In he completed his Second Symphony, Op. Two massive outer movements, each more than twenty-five minutes in length and characterized by slow introductions, where ideas and concepts slowly emerge out of a kind of primordial ooze, surround a motoric Allegro half that length, consisting of a series of contrapuntal expositions. While it has been noted that there is much Mahler in this composition to make the comparison more tempting, Krenek had married the composer's daughter Anna just before he began composing the symphony , the work also stands apart from the spirit of Mahler and moves in what are, arguably, even riskier directions.
Around this time Krenek also completed his first dramatic work, the scenic cantata Die Zwingburg based on a work by Demuth and a libretto by Werfel, a classic expressionist work of alienation and social commentary. Between and Krenek spent time in Switzerland, where he met such figures as Friedrich Gubler an editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He also met Theodor Adorno at this time, and their lively polemics on the subject of new directions in music is one of the most exciting intellectual exchanges of its time.
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During this period he also visited Paris, where he became acquainted with Stravinsky's neoclassical style, particularly Pulcinella , and with the music of Les Six. Returning from France, he befriended Berg, Webern and Schoenberg.
Out of this ferment and virtual explosion of styles came the only work that Krenek could count as an unequivocal public success: the opera Jonny spielt auf Johnny Plays On. Set in nightclubs, glaciers and trains, and referencing almost all the available styles of the time in some guise or other, the opera tells the story of the lovers Max and Anita and their travels through the demimonde, and especially their connection with the black violinist Jonny, who steals an Amati violin. The opera was performed in dozens of different opera houses, and made its way to New York as early as Of course, despite the runaway success of the work, it was hardly typical of Krenek.
More characteristic, one could argue, was his other major operatic work of the period, Karl V , commissioned by the Vienna State Opera and completed in The work deals with the life and ideals of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who ruled Austria in the 16th century As he did research for the project, Krenek became convinced that the emperor embodied a kind of Christian humanism that could oppose the barbarity of current political movements.
For this special project, the composer used a musical approach that was to color his works for the remainder of his career: the twelve-tone system. Though he took a different attitude towards dodecaphonic music than Schoenberg, he believed greatly in its rigor, its uncompromising standards and its possibilities for further development.
The opera was due to be performed in , but was cancelled and not performed until almost fifty years later as a major gesture of reconciliation. Krenek remained productive throughout the 's, devoting a great deal of time to writing essays and lecturing. It was in that he first visited the United States. He made a second trip to the US the following year and was intending to return to Austria when the Anschluss of made that impossible.
Despite the fact that he had been a rising superstar in European musical circles, in the United States he was just another exile, and despite good connections, he struggled to find a position that would allow him both the freedom to compose and an environment where he could put his pedagogical theories into practice.
Ernst Krenek: Jonny spielt auf
Some of the conflicts that were to dog his career appeared early on in Vassar, where the assumption was that he would contribute to teaching music as a liberal art. Krenek felt strongly that even as such, it was important for students to understand the rigor of composition, particularly twelve-tone composition, even if they never became composers, and in his high-minded but probably inflexible style, he alienated the rest of the music faculty and was forced to leave.
Despite these conflicts, he was characteristically prolific. His continued efforts to freshly exploit the twelve-tone system and comment, through the lens of Christian humanism, on ongoing events led to the composition of Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae in Based on the biblical writings of the Prophet Jeremiah, the Lamentations is an astonishing work for a cappella voices. It explores intersections of various historical musical tendencies, and invokes a special musical spirit through the linkage of twelve-tone and modal tendencies.
Despite acclaim and frequent performances, Schmidt goes on to say that Krenek is also at odds with those in the European community who feel he has deserted them for America. Albrecht Dumling, music critic for the Tagespiegel in Berlin and currently a fellow in residence at the Getty Center, cautiously says something similar. Krenek himself has expressed several times the idea that the sheer range and quantity of his music, preventing him from being neatly pigeon-holed, may have inhibited his public.
It is my impression that this confusion has surrounded my work with an unusual obscurity--almost anonymity. The exhibit, which has already been to 17 cities in Europe, will make its first U.
He finds nothing funny about the current furor over NEA funding of controversial art exhibits, however, which he sees as all too similar to the Nazi suppression of their so-called degenerate art. Equally typically, it met a controversial reception. Its treatment of Austrian nationalism and Catholicism, plus its tone materials, proved inimical to the Nazis. Though commissioned by the Vienna Opera and put into rehearsal, it was withdrawn under political pressure.
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When Philharmonic executive vice president Ernest Fleischmann sent Krenek a letter informing him of the concert and adding the thought that it would prove a 90th-birthday tribute, the composer was not amused or flattered. A birthday a year later, and in this context, which has nothing to do with me. Never inhibited, nor worried about the niceties of musical politics, Krenek fired off this characteristic response to Fleischmann, now faithfully deposited in the Krenek Archive at UC San Diego.
With the other composers mentioned in your program I have nothing in common. I wish I could do more. Krenek is a tough-minded, confident, prickly man, who expresses himself forcefully on any issue. His complete inability to sugar-coat his opinions, even where flattery or simple politesse might well serve his own interest, is perhaps another reason why his music does not make the local rounds as much as he might wish. Another is his relative isolation--albeit self-imposed--in Palm Springs. In the Fall I moved to this country for good.
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In , I got tired of it and moved to California, where I always wanted to be. With Krenek came Gladys Nordenstrom, a Hamline student and composer who became his wife in Krenek began returning to Germany and Austria in , where the rebuilding opera houses and influential radio stations soon began providing commissions, conducting engagements and royalties.
In those early years in California, Nordenstrom taught to support them, as did Krenek himself, at the small Southern California School of Music and the Arts. He was a true mentor. George Perle, who studied with Krenek during summer sessions at the University of Michigan between and , also remembers his generosity and openness as a teacher. When I came to him with these very different ideas, he treated them as a discovery, not as something wrong.
Born with the century, Krenek embodies the musical history of his era.