Ernst Krenek

Biography

Austrian composer Ernst Krenek was one of the foremost composers of the 20th century. A survivor of both world wars, Krenek’s long life included many different influences and styles within the genre of contemporary music. 

Krenek was introduced to music at the age of six, when he began piano lessons. Shortly thereafter, he began to compose his own piano miniatures. Krenek pursued compositional studies with Schreker from 1916, which left a lifelong impression on the young composer. Schreker emphasized the importance of counterpoint which eventually led to his conclusion that music is ‘a precisely planned reflection of an autonomous system of streams of energy materialized in carefully controlled tonal patterns’.

During World War I, Krenek as drafted into the Austrian Army and stationed in Vienna, allowing for continuity in his studies. Krenek moved to Berlin in 1920, after Schreker, and attended Busoni’s salon. Schrekers’s influence was at its height in Krenek’s work during this period, leading to abundant use of counterpoint and extended tonality. Between 1921 and 1924 Krenek composed 18 works, including his First String Quartet (1921), which introduced the public and the critics to his mature style. The success of the quartet led to a contract with Universal Edition and the motivation to complete several operas, such asDie Zwingburg (1922), Orpheus und Eurydike (1923) and Der Sprung über den Schatten (1923).

A relationship with Anna Mahler, daughter of the late-Romantic composer Gustav Mahler, brought Krenek in contact with many important composers in the Mahler circle. In addition, Anna requested that Krenek complete Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, which was left unfinished at the time of his death. Though he willingly edited two of the symphony’s movements, he refused to complete the work as it was too underdeveloped.

After his marriage to Anna, which lasted less than a year, Krenek joined the ISCM, where his works were often premiered. Not one to back down from his artistic ideals, Krenek created such an uproar with his Second Symphony (1923) that he left for Switzerland, where he remained for three years with the aid of a grant from Werner Reinhart, through whom he was introduced to Stravinsky and Rilke. Krenek was appointed assistant director of the Staatstheater Kassel in 1925, under director Paul Bekker.

That same year, Krenek travelled to Paris where he came into contact with Les Six. The influence of Les Six on Krenek took an immediate effect, starting with the operaJonny spielt auf (1925). This opera marked a new period in his career. His music was suddenly much more accessible, primarily due to a return to tonality. In addition to Les Six Krenek’s studies of Schubert’s music led him to this new period, which he named his neo-Romantic period. The opera was premiered successfully in 1927, giving rise to his popularity. In addition to the full-opera he composed three one-act operas between 1926 and 1928.

Krenek settled in Vienna, where he became friends with Berg. During this period he composed several major works, including the grand operaLeben des Orest (1928-9) and the song cycleReisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen (1929). This was around the time he married actress Berta Hass.

Krenek composed the politically divisive Karl V (1933) for the Vienna Staatsoper, who commissioned an opera in 1929. The opera, based on Emperor Charles V, bursts with Austrian nationalism and showcases the deterioration of society as a theme. From a compositional standpoint, this opera is also fascinating as it was the first 12-note opera. Due to political tension, the premiere in Vienna was cancelled and the opera was instead premiered several years later in 1938 in Prague.

In the early 1930s, increasing pressure from the Nazi movement forced him to quit writing for theFrankfurter Zeitung, as he was considered a radical artist; all his music and writings were banned. He began writing instead for the satirical23, which he founded together with Rudolph Ploderer and Will Reich. Krenek toured in 1937 with the Salzburg Opera Guild throughout America, a country with which enthralled him.

After the Nazis annexed Austria, Krenek fled to America, where he soon became a US citizen. While in America, Krenek taught at many schools, including the Malkin Conservatory and Hamline University, St Paul. While at Hamline, he formed the Minneapolis chapter of ISCM together with Mitropoulos and Krasner. Compositions from this period include hisCantata for Wartime (1943), the Seventh String Quartet (1943-4),Symphonic Elegy (1946) and the Fourth Symphony (1947).

Krenek moved to Los Angeles in 1947 to fulfill his dream of making a living as a composer. Finding this to be too difficult, he began teaching again and then relocated to Chicago in 1949 for an appointment at the Chicago Musical College. His time in Chicago was limited, however, as he found the Chicago winters to be far too cold, quickly returning to live in Los Angeles.

In the summers of 1950 and 1951, Krenek taught at the Darmstadt summer courses in Germany. He did not go to Darmstadt the following two years, which resulted in a decrease in his influence on the students, who were instead influenced by composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen.

The 1950s were also a productive time for Krenek, who received many commissions. Works from this period span several genres and include his fifth and sixth piano sonatas (1950, 1951),Pallas Athene weint (1952-5), the chamber operasDark Waters (1950) and The Bell Tower (1955-6) and Eleven Transparencies (1954) for soprano and orchestra.

Another major transition occurred in 1955 when Krenek was invited to work in Eimert’s electronic music studio. A result of this influence is hisSpiritus intelligentiae, sanctus(1955-6) for two voices and tape. Krenek also developed an interest in serial techniques, along with tie, chance and predetermination. He tied his serial ideas together with the medieval poetic form Sestina, resulting inSestina (1957), a work which combines the medieval form with note row rotations.

In 1970, Krenek became the Regent’s Lecturer at UCSD and was awarded the Cross of Austria and a Berlin commission several years later. His compositional style of the late-1970s is noticeably calmer, though he still uses 12-note and serial techniques. His final works include the autobiographicalArc of Life (1981) for orchestra, the Eighth String Quartet (1980-1) which is full of quotes from his previous quartets and the oratorioOpus sine nomine (1980-8).

In appreciation of his contributions to music, he was appointed an honorary citizen of Vienna in 1982. In addition, a Krenek Prize for composition was founded in Vienna to honour the achievements of the prolific composer.

In 1970, Krenek became the Regent’s Lecturer at UCSD and was awarded the Cross of Austria and a Berlin commission several years later. His compositional style of the late-1970s is noticeably calmer, though he still uses 12-note and serial techniques. His final works include the autobiographicalArc of Life (1981) for orchestra, the Eighth String Quartet (1980-1) which is full of quotes from his previous quartets and the oratorioOpus sine nomine (1980-8).

In appreciation of his contributions to music, he was appointed an honorary citizen of Vienna in 1982. In addition, a Krenek Prize for composition was founded in Vienna to honour the achievements of the prolific composer.

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