Friday, August 25, 2006


One realizes that there should really be more instruments. I don't mean with the categories we have , but new ones. I often hear sounds that can scarcely be realized with existing means.

-Franz Schreker (letter to Paul Bekker, 8/22/1918).

People not acquainted with this composer (I became a convert after looking through Alban Berg's hilariously complicated vocal score for Die Ferne Klang; the skeptical should see Alex Ross's important piece on the composer here.) are sorely missing out some of the most hyper-chimerical*tm, complex and rich music written in the 20th century. His operas, ballets and Chamber Symphony, with their miraculously orchestrated scores should not be studied or enjoyed while operating heavy machinery.
Schreker's art is surprisingly hard to analyze. The operas, in all of their druggy, tinsel-strewn fairyland meshwork of sound, combine with a talent for absolutely batshit insane librettos of Freudian degradation and absurdity, almost always work to create a disturbing asymmetry that probably have made many wonder if there has been some horrible opera company mix-up with librettos and the wrong words have been set to the wrong music. Ross points this dialectic out in his article.
The humble moron you read presently maintains the view however that the evolving masses of often euphoric and exotically gorgeous sound and unrelenting (and breathtaking) musical virtuosity of Schreker's technique is used not to soften the blow of his immoral hunchback underground cave orgies, impenetrable late-Romantic symbolism and psycho-analytical caricatures, or celebrate them in any way. Schreker's stable personality and high intelligence supports the view that his "unimaginable" and wonderful sounds often serve to subvert, criticize and annihilate them. Perhaps this is overrating Schreker's talent or misreading him as some sort of political and moralistic ironist, but I don't care and feel like going with it.
Schreker himself was no decadent misanthrope, and in pictures and letters is a highly rational, business-like, figure. Of course the Nazis banned his works not only because of his Jewishness, but his love of setting any "sexual aberration to music" (as a propaganda poster denouncing Schreker claimed). Those delightful Nazis were of course never ones for subtlety, and even the many intelligent critics from Schreker's day (including the always delightful Theodor Adorno) till our own seem not to grasp the great depth and ambiguity of his work.

Schreker may not be one of the greatest composers of the century, but he is still a highly original and brilliant one. His renewed popularity in recent years should not be due to his novelty, nor for some ironic love of perpetually fin de sicle kitsch, but for his genius for sound and in some ways frightfully contemporary criticism of a culture and post-modern intellectual climate that has, like Schreker's characters, embraced selfishness, immediate gratification along with a cynical and playful nilhilism.

The real tragedy of the story besides Schreker's death as so abominably neglected and marginalized an artist, is that our intellectual deaths at the hands of the cultural relavatists and post-deconstructionists have had none of Schreker's beautiful and humane music to accompany them.

*I have trademarked this brilliant compounded adjective and will sue anyone who uses it from here on.


Blogger Daniel Wolf said...


A beautiful piece of writing about an extraordinary musician. But I can't let this pass:

our intellectual deaths at the hands of the cultural relavatists and post-deconstructionists

No, our intellectual deaths are coming at the hands of a coalition of commodifiers and know-nothing self-described fundamentalists. Cultural relativists and others are actually of benefit in that they are at least open to the possibility that good work exists in neglected and eccentric places. Rediscovering Schreker is, itself, a productive relativist attack on the established modernist canon. The conglomerate profiteers don't care about about any of this, there's no business to be made so they keep it off the shelves, and the fundamentalists both don't know about, and would forbid you from finding out about, any of this.

2:36 AM  
Blogger PWS said...

Perhaps you are right about the "challenge to the modern canon", but I sort of think that canons always slightly change as great names are 'rediscovered', for instance Mendelssohn famously conducting Bach in the 1850s which led to a renaissance of that composer, or Mahler in the 20th century etc.
Sometimes however, canons are assaulted with lesser names whom intellectual polemicists demand be heard (my model for these discussions, Harold Bloom points this out in the influx of third and fourth rate female authors whom feminists have demanded be taught, as these often horrible writers have happened to possess ovaries).This is what I mean by relavistism (and thanks for correcting my spelling-I enjoy spelling things foe-net-ik-ley.).

Schreker is more the former of course, and you are right about profiteers having no interest in anything, but of course that goes without saying, as classical music and serious art hold no interest for those with power.

But intellectually I hope Schreker's renaissance is due to a serious consideration of his worth as an artist, and not as I say his "kitschy" value as I say, which give opera houses a chance to put on their most silly displays of nonsense and wackiness.

I feel that he is one of the best composers of the "neglected" ones to find some renewed interest, even better than his contemporary Zemlinsky, who although a very good composer, is not his better (as Paul Griffiths believes).

10:23 AM  
Blogger Daniel Wolf said...

PWS --

It's probably just my paranoia ("Proverbs for Paranoids #3. If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers."), but there just might be another, and rather banal, reason for the Schreker revival: the works are not yet in the public domain, so the publisher(s) may be pushing them on the opera houses, as a way of generating income from sleeping properties. I don't quite know what to think of this as it also implies that the publishers are not pushing living composers. With the pressure on the traditional repertoire from early music and 18th-19th century rediscoveries, I suspect that Schreker productions will instead be direct competition with new pieces.

3:50 AM  
Blogger Trevor Murphy said...

"...I hope Schreker's renaissance is due to a serious consideration of his worth as an artist, and not as I say his "kitschy" value..."

Man, ain't no real Schreker renaissance. One New Yorker article by Alex "I (heart) My iPod!" Ross and a few new releases have gotten your hopes up. The Schreker phenomenon is a cultural aftershock to the big Entartetemusik bonanza on Decca in the late '90s, and in that sense there is definitely an element of the kitschy.

(puts on swami turban)

There will be a few more recordings of his operas, and then interest in him will return to a low simmer. Opera is too expensive for houses not to do a steady parade of Verdi and Mozart, and Schreker operas will continue to be an extremely rare treat, about as common as stagings of Hindemith operas, or the Busoni Faust.

This is how it always is with talented composers for whom there's no room in the concert repetoire canon. I'm crazy for Martinu's music, but I recognize that he's never going to end up on a hazelnut chocolate. All we can hope for is that, since downloadable music stores can essentially keep recordings 'in print' forever, we will see a gradual slackening of the tyrrany of the big names. That is one thing I like very much about the extreme fragmentation in 'hip' society's cultural tastes.

12:23 PM  
Blogger PWS said...

Again, I mostly meant a renaissance of attention from scholars.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Trevor Murphy said...

Again? Did I miss you mentioning it a first time?

Moreover, I am coming to think that scholarly attention is completely irrelevant. The professors writing to each other in Perspectives of New Music have done less to keep music alive than than the humblest piano teacher.

6:03 PM  
Blogger PWS said...

Woh, d00d. That's deep.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Trevor Murphy said...

Sorry, d00d, didn't mean to sully your comments section.

12:02 PM  
Blogger PWS said...

Oh no, no not at all. I just think you sort of missed the point of my thing. No big deal. Or maybe I'm not understanding you. I was not making fun of you in any way. "D00d" is a cool internet way of saying 'dude'. I'm an idiot. Etc.

I think that it's just that you are criticizing a point you think I made that I'm actually not.

I have no interest trying to "save music", whatever that means. Criticism is very important to me. Clear, concise, informed criticism of art seems to be on the decline in Universities, as I can tell you as a student of music and perhaps even a future teacher.
Music scholars are not all some out of touch with reality bunch writing nerdy letters to each other in their own little world of ideas. Music scholarship is neccessary, as is music criticism, in clearing away the fat and analyzing our artistic heritage(s) if that makes any sense.

Sure, lowly old musicologist Christopher Hailey didn't save music when he wrote his study of Schreker some years back, but I wouldn't dare dismiss his insights into the composer just because he may not be doing anything to burn opera houses down or teach inner city kids the clarinet.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Alex Ross said...

PWS, you totally get Schreker, d00d! Note that Leon Botstein is conducting Der ferne Klang at the American Symphony in New York this season. This will, I think, be the first time a Schreker opera has been performed live in America.

11:14 PM  
Blogger Gilbert said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:09 AM  
Blogger Gilbert said...

I was going to ask you what you thought of Nefertiti but I was distracted by the fact of Alex Ross posting on your blog. That comment (hysterical) has since been removed. What did you think of Nefertiti?

12:14 AM  
Blogger PWS said...

By "Nefertiti" do you mean the Miles Davis album, or the historical queen?
The former has always been one of my favorite Miles Davis albums, and I love it more each time I listen to it. Subtle, smart music. "Fall" is one of my favorites, and the title track attests to why Wayne Shorter is a truly great composer.

On the other hand if you mean the latter, then I would have to say that she was kind of a whore.

2:47 AM  
Blogger Gilbert said...

Yeah so I meant 'Nefertiti' as you mentioned it on the blog, and I had just purchased it around that time. I wondered what you thought of the success of the experiments on the title track + Pinnochio, that is to say the repetition of the horn parts, and the usual improvisation thereof supplanted by the percussion section? Whether you thought that was totally successful or just a bit perverse, or some happy medium. Is this more an email question?

9:12 PM  

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