Richard Wagner caused a toxic shock in western music. With Tristan und Isolde (1865), Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868) and Parsifal (1882), to say nothing of Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876), he challenged his successors to take up the gauntlet, revive opera and establish a fresh ethical structure for the new generation. The 19th century slid in the 20th and such questions took on an urgent tone, as writers, artists, architects and composers sought to create a utopian present in an increasingly dystopian world. Franz Schreker, a Monaco-born composer who settled in Vienna, provided multiple answers through his kaleidoscopic operas. Looking back to Wagner, while embracing the fashions and forms of his own time, Schreker pondered what an artist should offer to modern society. In his fifth opera, Der Schatzgräber – composed between 1915 and 1918 and premiered in Frankfurt on 21 January 1920 – that crisis of conscience finds voice in mystic medievalism. But, despite those fairy-tale appearances, the questions posed by Schreker’s treasure seeker are as urgent as any found in Tristan, Die Meistersinger and Parsifal.
What made Wagner’s work so potent and influential was his ambition to change the way in which art functioned. The allegorical basis of much of his work found potency in his writings, such as the ‘Regeneration’ articles that accompanied Parsifal. These new operas, he proclaimed, were not a retrenchment into the days of yore, but profoundly political works about society’s desperate need for renewal (albeit based in dubious claims for vegetarianism and baleful anti-Semitism). In both his operas and those articles, Wagner described ‘the decline of the human race and the need for the establishment of a system of ethics’. Such ideas chimed with a Zeitgeist of renewal emerging across Europe at the time.
In Vienna, where Schreker’s family settled in the late 1880s, that fervour was manifest in a series of major physical, political and intellectual shifts. After revolutions across the Habsburg Empire in 1848, Emperor Franz Josef had instituted a new town plan for the Imperial capital. Knocking down its defensive walls, he ordered the construction of a Ringstraße, complete with totemic municipal buildings or what historian Philipp Blom describes as ‘a self-aggrandising European Las Vegas, dignified by the passage of history’. Despite its self-serving grandeur, these physical changes over the latter half of the 19th century set in train a sequence of artistic movements, presaging not least the reaction of the Secession.