Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Before Die Gezeichneten - Franz Schreker - Der Geburtstag der Infantin

Franz Schreker's masterpiece, Die Gezeichneten opens this weekend in Los Angeles, under the name "The Stigmatized". It's worth preparing for, because the plot's complicated and quite unsavoury (child abduction and rape). Much isn't "revealed", but rather intimated, which to me is one of its strengths. Please read what I've written about the  2005 Salzburg production. Orchestrally, it's outstanding, Nagano is intense, wonderful transparent textures despite the density of the score. Moreover, he doesn't over-romaticize the grimmer depths. See HERE, too, for my original piece with video clips from the DVD

Another way to prepare for Die Gezeichneten (it's not such a difficult word to learn) is to listen to Schreker's much earlier Der Geburtstag der Infantin. .It's based on the Oscar Wilde story, The Birthday of the Infanta (read full story here)

The Infanta is privileged, but there's tragedy in her past. Her mother died after her birth, her father's still distraught. She lives in ultimate luxury, because her dad's the King of Spain and rules the world. As a birthday gift, some noblemen buy a boy from the forest to amuse her. He's utterly guileless, talks to birds etc, completely the opposite to the claustrophobic artifice in the palace.The boy entertains the Infanta who tosses him a white rose. Later he walks into a secret room of mirrors and sees a monster. He's terrified. His heart breaks when he realizes that the "monster" is himself, an ugly dwarf. "Huh," sneers the Infanta, "I don't want anyone with a heart near me". Who's the real beauty here, the princess or the dwarf?

So the parallels with Die Gezeichneten are clear. Why didn't Schreker make anything more of it then, in 1908?  Perhaps it's because it was written to showcase the talents of the three Wiesenthal sisters who, like Schreker himself, moved on to other things.The original manuscript was lost til the 1980's though there's an arrangement in Schreker's hand dedicated to Willem Mengelberg in Amsterdam.

Der Geburtstag der Infantin.is pretty straightforward scene setting (Schreker was only 30), but the music's gorgeously rich and luscious. That's the life the Infanta leads, where everything's grand luxe, and, like her palace it's meant to be stunning. But Schreker wasn't a Romantic escapist. The point of the story is that the Dwarf is the purer soul. The Infanta's music is beautiful, but that's an illusion. Schreker, whose mother was an aristocrat, and grew up in privileged circles, wasn't unaware that the rich use people like toys. Die Gezeichneten, written with the collapse of the Austrian empire, allowed him to explore these ideas much further.

The critical point in Der Geburtstag is the final scene where the boy enters the hall of mirrors and is destroyed by self-knowledge. Sudden, strident strings that break off, tiny tentative figures, overwhelmed by violent trumpets, percussion, basses. The boy's melody tries to surface but it's smashed. Schreker is moving away from music for dance, even though the Weisenthal sisters weren't "ballet dancers" but avant garde modern dance pioneers.

Further music to explore: Schreker's Der Wind (see clip below) which was written for Grete Wiesenthal the year after Der Geburtstag der Infantin, and has some of the strange, not-quite-Romantic ambienceof Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg, a one act opera which, if paired with Der Geburtstag would make an interesting programme. And of course Die Gezeichneten, or "The Stigmatized" as I hope it will not come to be known.

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