In Franz Schreker’s fifth opera, Der Schatzgräber (The Treasure Seeker), Elis, a wandering scholar and minstrel whose magic lute can unearth hidden treasure, is charged with recovering the Queen’s stolen jewels, which are said to impart eternal youth and beauty. He is led to Els, a beguiling creature of mysterious origins who has, piece for piece, acquired those jewels through a series of importunate suitors, whom she has then had murdered. Her love for Elis, however, induces Els to sacrifice her treasure, even at the risk of her life. This symphonic interlude, drawn from the opera’s third act, depicts their night of love, after which Els removes the jewels one by one, having exacted from Elis the promise that he will never ask how she acquired them.
Der Schatzgräber is the only work in which Schreker’s protagonists are allowed an on-stage consummation of their love. And though their happiness is short-lived, it is for that moment innocent and free of guilt. In the end, however, Els’s secret is revealed and, abandoned by Elis, she dies banished and disgraced (Schreker appended the final bars of the opera to the concert version of the interlude). Written during the enforced isolation of the First World War, Der Schatzgräber is a radiant work that would prove Schreker’s most successful opera (fifty productions followed its triumphant 1920 premiere in Frankfurt, and in recent years there have been notable stage revivals and concert performances in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Vienna, and Amsterdam).
Schreker recorded this symphonic interlude in 1923, and in 1927 Els’s third-act lullaby with his wife, Maria Schreker, a legendary interpreter of the role. For Germany’s leading critic, Paul Bekker, Der Schatzgräber confirmed his assessment that Schreker was the most significant music-dramatic talent since Wagner. Bekker was particularly taken with this third act interlude of which he wrote “...not since ‘Tristan’ has there been a musical work of such intoxicating sonic splendor, a melodic eloquence of such sweetness and tenderness, an expansive structure of such power....” Schreker understood all too well the danger of such comparisons (“now the pack will be after me,” he told his wife) and, predictably, conservative critics began a concerted, and often openly anti-Semitic campaign against his works. In 1922 for instance, Alfred Heuss called Schreker’s success “a crime against the German soul” perpetrated by a tyrannical publicity machine led by that “modern newspaper Alberich” Paul Bekker. But by the early twenties, Schreker and his Schatzgräber were also targets for progressive critics and composers, who had begun to embrace the sober aesthetic of “Neue Sachlichkeit” (New Objectivity). Indeed, Schreker’s own later music adopts more astringent textures leaving Der Schatzgräber as the pinnacle of that sonic sensuality for which he his best known.
Today, Schreker’s works have taken on an aura of radical resistance both to the prudish asceticism of High Modernism as well as to the cozy nostalgia of late-Romanticism. His librettos have an acerbic bite, his scores a fragile incandescence that seems always perched on the edge an abyss. Els and Elis yearn for youth and beauty—these, too, metaphors of assimilation? —but their aspirations remain elusive, save in their dreams.