Hovering between these extremes, in the 1920s Ernst Krenek founded the genre of ‘Zeitoper’ with Jonny spielt auf. Its close connection with the modernism of its day presents great challenges to today’s producers. Should Zeitoper remain tied to its period for the sake of impact, or does a timeless message lurk beneath a surface burdened with effects? To scratch that surface is certainly an adventure for any ensemble!
Excerpt from the preface of the Repertoire Explorer Miniature Score:
Krenek began work on Jonny spielt auf in the fall of 1925, when he started to draft the libretto. The music and the text rapidly took shape in parallel (he always worked on both simultaneously, leaving the final wording of his librettos to the act of composition), and the score was fully complete by June 1926. After being rejected by the Hamburg Opera, the new work was accepted for performance by the relatively small but venturesome City Theater in Leipzig, where it duly received its première on February 10, 1927, conducted by Gustav Brecher (1879-1940) and staged by Walter Brügmann.
Within days the new work had become a “succès de scandale” among critics and a box-office sensation with the public: in the 1927-8 season alone it was given 421 times in 45 different cities. Before long, productions were scheduled in virtually every opera house in Germany, and the work was being mounted in France, Finland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, and the New York Met. The runs in Vienna and Berlin alone each exceeded fifty performances, an unheard-of phenomenon that dwarfed the success of new operas by Puccini and Strauss and bore comparison only with the great hits of the silent cinema, with which Jonny had many features of dramatic structure in common. A further dimension of popularity arose from the Act 1 arietta “Leb wohl, mein Schatz” (mm. 960ff.), which, under the title of Jonny’s Blues, was very successfully marketed in arrangements for jazz band or salon orchestra and was released on several 78 rpm recordings. Indeed, it is safe to say that more Central Europeans heard Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf and Jonny’s Blues during the late 1920s than ever heard a note of legitimate American jazz. The opponents of modern music who were to accede to power in Germany in the 1930s therefore had every reason to equate Krenek and his opera with the German Jazz Age in toto, as is all-too apparent in the visual motifs that adorned the poster of the Nazi’s vicious “Degenerate Music” exhibition in 1938. So great was the Nazi’s animus toward Krenek that he was even honoured with a lengthy entry in Stengel and Gerigk’s notorious Lexikon der Juden in der Musik (1940) although he had no Jewish ancestry at all.
The success of Jonny made Krenek, for the moment, a wealthy man and steeled his resolve to remain a freelance composer. Yet his sudden rise to fame as one of the best-known composers in Central Europe came at a psychological price. As he was to confide later in his remarkably candid Memoirs (pp. 780-81): “Writing down these lines I observe that I am increasingly slowed down in the fluency of my discourse and that I feel more and more inhibited about reporting and commenting on these events. The reason probably is that this sudden, unexpected success threw me completely off balance, from which I am suffering to this day. Summing up the consequences of that success, I find that the satisfaction was superficial though considerable, the material benefits handsome but shortlived, and the suffering intense and permanent. Thus it is more difficult for me to speak about this externally most important event in my artistic life than about a great many seemingly less noteworthy affairs. My memory is noticeably reluctant to furnish material, probably because the shock that resulted from that event is still not absorbed.” And this in 1954, almost thirty years after Jonny had been committed to paper!
In retrospect, it is not difficult to understand the sensational, if fleeting, success of Krenek’s opera. Always attracted to the theatre, he had used his years in Kassel to form an intimate acquaintance with the workings of the operatic stage. He approached the new piece as a “jeu d’esprit”: “As far as my ideas were concerned, I followed my instincts that drove me to exploit to the utmost the magnificent toy with which I had become acquainted, the modern stage. To satisfy my intellectual leanings, I bolstered my practice with various rationalizations that I mainly derived from Busoni’s theories. For the rest, I went about the business with complete innocence, not in the least aware of what controversies I was stirring up and in what a mass of hairraising misunderstandings I was involving myself” (Memoirs, pp. 746-7). One aspect of this newfound “toy” was stage machinery, which Krenek indulged in with virtuosic gusto, calling for an on-stage car chase, a moving railway train, a singing glacier, an on-stage radio broadcast, and, most stunning of all, the final transformation of a railway station into an allegorical world-globe above which a triumphant Jonny, violin in hand, strides as a modern-day musical miles gloriosus.
Jonny spielt auf was, in short, exciting theatre in a manner familiar to us today from, say, the works of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Equally novel and indulgent however was the variety of compositional styles in Krenek’s score, which ranged from dour Schrekerian post-Expressionism for the semi-autobiographical Max, light Parisian froth for the nymphomaniac Yvonne, and a wealth of pseudo-American musical allusions for the black “jazz” musician Jonny, a figure equally conversant with the violin, saxophone, and banjo and capable of bursting into a snatch of Stephen Foster to demonstrate his purportedly black-American musical roots. (Krenek later confessed that he knew nothing of true American music when he composed Jonny but drew his references entirely from German syncopated dance music and current clichés about American culture.)
The modern-day urbanity of the setting further heightened the opera’s novelty value; and the clash between the high-strung Central European characters (Max, Anita, and Daniello) and the fully disinhibited, life-affirming figures from the West (Jonny from America, his female namesake and counterpart Yvonne from Paris) seemed not only to capture the mood of the Stresemann era in Weimar Germany, but to offer a general panacea to the economic, moral, and socio-psychological ills of Germany’s recent past.
Even at the height of his fame Krenek sensed that his opera was not “for the ages,” and that its fundamental ethos had been misunderstood. In Vienna, where the lavish première of Jonny displaced the Opera’s perennial New Year’s Eve production of Die Fledermaus, he had forebodings of transience and impending neglect that were to prove all-too justified. “And yet,” he later wrote in his Memoirs (pp. 801-2): “even then I dimly felt that my tremendous success was slipping through my fingers, I did not know how.[…] My success was (in my opinion) mainly based on a profound misunderstanding of my intentions with bewilderment rather than with a sense of humor bordering on cynicism, which would have been more appropriate and useful. I soon found out that most critics thought I had meant to write an amoral satire – satirizing what! – and that ‘Jonny’ was basically a funny piece, a fresh and insolent joke, such as one might forgive just once [in] a prankish youngster. Nobody seemed to pay any attention to the tragedy involved, which I had taken very seriously indeed, as heaven knows. It can be seen that I felt more and more like having made a fool of myself. In addition to that I observed that those 'serious' musicians whom I revered most (roughly speaking, the Schoenberg group) were turning from me, which might partly have been caused by subconscious envy, partly by the sincere conviction that a success in ‘this world’ of such magnitude was a proof of something being wrong with the man having that success. All this worried me a great deal.”
Krenek’s forebodings proved only too prescient. By the end of the decade Jonny’s popularity had vanished: the stock-market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression put an end to the general optimism and joie de vivre which the opera, in its final scene, seemed deliberately to apotheosize; and a new and reactionary cultural establishment with no liking for Krenek or his music moved into place as part of a general shift to the political right. The composer, bereft of his fortune, royalties, and performance outlets, watched helplessly as “the material results” of Jonny spielt auf “dissolved into thin air[.] I am now left with nothing at all” (Memoirs, p. 802). Krenek’s response was the only right one for a composer of his gifts and stature: he returned to the musical drawing board and rethought his entire compositional technique. After a brief phase of neo-Schubertian romanticism – and after briefly considering the option of abandoning music altogether for the life of an intellectual journalist – he doggedly mastered the dodecaphonic method of the Schönberg school and became one of its earliest and most intelligent theorists. His studies culminated in what was undoubtedly intended to be his literary and musical magnum opus, the twelve-tone opera Karl V. (1932-3), a work of profoundly anti-fascist sentiment unfortunately hindered by intrigues and political events from achieving its due place in his oeuvre and in music history. Forced to flee Austria for America in 1938, Krenek remained for the rest of his days always far from the main centres of contemporary music and yet ever at the forefront of the avant-garde, perfecting his serial technique, exploring the world of electronic music, pioneering the compositional potential of computers and mathematical formulae, dabbling in chance and predetermination (see his witty gambling opera Ausgerechnet und verspielt of 1960-62), and commenting intelligently on music and society in his elegant and timely essays.
The plot hinges on a valuable violin that changes hands several times in the course of the opera, whether by theft or misplacement, and eventually passes, significantly, from a European concert virtuoso to a black-American dance-band musician.
Max, a high-strung Central European composer (tenor), is communing with his beloved Alpine mountain peaks in a Swiss grand hotel where also reside the violin virtuoso Daniello (baritone), the opera singer Anita (soprano), the French chambermaid Yvonne (soubrette) and her current amour, the American dance-band musician Jonny (baritone). Both Max and Daniello fall in love with Anita, who cannot for the moment choose between them. In the resultant confusion Jonny steals Daniello’s valuable violin and hides it in Anita’s luggage. The next morning Anita informs Daniello that she actually loves Max, and leaves the hotel with her luggage – and the violin. Accused of theft, Yvonne is dismissed, but Anita retains her on the spot. Daniello, in high dudgeon, hands Yvonne a ring to give to her new mistress as a token of his undying love. Part II: Anita’s apartment. Yvonne hands Daniello’s ring, not to Anita, but to the waiting Max, who rushes off believing he has been jilted. Jonny then slips into the room to complete the theft of the violin and dashes off with it in triumph. While Max sings his sorrows to his beloved glacier (female chorus), Daniello suddenly recognizes the sound of his violin on a jazz radio broadcast and alarms the police. Jonny, about to be apprehended in a railway station, sees Max waiting on the platform and slips the violin into his luggage. Max is arrested for theft. Still in the station, Daniello recounts the incident to Anita and Yvonne with such fervour that he slips onto the tracks and is killed by an incoming train. Confusion again reigns, and Jonny escapes in the police car – with the violin. He returns to the station just in time to see Max and Anita board the train together. Realizing that the violin is at last his, he mounts the station clock, which is transformed into a globe of the world, and strikes up a tune that forces all the onlookers to break into an involuntary madcap foxtrot.
J. Bradford Robinson, 2004.
For the Repertoire Explorer Miniature Score please contact Musikproduktion Jürgen Höflich.