Swans Commentary » swans.com April 5, 2010  



Ruminations On Rusalka, The Ring, Cyrano, And Shreker - Part III


by Isidor Saslav





(Ruminations - Part I -- Ruminations - Part II)


(Swans - April 5, 2010)   More on opera: The subject of the following letter was the Austrian composer Franz Shreker (1878 - 1934). Shreker (originally "Schrecker," or "the one who frightens." Franz changed his name so as not to reproduce his father's) was enjoying a worldwide success as an opera composer fully equal to that of Puccini or Richard Strauss for about the first quarter of the 20th century. However, the Nazis' ascension to power in Germany in 1933 spelled finis for the Jewish composer and his career. His operas descended into a limbo from which they have not yet fully recovered. Before he too, like Korngold (1897 - 1957), Franz Waxman (1906 - 1967), and Max Steiner (1888 - 1971) later, could turn his attention to emigrating to the United States he died of a heart attack in 1934. Nowadays his operas are more and more being revived, much to the gratification of audiences around the world. Next summer at the Bard College Summerscape Festival devoted to Alban Berg, music director Leon Botstein will conduct a revival of Shreker's opera Der Ferne Klang(1912).

August 22, 2005

Mr. Alex Ross
The New Yorker Magazine
Conde Nast Building
4 Times Square
New York NY 10036

Dear Mr. Ross:

We have enjoyed your perceptive criticisms for many years. We began our New Yorker readings when Winthrop Sargent was your predecessor.

I am writing in regard to your article on Franz Shreker (Aug 22). I first performed Shreker as concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Franz Paul Decker with the Vorspiel zu Die Gezeichneten (1922) in the 1980s. More recently I heard the Dallas Symphony under Andrew Litton perform the Vorspiel zu einem Dramen [Die Gezeichneten]. I too was intrigued by Shreker's "gossamer" colors and thought what a career he too could have made in Hollywood, possibly putting Korngold and others into the shade. I was glad to read in your article that his thoughts too had begun to turn in that direction.

I have been spending recent years in search of obscure operas. One of my more recent visits was to New York to hear Cyrano de Bergerac. Though you and the other main critics were more unsparing of Alfano (wrongly so I thought) than you seem to have been toward Shreker I was intensely gratified to see Shreker being put front and center in what is after all America's greatest magazine by one of our finest critics. I identified fully with your "WHERE IS SHREKER?" margin annotator and would have written as much myself had I been given the opportunity. I am also on track to see Paul Dukas's (1865 - 1935) Ariane et Barbe-bleu at the New York City Opera in October, mentioned by you as one of Shreker's influences. I'm curious to see how Dukas's theatrical operatic idiom strikes the New York critics and how they rank still another opera from the pantheon of the unknowns. No excuse this time for putting down a work simply because of the motivations behind its revival (Domingo, etc.).

On a trip last year I too was finally able to catch up with a complete Shreker opera, Irrelohe (1923), at the Vienna Volksoper, where Shreker had been the chorus master for many years. Indeed, one of the highlights of his career was preparing the chorus for the premiere of Arnold Schoenberg's (1874 - 1951), Gurrelieder in 1913. The Volksoper still thinks of Shreker as a "house" composer. My impression of Irrelohe, despite the house's typical Germanic attempts to distract their audiences from the composer's original intentions by ridiculous and inappropriate costumings, stagings, etc., (in this case by putting the protagonist into a cage) was that I might well have been experiencing a typically tense, dramatic, and overpowering opera by Richard Strauss except that none of Strauss' typical harmonic locutions were in evidence. This further impressed me with Shreker's originality.

One plot item in Irrelohe didn't seem quite correct as you described it: the burning of castle Irrelohe took place not just out of a general epidemic of arsons but out of a desire for specific retribution on Irrelohe's inhabitants by the once humiliated bridegroom, chased from the church steps prenuptially many years before by the protagonist's lustful father, and now having returned to exact his final revenge.

Keep promoting the unknowns and the unheards from the past.

Yours sincerely,

Isidor Saslav


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 5, 2010