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Schreker : Der Schatzgräber. First edition of the vocal score. Vienna, 1919. Cover illustration after a lithograph by Richard Teschner (1879-1948).

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Franz SCHREKER: Der Schatzgräber

January 2020

FRANZ SCHREKER’S opera Der Schatzgräber (first performed in January, 1920)

Following the tremendous success of his opera Die Gezeichneten in 1918  (see Exhibition of the Month, April 2018, which also contains substantial biographical details) the Austrian composer Franz Schreker (1878-1934) presented what was to become his most successful stage work, Der Schatzgräber (The Treasure Seeker), on 21 January 1920 at the Frankfurt Opera.

As with all of his operas, Schreker wrote his own libretto which owed nothing whatsoever to the famous ballad by Goethe but was entirely of his own invention, replete with the sexual elements that were later to cause his music to be branded as degenerate and banned by the Nazis.

The inspiration for the opera came in remarkable circumstances.  In the summer of 1915 the composer enjoyed a holiday with his family in Lower Austria, near the border with Styria. Away from the distractions and intrigues of Vienna and the tumult of the Great War (he had been disqualified from military service because of varicose veins), Schreker later described what was clearly a most profound moment of inspiration, in an extended essay Über die Entstehung meiner Opernbücher “On the Origins of My Opera Librettos,” published in Das Feuer, November 1919 and subsequently reprinted in the famous journal Musikblätter des Anbruch, October 1920.

I was staying with my family in a small house in Semmering belonging to some strange people. They had travelled far and wide and had gathered all manner of things from all over the world. There was an old Franconian room, a Persian room, a Turkish room and an attic room filled with fantastic bric-a-brac and stuffed animals of every imaginable sort. But the most charming of all were two Transylvanian peasant rooms on the ground floor, with one of those gigantic wood stoves in the corner…..

We all sat around the table – it was late in the evening, the flickering light of the candles in an iron chandelier gave the room a somewhat ghostly, medieval aspect.

A young girl from our circle of acquaintances entered in a wilfully fantastical dress; on her arm was a lute from which fluttered many colourful ribbons.

She sang old German folk songs and forgotten ballads with a soft, touching voice. A strange mood descended upon all of us … I myself watched through tears, as if through crystal: the room seemed to mutate into a stage set. The girl – her name was Else – was strangely transformed. The lute glistened in the hands of a handsome youth, the halberds on the walls were given porters to carry them, the pewter jugs were now filled with sparkling wine, and kingly jewels glowed in subterranean splendour from the nearby cupboard.

In this strange house was thus born the entire plot of my opera Der Schatzgräber…..+

On his return to Vienna, Schreker set immediately to work on the new opera. The libretto was soon complete and he began to compose the score in 1916. By August of the following year the Prologue and Act I were finished and fully orchestrated. Four months later in December, Act II was completely sketched, as was Act III by February 1918.

At this point however Schreker had begun to have doubts about the overall concept and sent the libretto to his friend and supporter, the leading Berlin critic Paul Bekker (1882-1937) for his opinion.

The latter responded with many suggestions, prompting Schreker to make changes to the libretto and to even reconstruct the music of Act III.  Encouraged and reassured, he proceeded to quickly finish the score which was completed on 12 November 1918, a day significant in itself, which caused him to pen the following words into the manuscript : “On the day of the proclamation of the Republic of German Austria and its annexation into the German Reich!”.

Though wrong in his anticipation of historical events (the annexation was actually opposed by the Allied Powers and did not actually take place until the notorious Anschluss of March 1938), he was convinced that the new opera would be, in its own way, no less historic.

It is perhaps perversely ironic with the benefit of hindsight that his inscription unwittingly presaged later political developments that would ultimately not only mark an end to his career but also lead to his premature death in 1934 and many decades of neglect thereafter.

In 1920 all this would have seemed inconceivable. Owing to the popular and critical success of his earlier operas Der ferne Klang (1912) and Die Gezeichneten (1918) and Paul Bekker’s ardent championship of Der Schatzgräber, expectations regarding the new opera reached fever pitch.

A private piano performance was arranged in Dresden in 1919 and that same year Schreker’s publishers, Universal Edition in Vienna, issued an analytical introduction to the new opera by Mahler’s first biographer, the noted Viennese critic and musicologist Richard Specht (1870-1932).  The work was published in both a lavish full score and a handsomely produced piano-vocal score. The full score included the unusual addition of ten coloured lithographs by the outstanding set designer Emil Pirchan (1884-1957), who later created the extraordinary staging of this opera in Berlin in 1922.  (Pirchan wrote the very first monograph on the Austrian Secessionist painter Gustav Klimt,  an artist who in many ways was the visual paradigm of the music of Schreker.)

The première of Der Schatzgräber took place in the Frankfurt Opera House on 21 January 1920 under the baton of Ludwig Rottenberg (1865-1932).  The principal roles were as follows :

The King : Hans Erl
The Chancellor : Hermann Schramm
The Count : Rudolf Brinkmann
The Fool : Erik Wirl
Elis : John Gläser
Els : Emma Hol

(Later when Emma Hol became ill in November 1922 just before the opera opened in Münster, Schreker’s wife Maria made her operatic debut as Els, which was to become one of her most outstanding creations for the stage.*)

It was a glorious success, perhaps the greatest of Schreker’s career, and established him as the commanding voice in opera in the Weimar Republic. The German critics outdid themselves in praise for the new work, often copying phrases from Bekker’s many writings on Schreker’s behalf. Bekker himself was convinced that a new operatic Messiah had arrived and wrote :

It may seem exaggerated and dangerous to say so, and yet it must be said: the music of Franz Schreker, with Der Schatzgräber as its temporary zenith, is not only the most individual and powerful proclamation of the expressive and creative potential in present-day musical theatre. It is also, at the same time, the first, forceful, creative breakthrough from the spell cast by the laws of Wagnerian music drama, free of anything derivative, undeniably beholden to the achievements of history, yet palpably related to our contemporary world, an independent and personal outgrowth……

Der Schatzgräber is the first fully mature and impeccably masterful score from Schreker’s pen, a work that unambiguously advances along his previous path, both as literature and as music, but which opens up new vistas, revealing a previously unattained capacity for feeling and construction yet standing above the battle of opinions both in its resources and in the psychic force of its impact. From now on there is no longer a Schreker ‘question’: Schreker is a fact”  (Paul Bekker, Klang und Eros, Stuttgart and Berlin, 1920, pp.45-47).

The score is indeed one of the most sensuous of all of Schreker’s works, with a particularly lavish orchestration.  It demands some 120 players including 3 flutes, 2 oboes & cor anglais, 2 clarinets & bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, a very large percussion section requiring 4 players, high bells, 2 harps, celesta, a full complement of strings, a stage band of a further 3 horns and 3 trumpets and a full chorus. There are also 21 principal roles!

The plot is as follows :

A wandering minstrel , Elis, owns a magic lute which (like a water-diviner’s rod) vibrates in the proximity of gold or treasure.  An innkeeper’s daughter Els is a she-devil who has her suitors killed after persuading them to buy for her, from a “fence”, a set of jewels stolen from the queen. These jewels are imbued with the magic power of ensuring their wearer retains eternal youth and beauty.
These two fall passionately in love. The minstrel Elis is subsequently accused of murdering the latest of Els’ potential bridegrooms, and is only saved from the gallows  by the intervention of the king, who has been told by his jester of the magic lute’s investigative power – which, he hopes, will locate the queen’s stolen prized jewels, without which she is wasting away.
So that her own guilt shall not be discovered, Els has the lute stolen but, in a torrid love scene, appears before Elis wearing almost nothing but the jewels, and to retain his love, gives them to him on condition that he never asks their provenance. The queen is restored and Elis feted at court – until he is questioned as to where he found the lost treasure.
The situation becomes tense until news arrives which identifies Els as the criminal. She is condemned to be burnt at the stake, but is saved by the king’s jester, who demands her as his reward for having brought about the jewels’ return.
In a poignant epilogue Elis, who had renounced her to follow his minstrel’s calling, is persuaded to visit her on her deathbed, where he conjures up a rosy picture of a life beyond the grave, in which their love can be everlasting.

Perhaps as a reaction to the scathing reviews he had received earlier from Austria’s leading critic Julius Korngold (father of Erich Wolfgang) in which he had been accused of being ‘unmelodic’, Schreker adopts a far simpler, more approachable melodic style in this opera, with a much greater transparency in its orchestral textures in spite of the large forces demanded. Indeed, unlike Strauss or Korngold, Schreker rarely uses the very large orchestra at his disposal for any extended tutti musical statements.

However, as with Die Gezeichneten, he fashioned an extended orchestral interlude (drawn from the Zwischenspiel to Act 3 but also incorporating the closing bars of the opera) to form an effective separate concert piece. This interlude became popular in the concert hall and was first performed by the Concertgebouw, conducted by Willem Mengelberg in October 1923, while Schreker himself made a recording of it that same year on four single-sided 12″ discs.

With his typical gift for understatement, Paul Bekker wrote of this interlude :

Not since ‘Tristan’ has there been a musical work of such intoxicating sonic splendour, a melodic eloquence of such sweetness and tenderness, an expansive structure of such power….

The score of the opera also contains one of Schreker’s few individual arias, the Wiegenlied that opens Act 3, sung by Els, wherein she reminisces about a lullaby that her mother used to sing to her when, as a small child, she was often sick and confined to bed.

Equally notable is the erotically intense love duet in Act 3, which, as Schreker’s biographer Christopher Hailey has wryly noted, marks the only time the main protagonists of a Schreker opera are actually allowed an on-stage consummation of their love.

For the rest of the time the score is continuously through-composed and full of incident, the orchestra frequently glistening with Schreker’s typical, highly chromatic, iridescent colours, tonally unstable and in a constant state of harmonic flux.

The world premiere in 1920 was to mark Schreker’s greatest success and in the next few years the opera achieved over 350 performances in some 50 productions in Austria and Germany which, until the even greater success of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (which appeared in December 1920 and went on to achieve over 70 productions) made Schreker the most performed composer of German opera of the years before 1933.

With the shift in public taste from 1925 onwards towards Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and the so-called Zeitoper (opera of the time), wherein mystical and fairy-tale subjects were eschewed in favour of modern contemporary scenarios (a trend ushered in by Berg’s Wozzeck in 1925 and Krenek’s hugely successful Jonny Spielt Auf  a year later), Schreker’s opera faded from view and his later works for the stage were comparitively unsuccessful.

Following Schreker’s sudden death in 1934 the Nazis ensured that his works disappeared from the repertory and Der Schatzgräber would not be heard again until 1968, when a heavily cut version was heard as a radio concert performance mounted by Schreker’s devoted pupil, the conductor Robert Heger, for ORF in Vienna.

Another concert performance took place in Vienna in 1985 under Lothar Zagrosek before finally, stage productions were presented at St Gallen in 1988, Hamburg 1989 (the latter from which, the first CD and DVD recordings were issued) and Gera, also in 1989.

More recently, the opera has been successfully revived at the Netherlands Opera in 2012, superbly conducted by Marc Albrecht, which has also been recorded and released on CD.

In spite of its spectacular initial success in the early 1920s, Der Schatzgräber  did not travel internationally and still awaits a performance outside German-speaking countries. It presents formidable challenges for performers and has yet to secure any kind of foothold in the repertory. One sincerely hopes that the gradual recent revival of interest in Schreker’s fascinating, highly individual musical style will lead to this remarkable work finally achieving its due.



*On January 17, 1927, Maria Schreker  recorded Els’s lullaby from Act III  (Klein war ich noch) conducted by Schreker himself, and this rare recording is included here as a sound file. The lullaby became something of a popular hit and it was published in separate editions for soprano and orchestra, soprano and piano, and even an arrangement for salon orchestra, as was the customary practise of the time.

Wiegenlied from Der Schatzgräber, Act 3. Maria Schreker (soprano), Orchestra of the Berlin Staatsoper, conducted by Franz Schreker. Recorded 1927.  The Brendan G Carroll Collection.