Sounds Heard: Ernst Krenek—Complete Symphonies
Reading the memoirs of Ernst Krenek while listening to a new boxed set of his five symphonies—recorded over the past two decades by the North German Radio Philharmonic Hanover and released in May by CPO—helps rekindle the Austrian-born American immigrant’s world of strength and beauty, revealing the tumultuous life and searing music of an unjustly overlooked composer.
Mere months after fleeing Europe for the United States, the composer Ernst Krenek visited the home of George Washington in Mount Vernon. “I was moved to tears hearing the tolling of the bell on a gunboat that passed by way down on the Potomac,” he wrote. “What a world of strength and beauty was irrevocably lost to us who are walking around among its august remains.”
That Washington moment might seem strange for an Austrian-born composer of Czech descent, but Krenek felt the gap between past and present as acutely in Mount Vernon as he did in Vienna. His hometown, and the locus of the culture he had held most dear, had succumbed to the Nazis and was no place for a composer of jazzy operas and atonal music. “I had become a preferred target of the rapidly increasing barbarian tribe of German supermen,” Krenek wrote in his memoirs.
Today, those memoirs languish practically unread at the Library of Congress. Though penned in English, they have only been published in an out-of-print German translation. The memoirs aren’t even listed in the library’s catalogue. (An intrepid librarian discovered them for me in the stacks.) Call up ML95.K83, and you will come face-to-face with a large box containing over a thousand typed pages, divided into six tattered envelopes. Each envelope bears the label: “This must not be opened before fifteen years after my death.”
Krenek was a man of many contradictions in a century full of them. He hoped to succeed Mahler as a great symphonist, but became best known for an opera about jazz (the 1927 Jonny spielt auf). He was rejected by the Nazis for being a radical and by the postwar avant-garde for being a conservative. Constantly adapting to new circumstances, learning new musical languages to fit the times while pushing to new creative heights, Krenek seemed one step behind the curve, unable to catch up with the speed of the 20th century.
Reading the memoirs while listening to a new boxed set of the composer’s five symphonies—recorded over the past two decades by the North German Radio Philharmonic Hanover and released in May by CPO—helps rekindle Krenek’s world of strength and beauty, revealing the tumultuous life and searing music of an unjustly overlooked composer.
Krenek’s life and music inform us about the cultural heritage of Vienna, but perhaps more importantly about what happened to that legacy when Hitler forced a generation of artists and intellectuals into exile. Two of Krenek’s five symphonies were composed after he arrived in the United States, and they reflect his turbulent years as a émigré. Though some exiles felt, as Arnold Schoenberg famously put it, “driven into paradise,” in the case of Krenek it was a paradise in which his name, once heralded in the 1920s, was largely and unfairly neglected.
Krenek began writing his memoirs in 1942 in St. Paul, Minnesota. He thought himself near death, and fervently documented in English his childhood in Vienna, his twenties in Berlin, his return to his home city, and its downfall in the 1930s (born in 1900, Krenek died in 1991, making him an almost exact contemporary to Aaron Copland).
The memoirs move at a luxuriously slow pace, but are rife with insights into the cultural life of 20th-century Europe. In Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg was seen as a “local lunatic, a pure crank of no significance”; in Germany, Paul Hindemith obsessed over miniature trains; and in France, Igor Stravinsky insisted that Krenek eat salad with olive oil to gain the affections of women. Unfortunately, the memoirs conclude in 1937, leaving scant details about his American life.*
The memoirs also provide a gaze into Krenek’s own multifaceted identity, one that would acquire even more intricacy when the composer went into exile. “I am neither Czech nor German, and being Austrian appears to practically every living person as an artificial abstraction,” he wrote.
Krenek’s five symphonies mirror the complexities of his persona and the upheavals of his life. His First Symphony premiered in Berlin in 1921, heard by Wassily Kandinsky and Walter Gropius; his Fifth was premiered in 1950 by the Albuquerque Civic Symphony, and heard by, well, the residents of New Mexico.
In his early twenties, having relocated from Vienna to Berlin to follow his teacher Franz Schreker, Krenek composed his first three symphonies. They are a remarkable feat: over two hours of seething, post-Mahlerian grandeur, written in under two years. The First Symphony, a single movement broken into eclectic sections, is murkily atonal, with sudden fugal outbursts—a young man demonstrating his command of traditional counterpoint. The Third is a lighter work, though it still packs a punch.
Of this early trio, it is the Second Symphony that most intrigues. In 1922, Krenek fell in love with the youngest daughter of Gustav Mahler, Anna, whom he married and divorced in less than a year. Krenek dedicated his Second to Anna. He writes in his memoirs of his skepticism towards the idea that personal matters could inspire great music, but this symphony is one of his most towering works.
Hovering between Romanticism and modernism, it is a weird piece from its very opening, an ethereal duet of violins and plinking celeste. The music rises to massive climaxes that suddenly dissolve into mist before chaotically rushing forward to the next explosion. There is a sardonic streak throughout, channeling the other great post-Mahler symphonist of the day, Dmitri Shostakovich (who himself may have been inspired by Krenek’s music). One hears a fully formed musical personality—Krenek’s lifelong balancing act between reverence and cynicism.
The 25-year break between the third and fourth symphonies did not bode well for a composer hoping to succeed Mahler, as both symphonist and family member. But Krenek abandoned the genre when his opera career took off with the success of Jonny spielt auf, which briefly made him one of the most famous composers in Europe. Combining elements of jazz and late romanticism, Jonny was a surprise hit at its Leipzig premiere in 1927, and went on to tour Europe. A tale of a black jazz violinist who helps liberate a composer from esotericism, it became a kind of fable for the wild culture and loose morals of Weimar-era Europe, and a pioneering work in the cutting-edge genre of Zeitoper.
In the wake of sudden fame, Krenek found himself at what he called an impasse, unwilling to continue down the path of populist opera. He turned towards Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, ideas of which he gleaned from the composer’s disciples, since he was not allowed into the Schoenberg’s inner circle after a nasty battle earlier in their careers.
Neither the jazz-celebrating Jonny nor his subsequent twelve-tone turn ingratiated Krenek with the Nazis. Thugs disrupted performances of his music in Vienna and Munich, and rumors that he was Jewish (he wasn’t) led to cancelled concerts. Krenek had the unique position of being a composer who could be indicted as both an American-pandering populist and a mathematical formalist: the very ideal of the Nazi conception of degenerate art.
When Hitler annexed Austria in 1937, Krenek was in Brussels. He frantically applied for a visa and sailed to the United States. Over the next decade, he moved from university to university, started cranking out his memoirs, and composed a startling amount of music.
The final two symphonies, written in Albuquerque and Los Angeles in the late 1940s, harken back to his youth in Berlin. Despite Krenek’s engagement with twelve-tone techniques throughout his American career, both works are freely atonal, and less forbidding than much of his later output.
The Fourth is elegiac, even Copland-esque in its opening woodwind lament, though it still retains Krenek’s quintessential acerbity. As in the earlier symphonies, moments of utter weirdness puncture the music, like a lurching crunch of brass in the finale, a bleak revision of the Fanfare for the Common Man.
Another fifty years passed, and Krenek wrote much music—electronic pieces, operas for stage and television, choral masterpieces like the Lamentio Jerememiae Prophetae—but not another numbered symphony. He dabbled in American themes: Santa Fe Timetable, a choral work setting the names of various train stops between Albuquerque and Los Angeles; a ballad of the railroads; a set of George Washington piano variations.
Despite his love for American culture, Krenek continued to feel like an outsider. The kind of writing which might have gained him an audience in the United States—the blend of lush early modernism and jazz found in Jonny—remained behind, part of the lost world of late imperial Vienna.
Living in its august remains, he pressed onward and adapted to his new home, even if it was less welcoming than the old. His music went unheard; it is worth resurrecting.
*Those interested can consult John L. Stewart’s 1991 biography of the composer; Claudia Maurer Zenck’s German-language study Ernst Krenek, ein Komposer im Exil; Krenek’s own 1974 Horizons Circled: Reflections on my Music; and two generalized studies, Driven into Paradise and A Windfall of Musicians.