Ekkehard, Schreker's op 12 from 1902-3 is a symphonic overture. That no opera eventuated hardly matters : it's a tone poem on an operatic subject, a hybrid not unlike Richard Strauss's Don Juan, from the same period, though Schreker's individuality is detectable even at this early stage in his career. Based on a novel popular in the mid 19th century, Ekkehard tells the story of a 10th century monk from St Gallen, who is brought from his monastery as a teacher for a duchess, but falls passionately in love with her. Thus the grand opening chords, horn calls evoking the grandeur of the vision ahead. This theme alternates with a quieter motif which might represent the monk, or his awe at arriving at the palace. Thunderous timpani, crashing cymbals, brass fanfares remind us that the splendour the monk sees around him is built upon military might. A passage for organ, reflecting Ekkehard's true background, is soon overwhelmed by a fierce march, possibly a march into battle. Ekkehard's infatuation is doomed. The overture draws to a close with sadder, darker motifs as Ekkehard returns once more to the mountains. This overture deals with ideas that Schreker would go on to develop with greater sophistication in Der Geburtstag der Infantin and even in Die Gezeichneten : the use of medievalism as cover for modern concerns, the concept that true art isn't based on mass values and above all the contrast between exterior beauty and inner corruption.
The Phantastische Ouverture op 15 (1904) shows how Schreker, in his mid-twenties, was seeking orchestral possibilities from the starting point of drama. There is no programme to this overture. The opening motifs are drawn with ominous power, soon undercut by fast moving, fragmentary figures which hurtle forwards. A new motif emerges, also animated but more sustained, sweeping confidently to the conclusion, where bell-like peals herald exuberant chords.
With Vom ewigen Leben, Schreker has proceeded to different territory. This started as two songs for voice and piano, completed in 1922. Five years later, Schreker orchestrated them into a coherent whole. The texts come from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, used in German translation. The first section, "Wurzeln und Halme sind dies nur" is delicate, silvery percussion mirroring the soprano's high timbre, complemented by strings and restrained woodwinds. The silvery textures blend into the woodwinds of the second part, "Das Gras", where flutes and clarinets circle the soprano (Valda Wilson). This section is nearly three times as long as the first, with extended orchestral interludes. The sophistication of the orchestral writing makes this a true “orchestral art song” much greater than the sum of its parts.
Cinema was the new art form of the 20th century, growing from drama, opera and music. It was as if Wagner's concept of Gesammstkunstwerk had been made possible by new technology. The connections between music and film were clear. Silent films were accompanied by live performance. Many early art films, such as Berlin Symphony of a Great City (1927) used a musical framework on which to pin a non- narrative, semi-symphonic structure. Berlin was one of the most important centres of art film, where masterpieces like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1921) were produced. It was natural that creative artists like Schreker would have recognized the connection between film and music . Like Alban Berg and others, Schreker understood the potential of cinema, and the significance of new sound technology. Indeed, Schreker and Schoenberg were in regular contact on the subject of music and film, and in January 1929, Schreker, a Director of the Berlin Academy of the Arts, became responsible for the music section of the new German Society for Sound and Vision. Hanns Eisler, Schreker's contemporary, wrote the first major theoretical work on music for film, and made a good living writing film music without sacrificing art.
Schreker's Vier kleine Stücke fur grosses Orchester (Four little sketches for large orchestra) (1930) is therefore a response by the composer to a new genre, not much different to the way he wrote overtures as experiments for opera. They should not be dismissed as “late works” simply because the composer died three years later, but as the work of a composer still brave enough to explore. Turning to film was not a diminution of his powers but rather a continuation of what he'd done before, but in a new direction.
Schreker's Vier kleine Stucke fur grosses Orchester demonstrates the way in which music could be used to advance drama and work with visuals. Each of these sketches is short but vivid, evoking a mood or emotion to intensify the images shown on screen. Dialogue in silent films was limited, for obvious reasons reduced to minimal intertitles, and voice technology still fairly primitive that “talkies” killed many silent actors, and early film music largely songs and interludes. Timoroso (marked zugend) is not timid so much as tentative, a curtain raiser promising wonders to come. Violente (marked hestig, ungestum) is flamboyant, its zig zag rhythms exotic, setting the scene for “oriental” adventure films so popular at the time. Incalzando (marked Eindringlich) casts haunting mystery, with lines that could adapt to a variety of situations where characters might need to pause for thought. Gradevole (marked Gefallig) alternates dance-like energy with serenity, which again could be adapted to different scenes. Emphatic timpani !
Just as Schreker's Vorspeil zu einer Drama (1913) led to Die Gezeichneten, the Vorspeil zu einer Grossen Oper (Memnon) (1933), Schreker's last completed work, might have been a working model for a truly “grand” opera. We shall never know. In Greek mythology, Memnon was a great warrior, a god king from Ethiopia (ie an outsider like so many Schreker heroes) who came to the aid of others but was killed. Thus exotic sounds, woodwinds imitating Arabic pipes set the scene, strings weaving sensually above a steady pulse which may suggest the tread of a camel caravan. The pace is broken by dissonant chords, ushering cross-currents of sound weaving in different directions. Dramatic, yet disturbing. Though harps introduce a calmer but still oriental mood. The “caravan” motif attempts to return, but is swept back by wild, flying turbulence, underpinned by undertones of almost brutal percussion. Dark, brooding colours emerge, against which lyrical moments seem plaintive, though they persist. Swirling themes, rising perhaps like dust off the desert or distant smoke, are undercut by ominous rumbling. Horns call, and the orchestra surges, before suddenly breaking off and falling silent. Given that this Vorspeil was written effectively in exile, when the Nazis were hounding out “degenerate” modern composers, Schreker didn't have a chance. Vorspeil zu einer Grossen Oper (Memnon) was premiered in March 1958 by Hans Rosbaud, champion of new music, for SWR in Baden-Baden so it is rather moving that SWR sponsored this new recording.
Please also read my other posts on Schreker and on the music of the Weimar period, including Walter Braunfels, Hanns Eisler, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Suppressed Composers, Weimar and other silent film etc etc