Born in Vienna in 1900, Ernst Krenek’s life encompassed nearly the entire 20th century: he died at the age of 91 in exile, in the United States. “Exile” could indeed be a fitting description of his enforced stay in America – after all, he might just as well have returned to Austria once World War II was over. He did spend some time in his native country every now and again, but only for short periods, perhaps because he no longer felt at home, neither was he prevailed upon by the cultural powers that were to settle once again in Vienna. For all his successes as a composer, the high regard in which he was held as a teacher, and the fact that he was married to an American lady, Krenek did not really feel at home in the United States either. His was a Central European fate which he shared with many other émigrés.
Ernst Krenek lived an extraordinarily rich life, thanks to his multifarious gifts, his insatiable hunger for everything new, his tremendous creative impulse and the historical circumstances which had a bearing on his decisions.
His autobiography, which covers the first 37 years of his life, runs to nearly one thousand pages. No wonder: Krenek was a keen observer of the political and art scene, he absorbed whatever he deemed of significance for his development, drew his own conclusions and incorporated them in his music. Also, he was a remarkable writer: he was the author of the librettos of his numerous operas and an esteemed contributor to the journal Musikblätter des Anbruch, released by his publisher, Universal Edition.
Krenek wrote his autobiography in English; it appeared in German translation under the title Im Atem der Zeit. Opposite the title page is a photograph of the 25-year-old composer, with a hat on his head, a cigarette between his fingers, and a smile on his lips and in his eyes. At the age of 25, the young man boasted a considerable body of work: forty titles, including several operas, three symphonies and chamber music, sowed his wild oats during what are commonly known as the “Roaring Twenties”.
Vienna was an important cultural centre in Krenek’s youth. He no doubt had an inspiring time, with Schoenberg and his pupils, Schreker (who was to become his professor of composition), Freud, Kokoschka (with whom he was to cooperate on the opera Orpheus und Eurydike), Karl Kraus (whose texts he was to set), Adolf Loos, Peter Altenberg, Arthur Schnitzler, Franz Werfel and many others to be met in cafés and at concerts. Mahler had died in 1911, but Krenek knew his widow, married his daughter Anna, and had as a result access to the leading representatives of Austrian cultural life who frequented Alma Mahler’s salon.
Similarly to Kurt Weill (also born in 1900), who was recommended to Universal Edition by his teacher, Ferruccio Busoni, Krenek, too, was brought to the publisher’s attention by his professor, Franz Schreker: thanks to financial assistance by the Austrian Ministry of Culture, the publisher ran no risk in taking on works by Schreker’s most talented pupils. Krenek had been in touch with UE before, in that he did some proof-reading in return for which he was paid in kind, that is, he could help himself to scores he could otherwise not have afforded. He felt honoured as he first entered the premises as a composer under contract rather than as a junior assistant.
He was aware, of course, that as a composer signed on by the prestigious Universal Edition, with an option on his works to be written in the next ten years, his standing in Austrian musical life had improved overnight. In his Autobiography, he devotes an entire chapter to UE and its director, Dr Emil Hertzka. He has this to say about the Director:
“At any rate, Emil Hertzka was a man of great vision and exceptional business courage. I don’t believe that he knew anything about music in a professional sense, but I don’t think either that this is necessary for a good publisher. He had a certain flair for values, which in that business is more than scholarly knowledge and firmly established artistic principles, and a highly enterprising spirit”.
At 25, Krenek started to work on an opera which was to make him famous throughout Europe: Jonny spielt auf, referred to at the time as a “jazz opera”, had in fact nothing to do with the music of the American blacks, but it did have a black musician as one of its principal characters. Jonny was a typical product of the 1920’s, and was in no time programmed by opera houses all over the continent. Its unprecedented success proved a provocation for the right wing in Austria which organised demonstrations against the production at the Vienna State Opera House. Jonny gave the young composer – and not only him – a foretaste of what was lying in wait for Europe in a few years’ time.
Krenek was to turn his back on Jonny and other works in that vein to embark on a new stylistic period in which he was inspired by Franz Schubert. (In fact, Krenek was comparable to Stravinsky and indeed to Picasso in the way he tried his hand at different idioms and means of expression throughout his life). The high point of his Schubertian phase was the song cycle Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen (Travelogue from the Austrian Alps) of which he also wrote the text. The first version for voice and piano was followed in 1973 by one for voice and orchestra under the title Eight Songs from Travelogue from the Austrian Alps). Both versions are among Krenek’s most popular compositions.
In the ensuing years, the composer remained faithful to the stage. The Dictator, composed at the age of twenty-six, where he “shamelessly followed in Puccini’s footsteps” as he put it, is a testimony to Krenek’s keen awareness of the nature of Mussolini’s regime in Italy. He also possessed amazing prescience, prophesying the advent of an even more dangerous dictator in Germany. No wonder this one-act piece is described by Krenek as a “tragic opera”.
In the same year, 1926, he started to work on a second one-act work, The Secret Kingdom, which is, in stark contrast to The Dictator, a fairy-tale opera, with a king who finds his real happiness in Nature. A “green” opera? Krenek himself says in his autobiography that in this tale, he wished to say “yes” to simple life, to the love of Nature and pleasure in small things; also, he wished to say “no” to modern civilization, which in his view led to stress, commercialisation and corruption.
A reduced version was recently prepared with slight changes in the libretto, turning The Secret Kingdom into a successful children’s opera.
The tale was completed in 1927 and Krenek immediately set to work on the last piece of the trilogy, the “burlesque operetta“, Heavyweight or The Pride of the Nation. It treated of the same subject as The Secret Kingdom, but in a satirical approach, which the composer himself found more satisfying. He was inspired by a statement given by the German ambassador to the United States on the occasion of a visit there by the star boxer Max Schmeling, to the effect that in modern times sportsmen were the real representatives of a nation’s culture, rather than scientists or artists. Musically, it was Krenek’s intention to write a genuine hit, whereas in the fairytale opera he “revelled in a sweet, Romantic, pre-Wagnerian idiom, spiced with some atonality”.
Krenek’s next assignment was the opera The Life of Orestes (1928/1929). He turned to the ancient Greek myth and created, as he called it, “a grand opera”, which would contrast the Classical story with light-weight, catchy music. As so often with Krenek, the work had a profound philosophical message: the peril inherent in freedom. Orestes is free to do whatever he chooses – and he uses it to commit murder. Orestes faces the judge Aristoboulos (a character of the composer’s invention) in the last act and hears him expound on the notions of justification, right, law and mercy, culminating in the question “What is the truth?” – which had actually been the question posed by Pontius Pilate. With hindsight, Krenek realised that the moral and spiritual “climate” of the last act pre-empted his next opera, the chef d’oeuvre Charles V (1930/1933).
Charles V marked another new departure with regard to its idiom: it was the first product of Krenek’s preoccupation with the twelve-tone technique of composition as developed by Arnold Schoenberg. En route to dodecaphony, he had composed some vocal music, including the song cycle Songs Late in the Year (1931) and two Karl Kraus-settings: Through the Night (1931) and The Lark (1931).
He addressed himself with tremendous ambition to the work on the opera, with thorough preliminary studies of the historical figure of the Emperor as well as of the new requirements imposed by dodecaphony. In his autobiography, Krenek writes:
“…the work made very slow progress in the beginning. This was due to the fact that I had decided to employ for the first time the twelve-tone technique, which I eventually had come to understand in its basic tenets. This sentence makes easy enough reading, but the mental agony that preceded my decision was awful, and the consequences of that decision have been, and are, of the greatest magnitude, as far as my personal life is concerned. … The more I penetrated the twelve-tone world, the closer I came toward making a decision as to my own active entering this world. The decision involved tremendous responsibility, for in the first place I felt it was not something one might try and possibly drop, if not satisfied. I felt keenly that it had almost the character of a religious decision, that I had to sign up for good, or never touch it at all. …Furthermore I knew that deciding for the technique meant forgetting once and for all about an easy way to success. At that time the twelve-tone technique was regarded as a harebrained aberration, a sinister cult exercised by a few personally honourable musicians who through some appalling whim of fate had been misled to abominate their remarkable talents in such a perfectly silly manner. But, then, I had obviously reached an impasse from which I had to find a way out, or else stop composing altogether.”
The elation Krenek felt on receiving an offer from the Vienna State Opera House (in the person of Clemens Krauss), asking him to compose a music theatre piece, turned into disappointment and despair over the theatre’s decision not to première the work. Krenek assumed that Krauss could not warm to the music, and was worried about its possible reception in the face of the growing political weight of the far right. For Krenek, the cancellation of the world premiere was one of the bitterest and most humiliating shocks of his life. It was not until later that he realised his naiveté with regard to the political connotations of his opera against the background of Austria shifting increasingly towards losing its independence and becoming a satellite of Nazi Germany.
The world premiere of Charles V only took place in 1938, in Prague. As long as he lived, Krenek could not get over this disappointment.
As a convinced opponent of the Nazis, Krenek saw no other way out than to emigrate and begin a new life in the United States. During his years of exile, contact with Universal Edition petered out, and his new works appeared with a number of publishers, a fact which was not exactly helpful to the distribution of his compositions. A number of those pieces which were originally published in the United States have recently been taken on by Universal Edition. These include the ballet Eight Column Line of 1939 and the chamber opera Tarquin of 1940.
After World War II, contact with UE was quickly re-established. The Piano Concerto No 3, composed just one year after the war, in 1946, is already part of the catalogue, as are numerous compositions written in the ensuing decades. Beyond works for orchestra and chamber music, they include the opera Pallas Athene weintpublished jointly with Schott Musik International and premièred in Hamburg in 1955).
It was typical for Krenek and his insatiable thirst for new developments in music that he visited the electronic music studio of West German Radio (WDR) in Cologne as early as the mid-1950s. Years before, he had sketched a Whitsun Oratorio which he could not realise through traditional means – the studio offered the technical possibilities for him to turn the sounds he imagined into practice. The oratorio, which bears the title Spiritus Intelligentiae, Sanctus, is his Opus 152. It was first performed in Cologne on 30 May 1956 at a concert which also featured the world premiere of Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge.
The catalogue of Universal Edition includes 156 compositions by Ernst Krenek, that is, the bulk of his oeuvre. The earliest piece is his Piano Sonata, Op. 2, no.1 (1919) and the last one is the Organ Concerto, Op. 230, composed exactly sixty years later, in 1979.
In his autobiography, Krenek expressed the fervent hope that his music would survive him and would be played, understood and valued by future generations. The future of Ernst Krenek’s music is in safe hands: it is promoted by Universal Edition, in cooperation with the composer’s widow Gladys Krenek, as well as the Ernst Krenek Institute which looks after his estate.