Even during his lifetime, Ernst Krenek, who left behind an oeuvre of more than 240 operas when he died at the age of 91, held quite an extreme position in music history. Because of his great versatility, critics in Europe often spoke of him as constantly changing his “style of composing,” tacitly implying that a creative life must be stylistically uniform. In the United States, however, he was deemed the “one-man history of twentieth-century music,” a unique and nearly unbelievable fact Krenek lived up to through his creation of work that spans more than seven decades of the twentieth century, from the end of the 1910s until the end of the 1980s. When taken seriously, this bon mot does not refer to the temporal concordance of his works or his participation in the latest developments in music throughout his life; it rather points to his role as a twentieth-century contemporary.
In the early 1920s, when Krenek’s chamber music first became well known through his participation in the avant-garde music festivals in Donaueschingen and Salzburg, he was seen as a representative of “new” music—a form of music that responded to the reshaping of society after 1918 and to the accelerated developments in technology by counteracting the high expectations of art with humor and timeliness. A typical example of this attitude is the genre of the Zeitoper or contemporary opera, which Krenek also worked with. Yet, even then Krenek did not follow a specific pattern in working on his compositions: shortly before his contemporary opera Jonny spielt auf became a smash-hit, his expressionistic opera Orpheus und Eurydike, based on a play by Kokoschka premiered, and even prior to this (many years before Brecht’s attempt) Krenek had already written an “epic” music-theater piece, Zwingburg (1922).
Because Krenek was not one of Schönberg’s Viennese students and was almost an entire generation younger than Berg and Webern, it was not until 1930 that he first approached dodecaphony out of compositional necessity, but also out of an aesthetic understanding. The agreement of his musical ideas with intellectual analysis became one of the trademarks of Krenek’s work. (This agreement also had a political component in his first work using the twelve-tone technique, the “musical drama” Karl V, which had already been banned in Austria in 1934; it was the reason its premiere at the Vienna State Opera was prevented, and eventually also led to Krenek’s exile to the USA in 1938.) In the 1950s, Krenek’s contacts to the younger European avant-garde music scene encouraged him to begin composing electronic music, the serial arrangement of musical material and its counterpart, random operations. It was not simply his fascination with certain pieces works of this kind that utilized these techniques that sparked his interest but again, because he wanted to fundamentally explore these new possibilities both intellectually and artistically it was also the new intellectual and artistic possibilities that could be explored through them.
Back in the early 1940s in the USA, he had already begun to experiment with sequence rotation in his Third Piano Sonata (which later became one of Glenn Gould’s favorite pieces) and the great a capella work Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae—in doing so, he did not seek to push the dodecaphony further in the direction of serialism, but instead to create a bridge to modal music. Significantly, his interest in linking this to history arose in the early years of exile, a time when Krenek feared that his loss of Europe could lead to a loss of history altogether. This played an audible role in his later works as well. During this phase, there are two particularly remarkable elements: the juxtaposition of phrasal techniques and historical elements (with quotations or allusions, also to some of his earlier works) and the breaking up of the work’s continuity into fragments. The one insured his compositions a place within (his own) history, while the other enabled him to reflect on them as irrevocably fragmented—giving him the ability to express his refusal to downplay the specific break in history, one of the most incisive experiences that the twentieth century inflicted upon its contemporaries.
Claudia Maurer Zenck
Chairwoman of the Ernst Krenek Artistic and Academic Advisory Board
Professor for The History of Music at the University of Hamburg
Author of several books on Ernst Krenek