The lost generation of opera composers

In June 2010 in the Zürich opera house I had a super box seat with some lovely people for a performance of the opera Der ferne Klang (The distant sound) by Franz Schreker (1878-1934).

This is Schreker’s second opera. It had its world premiere in Frankfurt in 1912, but has not been performed there for many years. Now, finally, a new production of Der ferne Klang is scheduled at the Frankfurt Opera for March, April and May 2019.

Of the three Schreker operas I have seen so far, this is the one that impressed me the most. It is about a young composer named Fritz who leaves his native village to seek a mysterious distant sound that lures him away. His lovely village sweetheart, whom he leaves behind, has to flee the village to avoid a forced marriage to the local innkeeper.

In the second act, the composer and his village girlfriend meet again under very different circumstances. She is the top courtesan of a posh Italian nightclub near Venice, and for a while it looks like they might get together again, but then his moralistic side gets the better of him and he rejects her as a hyped-up prostitute.

The third act is one of the cleverest opera acts I have seen. It takes place in the canteen of an opera house during the third act of the world premiere of an opera which is also called Der ferne Klang. The first two acts have gone very well, but the third is a flop. The opera director wants the composer to revise the third act and give it another try the next season, but the composer is old and discouraged.

Then an elderly lady is brought in. She turns out to be the composer’s long-lost village girlfriend who has been in the audience watching the story of her own life unfold on the opera stage. They have a touching reconciliation scene which gives the composer renewed hope and inspiration. He resolves to revise the third act after all, but then he collapses and dies in her arms.

The orchestra in the Zürich opera house

Since Schreker was half Jewish, his music was banned by the Nazis as soon as they seized power in Germany in 1933 — a fate he shared with several of the other leading composers of his generation such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942), Ernst Krenek (1900-1991) and Kurt Weill (1900-1950), as well as the Austrian operetta composer Oscar Straus (1870-1954).

Schreker was the only one of these composers who did not go into exile — because he died in 1934 before he had a chance to do so.

The others all ended up in America and continued composing with varied degrees of success.

Zemlinsky died in poverty in New York in 1942, leaving a not-quite-finished opera called Der König Kandaules which was not performed until 1996. (I have seen it twice, in Cologne and Kaiserslautern.)

Krenek became an American citizen and taught for decades at American and Canadian universities. He continued composing to his own satisfaction, but since he was by now totally committed to twelve-tone music his audience was limited, to say the least. When Krenek was in his fifties he composed a twelve-tone opera called Pallas Athene weint (Pallas Athene is crying), which I once saw at the Neue Oper Wien (New Opera Vienna).

Kurt Weill continued composing in America, where he wrote the music to Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), Lady in the dark (1941) and the musical film Where do we go from here? (1945). He also wrote an American opera, Street Scene, which had its world premiere in New York in 1947.

Oscar Straus also got established in America, where he composed some successful film scores and musicals.

The most successful in America was Korngold, who became one of Hollywood’s elite composers of film music in the 1930s and 40s and won two Oscars for his film scores — but even Korngold did not succeed in reviving his composing career in Europe after the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Nazis.

One of the exciting things about the European opera scene in the 21st century is that the works of this lost generation of composers are finally being revived and finding their way back into the repertoire.

My photos in this post are from 2010. I revised the text in 2018.

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