Der Ferne Klang, or The Elusive Sound (1912), is a three-act opera composed by Austrian composer Franz Schreker (1878-1934) with an original libretto. The work is dedicated to well-known German conductor Bruno Walter and tells the tale of the fated love between amateur composer Fritz and his lover Grete.
Although not well-known today, at the time he was regarded as a prolific opera composer, having written ten operas and being recorded as one of the most performed composers during the early period of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933). Because of the Nazi regime (1930s-1940s) and Schreker’s Jewish heritage, his name was effectively silenced until the late 1970s when German figures like Michael Gielen and others rediscovered and revived his works. Sharing many similarities with composers like Johann Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schoenberg, Charles Ives, Alban Berg, and many others, Schreker championed pushing music forward.
Work on the opera was challenging, and the work was set down from 1903 to 1905 when, after attending a production of John Strauss’ Salome, Schreker was struck with inspiration and returned to work after a long hiatus. Parts were played in concert in 1909, and two years later, Alban Berg, who had a strong attachment to the innovative nature of the score, finished the vocal score.
On August 18th, 1912, the Oper Frankfurt premiered Schreker’s opera under the direction of Austrian/German conductor Ludwig Rottenberg. Throughout the 1920s, the opera received European premieres in places such as the Czech Republic (the 1920 production conducted by friend Alexander Zemlinsky), Sweden, Germany, and later Soviet Russia in (then) Leningrad. The opera was extremely popular and was staged until the beginning of the Nationalist Socialist government takeover in the early 1930s. Hitler’s ban on “degenerate music” (or Entartete music) in the 1930s stopped the performing of the work, and only in the early 21st century was the work recovered.
German Director Peter Mussbach’s 2001 production at the Berlin Opera marked the official revival of the opera since the 1930s, followed quickly by other institutions like Bard College, Opernhaus Zürich, and then, later, Bonn Opera, among others. In 2019, a revamped production at the Oper Frankfurt directed by Damiano Michieletto received acclaimed reviews. It was dedicated to Michael Gielen, one leader in reviving Schreker’s works in the late 1970s. Later, the Royal Swedish Opera completed its own renovated version. The most recent staging was in 2022 by the Prague State Opera, directed by Timofey Kulyabin.
Struggling composer Fritz hopes to become a well-known composer by searching for “the distant sound” to help him achieve notoriety. To achieve this, Fritz leaves his love, Grete, to pursue his dream. Grete strives to kill herself in a fit of despair, but is taken aback by the beauty of the natural world around her. Much time passes, and eventually, it is revealed that Grete has become a Venetian courtesan. Among her many guests, one day is Fritz, who returned after having failed to find the sound. He wishes to marry Grete finally, but the fact that Grete has to reveal her current occupation thwarts this. After being challenged to a duel by the Count, who had protected Grete all this time, he departs in grief. More time passes, and eventually, Fritz is slated to premiere his first opera Die Harfe (The Harp).
However, it goes down rather poorly, and the audience riots. Grete, having been cast out of the Venetian court, hears the commotion and tries to come to see Fritz but is accosted on the street. Luckily, she is saved by an older man and taken indoors. Shaken by the whole thing, Fritz is distraught that he has wasted his life searching for this sound and has also tainted his love. Eventually, the couple is reunited with the help of friends. But Fritz is on the verge of death. Soon he hears the sound he had been searching for and scrambles to write it down. However, Fritz succumbs to death in the arms of Grete.