100 and 20, 20 and 100: In memory of Ernst Krenek


On his 120th birthday, let us not just say it with flowers, but also with numbers. For example, the title of Krenek’s op. 100, the "Hurricane Variations" for piano, could readily serve as the motto for his life. The original name of the work indeed traces back to an actual hurricane, to the storm that in September 1944 spread fear and terror throughout the population of America’s East Coast – exactly on the day that Krenek began work on the composition. But don’t storms and turbulence characterize his life on the whole? Yet, it began rather calmly. Born in Vienna on 23 August 1900, as the only child in a caring, middle-class home, Krenek saw himself encouraged already early on. For example, by Fridolin Balluff, the organist of the Votivkirche. In 1920, however, after he had followed his composition teacher Franz Schreker to Berlin, an incomparable, breathless sprint began. Seemingly effortlessly, Krenek conquered the international concert halls and opera houses. In 1923 he could already look back on three symphonies and additionally finish his stage work "Orpheus and Eurydice", whose sounds seem as if they came from a distant world. That same year, Krenek presented his op. 20, his Third String Quartet, which he self-confidently dedicated to his rival Paul Hindemith. It distinguished him as someone who had sovereignly liberated himself from the common clichés. The usual four movements? Get rid of them! Major-minor tonality? It also works without it. Strict counterpoint? Why not sensuous, free linearity! Without a doubt, 1920 was a personal leap year for Krenek, a year in which he succeeded in laying the groundwork for the future.

20 and 100 – one could interpret Krenek’s op. 20 as the effort of a romantic idealist bursting with energy. Conversely, it is obvious that his op. 100 can be understood as the reaction of a matured, but inwardly hurt composer, who had been thrown off course by the vicissitudes of history. His “derailment” took place in two phases. First, the Nazis had put him on their “black list”. Consequently, meanwhile again living in Vienna, he was barred from entering the German Empire, a circumstance that amounted to a performance ban. Then, in 1938, a vastly more severe blow hit him. Returning from a tour in the USA, he learned in Brussels that the German armed forces had meanwhile marched into Vienna. Krenek fell into a traumatizing political vacuum. He could neither enter his nazified home country, nor did he have a visa for another state. “Everything in shambles,” thus his pessimistic diary entry on 18 March of that year. He spent weeks roaming through Europe, from one consulate to the next until he finally could emigrate to the USA. There he virtually invented himself anew. For several years he taught composition at various colleges, initially, until 1942, in Poughkeepsie, NY, later at Hamline University in Minnesota. His creative curiosity, however, remained unbroken. He studied the music of the Renaissance, above all the works of Johannes Ockeghem. He occupied himself with the possibilities of serial composition to which he had already erected a magnificent monument in 1933 with his stage work "Karl V." And he brought both components together, the structures of the Renaissance and the potential of twelve-tone rows, in his full-length choral work "Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae", a milestone in musical history. Finally, he found in Dimitri Mitropoulos, the conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, a brilliant ally.

Thus, the fact that in 1945 Krenek reworked the Hurricane Variations into an orchestral piece can be understood as a kind of sign-posting – with regard to Mitropoulos, who premiered it a year later. Now, in the middle of his life, the composer started yet another sprint. In 1950 he published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung the very first article dealing with the chances of television opera. That same year, he started his many years of activity as lecturer at the Darmstadt Vacation Courses. Krenek also broke new ground in the electronic studio of the West German Radio in Cologne. His so-called Pfingst-Oratorium (“Whitsun Oratorio”) emerged in 1956 from a working phase there. His collaboration with the Hamburg State Opera and its director Rolf Liebermann began in the early 1960s, a fruitful cooperation whose beginning was marked by the multimedia opera "Der goldene Bock" (“The Golden Ram”). And toward the end of the decade, the now almost seventy-year-old composer acquired a Buchla synthesizer in order to explore further regions of the electro-acoustic world of sound.

Ernst Krenek loved the alpine world, particularly the high-alpine region with its massive boulders, abysses, gorges, and valleys, through which he frequently wandered, taking in all the details. Did he feel himself related to it deep down inside? In any case, his life’s work can indeed be compared to a mountain range: one cannot rush through it at a run, but rather it is necessary to climb it in order to constantly be surprised anew by its opulence and diversity as well as its wealth of perspectives.

Dr. Matthias Henke

Mon, 04/27/2020 - 14:33
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