Franz Schreker (1878-1934) is best known as an opera composer, but he had a long and close association with choral music. In his youth he was a church organist (although his father was Jewish, Schreker was raised in the Catholic religion of his mother) and sang in various choral groups. As founder and director of Vienna’s Philharmonic Chorus (1908-1920) he led numerous world premieres and Viennese first performances, including works by Delius, Mahler, Schoenberg, and Zemlinsky. And as director of the Berlin Musikhochschule (1920-1932), he helped build its chorus into one of the finest student ensembles in the world. It is surprising, therefore, that Schreker wrote relatively few independent choral works and virtually all of these in his youth.
Schreker’s Psalm 116 for three-part women’s chorus, orchestra, and organ was written and premiered in 1900 as his graduation piece from the Vienna Conservatory. It is dedicated to his teacher Robert Fuchs, who had also taught Mahler, Wolf, and Zemlinsky. Because it is a student work, it is unclear whether the composer had a free hand in selecting his text or choosing his performance forces. The music is, in any event, more self-consciously “conservative” than other works of his from this period, being written in the kind of Brahmsian classicism then very much in favor in academic circles.
For his setting, Schreker selects verses 1, 3-5, 7, and 9 and arranged his work in three large sections. Following a majestic orchestral introduction in A-flat major and 6/4 meter, the composer treats the first verse (“I love the Lord”) in a three-part song form. The contrasting second section in 3/4 meter begins with an energetic and somewhat melodramatic three-part treatment of verse 3 in C minor (“Sorrows of Death”). Verse 4 (“But then I called”) serves as a brief transition to a 4/4 Maestoso setting of verses 5 and 7 (“Gracious is the Lord”/”Return unto thy rest”) in which the texture brightens considerably. The last section, setting verse 9 (“I will walk before the Lord”), is a choral fugue in A-flat major based on the theme associated with the first verse, followed by a blazing Halleluja. The score used in this afternoon’s performance is from a new edition of Schreker’s complete choral works.
In this and other early choral compositions, Schreker’s primary concern seems to be formal balance and polished surface beauty. There is little of the Wagnerian chromaticism that one finds in the music of Zemlinsky or Schoenberg during these same years; on the contrary, Schreker’s harmonic language is generally one of gently shifting tonal centers and modal inflection. His proclivity for textural beauty is an early indication of that preoccupation with Klang [sound] that would emerge as his most revolutionary contribution to musical syntax. With time he would learn to heighten his Klangeffekte with a harmonic vocabulary and finely differentiated orchestral mastery that were uniquely his own. In his operas, beginning with Der ferne Klang [The Distant Sound], which will be heard later this season, the very fragility of those sounds becomes a central metaphor of the human condition.