Even in Germany and Austria, where he enjoyed his greatest successes, Franz Schreker remains a shadowy figure, slowly being rediscovered as Alexander Zemlinsky (1872-1942) has been. Like several lesser eminences born in the wake of Richard Strauss, Schreker conducted and taught as well as composed. Just before World War I, and briefly after, he became a musical celebrity, but without the controversy that surrounded his lifelong friend Arnold Schoenberg. After the war, both taught in Berlin -- Schreker as director of the storied Hochschule für Musik starting in 1920, Schoenberg at the Prussische Kunstakademie in 1925 -- until the Nazis assailed them for being Jews. Schreker was forced to resign in 1932 and given a small consolation position at the same Akademie, from which he and Schoenberg were dismissed after Hitler became Reichskanzler in 1933. Schoenberg managed to leave Germany, but Schreker suffered a heart attack and died the next year.
By that time he had been stigmatized as a creator of Entartete Musik (along with Mendelssohn, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Weill, Eisler, and so on), and had furthermore run dry creatively. In truth, the last four of his nine operas -- those after 1918 -- document this falling-off. He could not bring himself to exchange hyperchromaticism for Schoenberg's "free tonality." At the same time, his luridly erotic librettos -- inspired by Salome of Strauss -- were going out of fashion, to be replaced by Expressionism, parody, satire, Freudian Angst, and everything else that scandalized Weimar-Republicans at the same time as they were titillated.
The operas that made Schreker's reputation -- Die ferne Klang (Distant Chiming), Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin (The Music Box and the Princess), Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized), and Der Schatzgräber (The Treasure Digger) -- were all premiered between 1912 and 1920, although he had begun the first-named as far back as 1901 without finishing it until 1910. The last two were outstandingly successful.
Professor Hans F. Redlich's lengthy entry in Grove V characterized Schreker's music as follows, in part:
"Its skillful blending of Teutonic and romantic elements of style forms a twentieth century parallel to Meyerbeer's eclectic type of opera.... Schreker's melodic substance as well as his iridescent harmonies are heavily indebted to French Impressionism, and to the Italian verismo of Puccini and his Anglo-German imitator [Eugène] d'Albert.... Works for the concert hall remain typical by-products of a theatrically inspired musician. As a musical colorist of great distinction...and finally as a musical mentor of a whole generation of continental composers, [he] undoubtedly made a substantial contribution to the artistic development of his time, even if his followers ultimately traveled in a quite different direction." To this add what another, more recent, unidentified German has written: "Schreker's music is strangely shimmering, capricious, seemingly diffuse, constantly shifting and flowing, not apparently disciplined...[but it] never quite loses [a] youthful glow.... Prelude to a Drama was in fact somewhat modified as the overture to Die Gezeichneten, and is a perfect example of Schreker's music as described. Strangely capricious, unable and unwilling ever to come to an end [the duration is 20 minutes, more or less], excessive yet formally circumscribed, it is the epitome of his unique, inimitable artistic achievement. He may never become world famous, but his place in German music is assured."