 1920, from publisher Universal Edition that proudly mentions 66 previous performances of the opera in five different opera houses (Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Munich, Dresden and Breslau). For a short time, Schreker was the most performed operatic composer in Austria and Germany after Richard Strauss, until that accolade was claimed by Korngold with his opera Die tote Stadt.


Following the success of Die Gezeichneten, the first performance of Schreker’s next opera Der Schatzgräber [The Treasure Seeker, composed 1915-18] was also given in Frankfurt on 21 January 1920 and was an even greater success, arguably the high point of his career.

A few months later, in March 1920 he was appointed director of the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin and between 1920 and 1932 he became one of the most significant teachers of his time, giving extensive musical tuition in a variety of subjects, with Berthold Goldschmidt, Alois Hába, Jascha Horenstein, Julius Bürger, Ernst Krenek, Egon Kornauth, Karol Rathaus, Stefan Wolpe, and Grete von Zieritz among his many distinguished pupils.

Around the same time, Maria Schreker made her operatic debut in Münster as Els in Der Schatzgräber and soon began to sing other leading roles in her husband's operas. Her ethereal beauty and a particular affinity with the composer's music make the few, very rare recordings she made of excerpts from these operas (one of which, an aria from Die Gezeichneten,  is included at the end of this article, with Schreker himself conducting), of great historical significance.

Although her voice was not large, it was well placed and she apparently had a potent stage presence that enabled her to enjoy success in a varied repertoire including the double role of Marietta and Marie in Korngold's Die tote Stadt, and leading parts in works by Hans Gäl (Die heilige Ente), Bizet (Carmen), Offenbach (Hoffmanns Erzählungen), Puccini (Madama Butterfly, Tosca and La Boheme) and Richard Strauss (Ariadne auf Naxos). She starred with considerable success at the Berlin Staatsoper in Der ferne Klang opposite Richard Tauber in 1924 and in 1929, sang Rosalinda in the famous, (and extremely lavish) revised version of Die Fledermaus  by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Reinhardt.

These years also saw the very peak of her husband's fame and influence. Particularly astute as to the value of the emerging technology of electric recording, radio and film, he made an important series of recordings and broadcasts and a valuable series of sound films of great performing musicians of the time. He is also credited with being the first to be commissioned to write a piece especially for radio - his delightful Kleine Suite in 1924.

By the late 1920s however, his career as a composer was in decline, especially following the cool reception given to his next opera Irrelohe in Cologne in 1924, in spite of a fine production and the inspired conducting of Otto Klemperer. The failure of his opera Der singende Teufel (The Singing Devil) which followed in Berlin in 1928 conducted by Erich Kleiber, perhaps reflected the profound sea change in public taste towards a greater realism in opera (Neue Sachlichkeit  or new objectivity as it came to be called, and its immediate by-product - Zeitopera or opera of the times) that had been ushered in by such strikingly different works as Max Brand‘s Maschinist Hopkins, Ernst Krenek‘s Jonny Spielt Auf  Hindemith's Neues vom Tage and Kurt Weill‘s Die Dreigroschenoper.

Like Korngold‘s Das Wunder der Heliane, which also reached Berlin in 1928, and Die Aegyptische Helen by Richard Strauss that appeared later the same year, Schreker's opera failed, as the public turned away from grandiose, mystical fairy tales or epic historical subjects, preferring instead to see racy operatic works that utilised modern staging, jazz rhythms and contemporary settings.

The rise of the Nazis and the virulent increase of anti-Semitism in the late 1920s were also contributory factors, both of which effectively put an end to Schreker's career. Right-wing demonstrations marred the première of his next and final, completed opera Der Schmied von Gent (The Blacksmith of Ghent) in Berlin in 1932 and the new Nazi administration that assumed power the following year, forced the cancellation of the scheduled Freiburg première of Schreker’s opera Christophorus in 1933 (the work had been completed in 1929 but ultimately had to wait until 1978 for its first performance).

In June 1932, Schreker lost his position as Director of the Musikhochschule in Berlin and the following year, he was 'persuaded' to resign as professor of composition at the Akademie der Künste. The Nazis considered Schreker to be the example sans pareil  of the Jewish musical degenerate and the entry on him in their infamous Lexicon der Juden in Musik (Dictionary of Jews in Music) underlines this, in highly graphic terms:

"It was significant for the cultural politics of the recent period of artistic decay just past, that a librettist-composer should have been appointed to the highest position at the leading music academy of the Reich, the Musikhochschule in Berlin - someone who indulges in choosing various kinds of sexual perversion as a subject for his major operatic works "

In the catalogue for the now infamous Nazi-sponsored exhibition entitled Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) in Düsseldorf in 1938, Schreker was called the "Magnus Hirschfeld of opera composers", a direct reference to the notorious German Jewish physician and sexologist who was one of the first to advocate the rights of homosexuals to live openly in society. The word entartete was a term first used in the 19th century by doctor and criminologist Cesare Lombroso to describe an abnormal condition, and it was appropriated by the Nazis to attack any individual, work of art or music of which they did not approve. 

In his lifetime, Schreker had gone from being hailed as the future of German opera to being considered irrelevant as a composer and marginalized as an educator.  The mounting financial pressure resulting from the loss of his position in musical life together with his income, and the ignominy of his promised State Pension being suddenly reduced to a pittance, seriously affected his health.

In addition, the potential threat to his personal safety and that of his family, owing to his being half-Jewish began to take its toll. After suffering a stroke in December 1933, he never really recovered and following a heart attack, died in Berlin on 21 March 1934, two days before his 56th birthday with sketches for a new opera, Memnon, left on his desk, unfinished (only the Prelude was completed).

Following his death, Schreker's music was all but forgotten for more than 40 years. Apart from occasional performances of the overtures and orchestral interludes from his operas, given by devoted pupils such as Jascha Horenstein and Ferdinand Leitner, his voice was effectively silenced.

The reawakening of interest in Die Gezeichneten has been slow and gradual. The first recording of a rare live performance in Hamburg came in 1960 conducted by Winfried Zillig. Other live recordings followed before a major and much admired studio recording was mounted by Decca in 1994 as part of its celebrated Entartete Musik series that recorded many works suppressed by the Nazi regime.  

Since then, it has doggedly reappeared at regular intervals in various theatres with growing success, and finally reached America in 2010 when James Conlon presented it in Los Angeles. Its French premiere took place at Lyon in 2015 and last year it returned to Munich as part of its annual opera festival and will be revived there again next month. In January 2018 it was performed at the Komische Oper in Berlin. It has yet to receive a staging in Great Britain.

The composer's reputation is gradually being restored. All of his operas are now recorded and his many beautiful songs have been rediscovered by the younger generation of singers. The author of the definitive biography, Dr Christopher Hailey, sums up his position in 20th century music most eloquently, in the following terms:-

  1. "Franz Schreker is a central figure in that remarkable flowering of opera in early-twentieth-century Austria that included Alexander Zemlinsky, Alban Berg, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Integrating Schreker's aesthetic plurality -- a mixture of romanticism, naturalism, symbolism, impressionism, expressionism, and Neue Sachlichkeit -- timbral experimentation, strategies of extended tonality, and conception of total music theatre into the narrative of contemporary music, has contributed to a more differentiated understanding of central European modernism."

Indeed it has. This month's centenary is a poignant milestone in his long overdue rehabilitation.

The Schrekers' grave in the Waldfriedhof, Dahlem (Berlin). Photographed 2015.

Franz and Maria Schreker at their home in Berlin, 1928.  The Brendan G. Carroll Collection.


Aria from Die Gezeichneten, Act 2. Maria Schreker (soprano), Orchestra of the Berlin Staatsoper, cond. Franz Schreker. Recorded 1928. The Brendan G. Carroll Collection.