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8.223422 - SCHREKER: Flammen

Franz Schreker (1878–1934)


Franz Schreker is known principally as the composer of the operas Derferne Klang (1912), Die Gezeichneten (1918) and Der Schatzgräber (1920). The one-act opera Flammen, however, is the earliest of Schreker’s dramatic works, coming at the end of the first creative period of the young composer’s life. Until the appearance of the opera Flammen in 1901 Schreker had dedicated himself principally to the composition of songs and choral works that nowadays are not so well known. After studying the violin, he had in 1900 completed his training in the composition department of the Vienna Conservatory. Freed now from the restrictions of his musical education, he set out to find a suitable libretto and librettist for the composition of a musical dramatic work. He found his librettist in Dora Leen, who wrote for him the text of Flammen. Schreker wrote the libretti for his subsequent operas himself. Many years after the appearance of Flammen, in an autobiographical sketch of 1917, he distanced himself from his collaboration with Dora Leen.

Schreker wrote the score of Flammen in less than seven months. It was first given in concert performance on 24th April 1902 in the Vienna Bösendorfersaal, performed by students of the Conservatory, with piano accompaniment played by Julius Fischerandunder the direction of the composer. Contemporary biographies of Schreker, such as those by Rudolf Stephen Hoffmann and Julius Kapp, expressed some scepticism about this first opera. Fault was found with the all too lyrical character of the libretto and no future was seen for it in the theatre. In the music, however, the talent of the young composer was recognised. Although he had not yet found the unique musical language of his later operas, he commanded attention with his mastery of declamation and colourful choral writing.

Flammen is the drama of a woman who through her behavior in an association with a musician, in this case a singer, bears a burden of guilt for which she must atone by death. In the libretto the theme of the fallen woman, are current element in later operas by Schreker, is of importance. This suggests the influence the composer had on the libretto in this respect. The work can be classified as a Liederoper, a song-cycle, a sit were, with songs joined by musical interludes. The music follows closely the psychological progress of the action and changes of mood. Within a “song” a mood is captured that can be completely different from that in the text, corresponding to the libretto. The rapid and sudden changes of mood are not abruptly juxtaposed but correspond to the psychological progress of the action, expressed in the orchestral interludes that perform a modulating function between the “songs”. In these parts of the score new moods are sketched, new images developed. The vocal writing stems from these moods.

The Liederoper tendency is clear, too, in the overture to the opera. Here it is no development that predominates, but rather a collage of separate songs from the opera. The most important themes and groups of motifs are brought together in the Overture. In the score there is evidence of considerable Wagnerian influence, not least in the duet between Irmgard and the singer, Las unsflieh’nin frohe Ferne, in Scene 10. Here there is an allusion to the duet of Tristan and Isolde, Oh sinkhernieder, Nacht der Liebe. The text of the duet in Flammen reflects the obverse image to that of Wagner’s text. Tristan and Isolde came from light to the darkness of their night of love, while Irmgard and the singer in Flammen come from darkness to light. The music provides a parallel to this obverse image, not only in the common key of A-flat major but also in the E-flat pedal-point of the two duets. Nevertheless Schreker has not relied on Wagner for the artistry of the passage and the flow of the music. Rather he builds orchestral sound in groups, in a way he may have learned from Bruckner. String groups are set against wind groups, the music built on a pedal-point and not through the enhancement of a melody. Schreker organises in Flammen greatly contrasted waves of sound that then can suddenly ebb away. The form of the whole opera is symmetrically designed, not a bald juxtaposition of scenes, but with individual scenes musically unified and part of a strict general plan.

The text by Dora Leen, with its fifteen scenes and prelude, is symmetrical in design, with two sections, each of eight scenes. The climax coincides with the centre of the opera, the duet of the tenth scene between the singer and Irmgard, the eighth scene of the original text. The setting by Schreker has two more scenes than the libretto. From the seventh scene he made three scenes in the opera, but these are musically connected. Examination of the text must have posed for the composer the problem of the formal end-rhymes. Scenes 13, 14 and 15, which frame a solo scene between choral scenes and lead to the conclusion, were suitable for the finale during which all the singers are on stage. A similar finale problem arises at the end of the first part of the opera. In Scenes 5, 6 and 7 of the libretto there is no formal end-rhyme, and Schreker consequently divided Scene 7 into three to provide a finale with all the singers on stage, further evidence of his sense of proportion, already clear in the songs he had written as a student. Flammen, in fact, may be seen as a work marking a transition between the early songs and the later operas. Here he freed himself from the influences of the Conservatory in a search for the musical language that he discovered in his later operas. Coming at the end of his early creative period, the opera occupies an important place in the music of Schreker.

Christiane Theobald
English version by Keith Anderson

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