The Lion America Forgot : While Ernst Krenek has lived here for 52 years, the acclaim his music receives still comes from Europe, not the United States

A small, deeply tanned man with icily intent blue eyes, still frail from a near-fatal bout with pneumonia last summer, rests at home. He is surrounded by the blandishments of festival brochures from Europe, for today in Vienna, the Franz Schubert Quartet plays string quartets by himself and Schubert. On Tuesday comes the world premiere of his oratorio “Opus Sine Nomine,” and on Thursday a recital of some of his chamber music.

The man is Ernst Krenek, and these concerts are part of the opening week of the six-week music festival of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. As a composer of everything from piano sonatas to television operas, symphonies to electronic music, in styles from jazz-tinged neoromanticism to serial complexity, he is lionized in Europe.

Considering the collective embarrassment still felt in the local music community over the neglect of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, it is not too much to imagine that such a hero would be hailed here as well, were he in residence.

Certainly Krenek thinks it is not too much, though he has long ceased to expect it, since he has lived in Los Angeles and Palm Springs since 1947. With his usual self-reflective irony, he described his feelings in an introductory letter for the brand new Newsletter of the Ernst Krenek Archive, from UC San Diego:


“It has been observed that after the demise of personalities who had reached a certain degree of notoriety, a certain lacuna of 30 to 40 years develops in the attention paid to their memory,” he wrote. “In my case this lacuna seems to have opened somewhat earlier since, after having spent more than 50 years in this country, I feel like having more or less dropped out of its consciousness.”

His continued presence in the musical consciousness of Central Europe is demonstrated every season. In Vienna, the visiting Stuttgart Opera offers a triple bill of Krenek one-acts in June, which will be repeated during a weeklong Krenek festival in Stuttgart in November. In August the Salzburg Festival presents an evening of Krenek’s orchestral music, followed by his opera “Orpheus und Eurydike.” In September, the Leipzig Opera stages a new production of the epochal “Jonny spielt auf” (Johnny Strikes Up), and Claudio Abbado’s Wien Modern 1990 festival in November-December offers many Krenek works, including the belated premiere of the opera “Kehraus um St. Stephen” (Cleanup Around St. Stephen).

The immediate inspiration for all of this is Krenek’s 90th birthday, Aug. 23, but Krenek has never needed an anniversary to have his music heard in Europe. Last year, for example, the early opera “Der Sprung uber den Schatten” (The Leap Over the Shadow) was revived in Bielefeld to ecstatic reviews, “Jonny spielt auf” was given by the Freiburg Opera, and a four-day Krenek symposium in Lubeck drew the composer, two premieres and 20 other works.

And in Southern California?

Little to nothing, at least outside the colleges and universities where former students and admirers carry the torch. So far only the enterprising Southwest Chamber Music Society has plans for the anniversary year, offering the U.S. premiere of the Seventh Piano Sonata in June. With four other significant U.S. premieres in hand, the Society is still scrambling for $30,000 to fund a birthday concert and three other Krenek surveys.

In 1963 Stravinsky wrote, “Krenek will be honored one day even at home.” Just why he isn’t prompts many theories.

“When Krenek came to America, American musical life was pretty much dominated by New York composers who had studied with Nadia Boulanger and had a strong French connection,” says Garrett Bowles, editor of the Krenek Newsletter and author of a new 428-page bio-bibliography of the composer. “Krenek represented German traditions, against that grain.”

Jeff von der Schmidt, a French hornist for whom Krenek has composed and director of the Southwest Chamber Music Society, links the disparity in Krenek’s public stature here and in Europe to the opera house.

“His impact is not felt as much in the States because he’s primarily a theater composer,” Schmidt says. “That’s why he is so popular in Europe, where small towns the size of Pasadena have important opera houses.”

Despite acclaim and frequent performances, Schmidt goes on to say that Krenek is also at odds with those in the European community who feel he has deserted them for America. Albrecht Dumling, music critic for the Tagespiegel in Berlin and currently a fellow in residence at the Getty Center, cautiously says something similar.

“One is not quite sure if he is an Austrian composer or an American composer. He’s certainly an intellectual composer.”

Krenek himself has expressed several times the idea that the sheer range and quantity of his music, preventing him from being neatly pigeon-holed, may have inhibited his public. In a characteristic essay titled “Self-analysis,” he wrote in 1948:

“It is quite possible that the unusual variety of my output has baffled observers accustomed to more homogeneous phenomena. It is my impression that this confusion has surrounded my work with an unusual obscurity--almost anonymity.”

Not all of the rebuffs to Krenek’s work have been due to more-or-less benign aesthetic neglect. For the Nazis, Krenek was a prototypical “cultural Bolshevist.” In 1938, “Jonny spielt auf” was a central feature of an exhibit of “ entartete Musik " (degenerate music). That exhibit was reconstructed by the German critic Albrecht Dumling for its 50th anniversary, with “Jonny” the cover boy for the catalogue, superimposed on a bust of Bruckner.

The exhibit, which has already been to 17 cities in Europe, will make its first U.S. appearance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this spring, occupying three lobby floors with posters, sculptures, and videos, with supplementary films and lectures.

“So now I’ve defiled Bruckner,” Krenek says with characteristic irony, still mocking Nazi culture at this distance. He finds nothing funny about the current furor over NEA funding of controversial art exhibits, however, which he sees as all too similar to the Nazi suppression of their so-called degenerate art. “It’s the same mentality, the same attitudes. I’m absolutely against censorship of any kind.”

Typically, Krenek made his first foray with the new 12-tone devices in a big way, with the opera “Karl V” in 1933. Equally typically, it met a controversial reception. Its treatment of Austrian nationalism and Catholicism, plus its 12-tone materials, proved inimical to the Nazis. Though commissioned by the Vienna Opera and put into rehearsal, it was withdrawn under political pressure.

Along with Dumling’s entartete Musik exhibit, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will give a program devoted to composers banned by the Nazis, including Korngold, Weill and Hindemith, as well as Krenek.

When Philharmonic executive vice president Ernest Fleischmann sent Krenek a letter informing him of the concert and adding the thought that it would prove a 90th-birthday tribute, the composer was not amused or flattered.

“I was not impressed,” Krenek says, with all the ice in his blue eyes gleaming. “I think it’s outrageous. A birthday a year later, and in this context, which has nothing to do with me.”

Never inhibited, nor worried about the niceties of musical politics, Krenek fired off this characteristic response to Fleischmann, now faithfully deposited in the Krenek Archive at UC San Diego.

“I certainly appreciate learning . . . of your orchestra’s planning to remember my 90th birthday, although I should have preferred it to happen this year where it really occurs instead of next. With the other composers mentioned in your program I have nothing in common.

“Furthermore, I fail to see what my 90th birthday has to do with the concept of entartete Kunst (degenerate art). If I should be associated therewith at all, it would seem to be more logical to select a work from the early ‘20s when that concept originated; for instance my Second Symphony, a major work whose premiere in 1924 at the festival in Kassel was received with a gigantic scandal, instead of the ‘Symphonic Elegy’ which I wrote in this country after that obnoxious concept had long become obsolete.”

Fleischmann attributes the problem to finding and scheduling conductors who will learn Krenek’s music, and points out that the Philharmonic New Music Group will also be doing something by Krenek. “He makes a good point. It’s very difficult, unfortunately, to find conductors who’ll learn the pieces . . . If anything, I’m on his side. I wish I could do more.”

Krenek is a tough-minded, confident, prickly man, who expresses himself forcefully on any issue. His complete inability to sugar-coat his opinions, even where flattery or simple politesse might well serve his own interest, is perhaps another reason why his music does not make the local rounds as much as he might wish.

Another is his relative isolation--albeit self-imposed--in Palm Springs. Krenek doesn’t get out to many concerts any more, but the desert suits him.

In 1937 he came to the United States for the first time, on a tour with the Salzburg Guild Opera, for which he had prepared an edition of Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea.”

“I had an idea that probably I would have to establish myself in this country if the Nazis come,” Krenek says. “When we returned to Europe in 1938, the Nazis came to Vienna. I knew I couldn’t go back any longer, because I would be put into a concentration camp. In the Fall I moved to this country for good.”

After teaching briefly on the East Coast, Krenek took a position at Hamline University in Minnesota.

“I would have to say I was surprised how easy I found it. I found it quite natural, no problem,” he now recalls. “I liked teaching for a while. In 1947, I got tired of it and moved to California, where I always wanted to be.”

With Krenek came Gladys Nordenstrom, a Hamline student and composer who became his wife in 1950. “Those beginning years in California were terribly difficult,” she says. “We practically didn’t make it, almost starving to death really.”

Krenek began returning to Germany and Austria in 1950, where the rebuilding opera houses and influential radio stations soon began providing commissions, conducting engagements and royalties. Such fees from Europe now account for 90% of Krenek’s income.

In those early years in California, Nordenstrom taught to support them, as did Krenek himself, at the small Southern California School of Music and the Arts. There one of his students was Beverly Pinsky Grigsby, now a professor at Cal State Northridge.

“He was always very inspiring and very giving of his time, and still is,” she says. “Even as a very young student, he treated me as a colleague, and he never questioned the appropriateness of a woman as a composer. He was a true mentor.”

George Perle, who studied with Krenek during summer sessions at the University of Michigan between 1938 and 1940, also remembers his generosity and openness as a teacher. “By the time I came to him, I had found, or was about to find, my own direction with the 12-tone technique. When I came to him with these very different ideas, he treated them as a discovery, not as something wrong.”

Schmidt cites a performance of Krenek’s “Von vorn herein"--in Vienna, naturally--as awakening his interest in contemporary music, and he finds Krenek’s current music an even more overwhelming experience.

“I think Verdi is the only other composer who has written music as an octogenarian as powerful as Krenek has,” Schmidt says. “To me he is a musical El Greco, with that same sense of striving upwards and devotion to the existence of God.”

Born with the century, Krenek embodies the musical history of his era. His vast compositional output--105 unnumbered works, 240 opus numbers and still growing--includes brief but prolific periods of atonalism, neoclassicism, neoromanticism, a long and persistent exploration of 12-tone and serial techniques, and pioneering electronic pieces.

“I started scribbling notes when I was 5 or 6 years old. It intrigued me,” the composer recalls, “just music paper and how it looks if you scribble something on it. It didn’t make any sense, of course.

“My mother was playing piano a little, and I wondered, ‘How does this come about?’ Later on, I had piano lessons of my own, and started writing little phrases, until my teacher said, ‘I cannot supervise this any longer,’ and sent me to the State Academy of Music in Vienna, where I studied with Franz Schrecker.”

Krenek and Schrecker soon parted ways, and from those little phrases and scribblings came a composer of audaciousness and integrity. Through the decade of the 1920s his works created scandal after scandal, climaxing in 1927 in the furor and enthusiasm over the opera “Jonny spielt auf,” mixing atonal, neoromantic and jazz elements on behalf of a social satire penned by Krenek himself.

“Jonny” brought the composer fame and fortune; it was translated into 18 languages and so popular that an Austrian brand of cigarettes was named for it. But the always intellectually restless composer was not content to continue in that successful idiom for long.

“At the end of the 1920s, I have to say that I didn’t know any longer how to go on from the old, traditional idiom and tonality. I was very interested in literature, and writing for the Frankfurter Zeitung. At that time I played with the idea of becoming a writer rather than a composer. But eventually I returned to music, and I’m sticking with it.”

What brought Krenek back to composition was his interest in the 12-tone technique as it was currently being formulated by Schoenberg.

“It seemed convincing for me,” Krenek says of his study of the 12-tone method. “I wrote many works since 1930 using it, not always strictly. In the last 10 years I don’t use it dogmatically. What I’m doing now has nothing really to do with the strict 12-tone technique, although its always in the background.”

Krenek is not much impressed by post-modern trends in composition.

“From what I know, I’m not at all convinced by minimalism. I know a few pieces by (Terry) Riley and (Steve) Reich, but that doesn’t interest me at all, because I feel that when I’ve heard 10 measures, I’ve heard the next two hours.

“Also, the new simplicity, the new tonality, the new romanticism or whatever it is called, doesn’t interest me very much. I always say I worked that out for myself in the 1920s . . . so now I’m sticking with the old complexity.”

He works as he wishes, as his health permits and leaves the future to itself: “I don’t like prophesy,” he says, but his “Spatlese” song cycle from 1973 carries characteristic reflections, though Krenek is modest about the virtues of his translation:

Late harvest, still on the vine,

While the young wine is already fermenting,

Late unveiled model of future vintage.

Harvested late, it will survive the harvesters,

Put away into the cellar to await the evening of the feast.