Prince and princess […] of the dream-king's grace

A fairy-tale opera at the end of all fairy tales ... by Arne Stollberg


Once upon a time …

At first glance Franz Schreker's THE TREASURE HUNTER (Der Schatzgräber) is a fairy-tale opera that seems straight out of a picture book. The tale is set in a fictive Middle Ages, features a typical cast of characters from the king and queen to the minstrel and the jester, and contains a number of ingredients that one might expect from a fairy tale. Elis, for instance, learned but "not freeborn", possesses a magical instrument, the "divining lute", that is capable of detecting hidden treasure by emitting sounds. Thus he manages to recover the queen's stolen jewels, whose loss has made her ill and haggard. In return he is not only knighted and welcomed at the royal court, but also weds the girl he loves, the poor daughter – or foster daughter – of an innkeeper. "And so they lived happily ever after..." Like many other fairy tales, the story Schreker tells might well end on just such a positive note.

But the opposite is the case. In the sad epilogue the bride Els, given in marriage to the jester, dies in miserable circumstances. What the story, as it unfolded, promised us with its fairy-tale topoi, recedes into the illusionary distance of a vision invoked in Elis's last song, a vision shattered by bitter reality: "And knights and pages / and beautiful women, / they all come to see / the couple returning home / to fairyland: prince and princess, / Elis and Els, / both children / of the dream-king's grace. / They have come home, / laden with happiness, / which they hold onto / and never let go. / From life's savage hue and cry, / they have saved for themselves / the finest and most sublime treasure." Yet the sole remaining glimmer of solace, the fool's prophecy that God will pardon Els and grant her "happiness and joy / in heaven", is roundly rejected by the orchestra. We hear what appears to be the closing chord in D major, dying away in triple piano in the strings with bells tolling. Upon this steals, barely audible at first, a timpani roll that causes the entire body of instruments to seethe up again – though now in D minor, not D major. This is followed by a thunderous crescendo, whipped up to triple forte by the swelling roll on tam-tam and cymbals and abruptly breaking off on a D minor triad that obliterates the tender D major of the jester's last words. Schreker could not have stated more clearly in musical terms that dreams are but shadows and fairy tales but fairy tales. The cruel laconicism of the orchestral coda is to some extent a continuation of what the king, in Act Four, remarked of Elis's high-flown ballad of Lady Ilse (a desperate attempt to save beauty, symbolised by the jewellery, from being profaned – thus in a way mirroring the action of the opera): "A pretty little story" – no more.


Beauty and horror

That an opera should unmask itself as a chimera, that a fairy tale should have as its subject its own disenchantment, is the very point of Schreker's TREASURE HUNTER and what makes it so unheard of. To accuse the composer of escapism in view of the historical circumstances of its composition, to imply he was blanking out the catastrophe of the First World War, would fail to recognise what can only be explained as a reaction to those circumstances. Such a diagnosis may possibly have been correct for September 1914. At that time Schreker wrote a letter to Carl von Wiener, president of the Vienna Academy of Music and Performing Arts, in connection with sending the score of his Prelude to a Drama; in it he declared, "This is a time opposed to art and all things artistic. But it's not the end of the world, and beauty will outlast the horror." Buoyed by this conviction, Schreker wrote a libretto in July 1915 with the title DIE TÖNENDEN SPHÄREN ("the sonorous spheres"), which is very much a topical piece – the story is set between 1914 and 1916. It culminates in a festival of peace and reconciliation that coincides with a performance of the opera whose creation is the subject of DIE TÖNENDEN SPHÄREN. Here Schreker was attempting a variation upon his opera THE DISTANT SOUND (Der ferne Klang) inasmuch as he intended to show, not the artist's defeat, but instead his supreme triumph, a politico-aesthetic utopia of absolute success. Nevertheless it was not DIE TÖNENDEN SPHÄREN that he began to compose, in the summer of 1916, but another libretto written around the same time, THE TREASURE HUNTER. The longer the war went on, the more his initial euphoric anticipation of victory gave way to deepening dismay, and the more presumably the composer lost his former conviction that beauty would outlast the horror.

This is precisely the theme of THE TREASURE HUNTER. The fairy tale, in a broader sense the poeticisation of the world by artistically created beauty which the jewellery symbolises, lends the opera not only its form but also indeed its very content. What is represented symbolically by the jewellery, the treasure, was described by Schreker in an article as the "dream of happiness and redemption". In this extended self-interpretation entitled Der Schatz – seine Hüter und sein Orchester ("the treasure – its guardians and its orchestra") he went on to say, "If you will, merely a fiction, […] just as one's great longing in life is just a fiction. Imagine it gone, and every impulse is extinguished." This is what connects the unhappy Els with the jewellery; it drives her to her homicides (perpetrated by the servant Albi). The jewellery is supposed to make that childishly longed-for enchantment come to life – echoing "Fairy tales must come alive" from that other fairy-tale opera of Viennese Modernism, Alexander Zemlinsky's DER TRAUMGÖRGE. In Els's words: "It gleams and sparkles / in the room. / It's working its magic: / from day to day / Els grows more beautiful. / And a prince will come, / gentle and refined, / on a snow-white charger. / He will charm Els / with honeyed words / and carry her off / on a snow-white charger / to a majestic castle, / his own royal castle!" With Elis it is no different. He, too, chases after treasures only because he hopes one day to find the "hoard" that will make an enchanted world appear, a fantasy world where "a spellbound princess, / in a fairy-tale palace of glass, / threatened by giants" waits for her knight to come to her aid.

When in Act Four the jewellery is worn once again by the queen and as it were politically functionalised, since, as the king makes clear, it will restore his wife's health (and sexual appetite) and thus ensure the urgently needed birth of an heir, Elis and Els can only see it as the destruction of that enchantment. Elis thereupon improvises the abovementioned ballad of Lady Ilse. Behind this figure, recognisable via word-bridges in the Freudian sense, stands none other than Elis and Els themselves ("Ilse" is an anagram of "Elis" and also contains the name "Els", discreetly veiled by a change of vowel colour): "The world has grown poor, / a fairy tale's debased. / Lady Ilse is dying!"


Symbolism and self-reflection

Schreker's music theatre always also constitutes a reflection upon himself. Paul Bekker, in an influential study ("Franz Schreker. Studie zur Kritik der modernen Oper") published in 1918, suggested that a characteristic of the composer was that every one of his works was the product of a primordial "sound vision". At the beginning there is always the music; it is that which first gives rise to the "figural appearance of the drama, just as it in turn carries sound and melody within itself", wrote Bekker in 1920 in his review of the premiere of THE TREASURE HUNTER. Schreker confirms Bekker's thesis, admittedly influenced by it in a retroactive way, when he says that the treasure in his opera is "nothing other than what any musical art work requires as its fundamental element – the symbolic link between the events". The treasure thereby acquires a poetological quality: on the one hand it conditions and engenders the music, and on the other hand makes it the vehicle on which what happens superficially in the stage action is conveyed as "allegorical" narrative, to use Bekker's terms. The prerequisite for this is that the treasure, as we have seen, is of interest not so much as a thing, as gleaming gold and sparkling jewellery, but rather as a visualisation of a feeling: longing for happiness, beauty and salvation. Only in that way is the treasure able to become a subject of the music, according to Schreker. This is so because the music, above all in the orchestral part of an opera, serves the "motivic representation of emotional life, indeed – how do I put it, the representation of events that occur along the way or emerge in the subconscious" (letter to Bekker of 9 July 1918). Elsewhere Schreker has the following to say, now specifically in relation to THE TREASURE HUNTER: "[I know] motifs primarily for a person's inner matters, not for a thing […]. The treasure motif is consequently not formed in a one-sided way – as a symbol for something mighty and sublime like the Nibelung hoard or for something outwardly sparkling, the glitter, the jewellery; it simply has a markedly yearning character."

What is alluded to here is the figure – the first distinct motif of the opera – that is heard on violins and high woodwind in the Prelude when the fool responds to the king's question as to what jewels the queen really wants, with the laconic answer: "The stolen ones." And Schreker then allows a further glimpse – rare indeed – inside his workshop: the orchestra, "by the instrumentation and the art of counterpoint, transforms the theme of longing according to the situation and the action" and in a "broadly flowing, passionate way" changes it into the "love melody".


Intoxication instead of happiness

This variational relationship, to use Matthias Brzoska's term, between the long spun-out motifs that represent the treasure one the one hand and the love of Els and Elis on the other, leads into the heart of the psychological drama. As in all early operas by Schreker, no differently therefore to THE DISTANT SOUND and THE STIGMATISED, the central question is whether treasure – art, the aesthetic – is solely a compensation or sublimation of sensual urges, urges that in the moment of their fulfilment deprive that sublimation of validity. The fact that Fritz in THE DISTANT SOUND and Alviano in THE STIGMATISED deny themselves the "utopia of fulfilled sensuality", to quote Matthias Brzoska once again, is at the root of their tragic failure, which cannot be prevented by any evasive movement into the aesthetic sphere (of an opera in the case of THE DISTANT SOUND, an artificial paradise island in the case of THE STIGMATISED). In THE TREASURE HUNTER this conflict situation seems near to resolution for the first time: Elis and Els's night of love, painted as allusively as it is frankly by the long orchestral passages of Act Three, culminates in a scene of wordless action in which "piece by piece" Els takes off the jewellery she was wearing for Elis, laying it aside with "gestures of marvelling, often childlike joy, but also of pain, indeed despair". Schreker noted in a sketch that what was going on at this point was nothing other than the "struggle between the treasure and love". And love, to be understood less in an idealistic sense than as instinctual desire, is victorious: the last piece Els removes is a diadem that crowns her head. "It begins to glow mysteriously in the first red rays of the morning sun. [Els] wrestles with herself and then, taking a deep breath, places it with the rest." At this very moment, precisely marked by Schreker in the score, the "love melody" is heard in the orchestra "with the greatest, most heartfelt expressiveness". "Longing", until that point directed at the jewellery, can detach itself from what is a mere object of substitutional satisfaction because it seems to have found its goal in the reality of the act of love. This is fully in line with Els's words: "I'm no phantom, / my sweet love, / no figure of fantasy and froth. / You should hold me / and embrace me, / you should kiss me / and drink me in!"

But this must remain an illusion, as becomes clear as the story unfolds. As Schreker remarked to Paul Bekker in a letter of 10 July 1918: "The relationship of man to woman and everything that's connected with it – a tragedy. Even in the happiest cases. And it ought to be written, this tragedy of the 'happy'. It's self-stupefaction, morphine addiction. Happiness is not to be found anywhere in this world. Intoxication – a hovering about the light, a sudden burning." In THE TREASURE HUNTER the stigmatised do not become the "happy", even though for a short while in Act Three it looks as though they will. Schreker's opera reverses the constellation of Wagner's LOHENGRIN and reformulates its tragedy under the aspect of these altered gender relations (the association of Els with Elsa already suggested by the name is doubtless intentional, as is Elis, Lohengrin style, coming to the rescue in her hour of direst need in Act One; added to which, in Act Two, Els urges Elis to "think of the swan that sings before he dies"). It is Els's forbidden question – "Never to ask me / how it came to be. / Never to distress me / with hurtful suspicion" – that brings about the catastrophe. When Elis discovers that Els ordered the stealing of the lute and the killings in order to gain possession of the queen's jewellery, he turns "stiffly" away from her and ignores the hand that Else holds out to him "with a pleading look" according to the stage directions, while the "love melody" is heard once again, played with heart-rending melancholy on the clarinet: "What wrong I have done you, / believe me, / it was done out of love!"

Elis ultimately remains incapable of the kind of absolutising of love that Els accomplishes in Act Three when she puts aside the jewellery (she achieves it superficially, at least, as "pining" for Elis and "distress about the treasure" recur in equal measure in her confused dreams, as the fool later comments). Schreker's alignment with Otto Weininger may appear puzzling; Paul Bekker was sceptical on the matter, eliciting from the composer the almost apologetic response that his "reason said 'no' to much", his "feeling – so it seems – yes" to what he had read in Weininger's Sex and Character (letter to Bekker of 10 July 1918). At any rate Elis's views about the nature of the male, which he utters in a lecturing manner before the night of love, already contain the seed that will bring about the certain failure of the "utopia of fulfilled sensuality": "Love's happiness / cannot be everything to me. / […] A man must create and strive; / and whatever love may offer us / in the way of imagined goals, / action alone makes us proud and free." Here he falls back into the delusion that robbed Fritz in THE DISTANT SOUND of his happiness at Grete's side. But if this happiness, Schreker argues, is merely "intoxication" and "morphine addiction", then there is no way out in any case. The treasure and love, art and the psychological urge, yearning-filled striving and momentary fulfilment – it's all the same in its inevitable nullity and meaninglessness.



Interpreted in this way, Schreker's TREASURE HUNTER, conditioned by the catastrophe of the First World War and its "desolate end" (Schreker's letter to Bekker of 18 December 1918), ought to be hard to surpass in dismal gloom. No hope anywhere. And yet, given the enormous number of performances between the Frankfurt world premiere on 21 January 1920 and the end of the 1924/25 season, the piece may with justification be described as the "representative opera of the young German republic", indeed the "last popular opera of Modernism" (Matthias Brzoska). The fact is that the – arguably – nihilistic content of Schreker's TREASURE HUNTER is coupled with a move towards simple forms including popular folk forms (for example Els's lullaby at the start of Act Three, in Bekker's view "verging on sentimentality") as well as to scenes of spectacle that fully exploit theatrical effect instead of shunning it. Here too Paul Bekker hits the nail on the head: "The path that leads away from the cult-like conception of music drama in the Wagnerian sense, and back to opera with its intoxicating music and sensual pleasures, with all its illogical unreality, the playful fantasy of its plot, the delight in a colourful succession of scenes, moving on what is purely emotionally musical ground, that path […] has been found." Schreker had expressed a similar view in the unprinted foreword to the libretto of his opera DAS SPIELWERK UND DIE PRINZESSIN ("the music box and the princess"): opera as a genre, "not […] drama, not absolute music, appeals chiefly to the eye and ear. External occurrences, a plot which may also be a pantomime, in combination with the opulence and vivid colours of the scene, acts, dancing, and in addition music full of vibrancy, bewitching, exciting, radiant sound – these are the elements, I feel, that guarantee the effectiveness of an operatic work."

THE TREASURE HUNTER, therefore, reflecting the poetics of effect, is a representation of the subject it treats – the "sensual pleasure", the "intoxication" that seizes Elis and Els like an ephemeral happiness, but at the same time also the "fantasy" and "colour" of imagined worlds. The "great longing" for the "fairy-tale palace of glass" and a prince who arrives "on a snow-white charger" – people are incapable of losing this longing despite the illusory nature of experience. "Imagine it gone, and every impulse is extinguished" – to repeat Schreker's statement already quoted above. For this reason the opera may actually have achieved in 1920 what Julius Korngold, incidentally no friend of Schreker's (and still less of Paul Bekker's), would later, in 1921, assert as a general requirement of new works of music theatre, namely that they should "contribute to the strengthening of the vitality that is needed in this difficult, darkened time". The fact that THE TREASURE HUNTER meets this requirement with its sense of theatrical effect, that it demonstrates what art is capable of, and at the same time takes as its subject how art is shattered by reality, invests the work with a fascinating multiplicity of meaning. Few opera composers, surely, have sat in judgement over themselves and their profession so pitilessly as Schreker. But equally it can be seen as a triumph of the aesthetic that the work is able to offer an aesthetic treatment of its own futility. To paraphrase Schreker: only where nothing more is heard, where emptiness and silence prevail, does that come which art, however chimera-like it may be, knows how to preserve us from – "horror".


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