Composer Ernst Krenek
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Ernst Krenek (August 23, 1900 – December 22, 1991) was an Austrian-born
composer of Czech ancestry; throughout his life he insisted that his
name be written Krenek rather than Křenek, and that it should be
pronounced as a German word. He explored atonality and other modern
styles and wrote a number of books, including Music Here and Now (1939), a study
of Johannes Ockeghem (1953), and Horizons
Circled: Reflections on my Music (1974).
Krenek was born in Vienna. He studied there and in Berlin with Franz
Schreker before working in a number of German opera houses as
conductor. During World War I, Krenek was drafted into the Austrian
Army, but he was stationed in Vienna, allowing him to go on with his
musical studies. In 1922 he met Gustav Mahler's daughter, Anna, and her
mother, Alma, who asked Krenek to complete her late husband's Symphony
No. 10. Krenek helped edit the first and third movements but went no
further. In 1924 he married Anna, only to divorce her before the first
His journalism was banned and his music was targeted in Germany by the
Nazi Party in 1933. On March 6, one day after the Nazis gained control
of the Reichstag, Krenek's incidental music to Goethe's Triumph der Empsindsamkeit
had to be withdrawn in Mannheim and pressure was brought to bear on the
Vienna State Opera, which cancelled the commissioned premiere of Karl V. The jazz imitations of Jonny spielt auf
were included in the 1938 Degenerate art exhibition in Munich. He moved
to the United States of America in 1938 where he taught music at
various universities, including Hamline University in Saint Paul,
Minnesota from 1942-1947. He became an American citizen in 1945. His
students included George Perle and Robert Erickson. [See Bruce Duffie's
George Perle, and his Interview with
Robert Erickson.] Krenek died in Palm
Krenek's music is in a variety of styles. His early work is in a
late-Romantic idiom, showing the influence of his teacher Franz
Schreker. He later embraced atonality, but a visit to Paris, during
which he became familiar with the work of Igor Stravinsky and Les Six,
led him to adopt a neo-classical style. His opera Jonny spielt auf (Johnny Strikes Up,
1926), which is influenced by jazz, was a great success in his
lifetime, playing all over Europe. In spite of Nazi protests, it became
so popular that even a brand of cigarettes, still on the market today
in Austria, was named "Jonny". [Illustration of a pack is shown in the
box below.] He then started writing in a
neo-Romantic style with Franz Schubert as a model, with his Reisebuch aus den österreichischen
Alpen as prime example, before using Arnold Schoenberg's
twelve-tone technique; the opera Karl
V (1931-33) is entirely written using this technique, as are
most of his later pieces. In the Lamentatio
(1941–42) he combined twelve-tone writing with 16th century techniques
of modal counterpoint. He also composed electronic and aleatoric music.
In January of 1986, Ernst Krenek graciously permitted me to call
him at his home for an interview. We had written back and forth,
and he was aware of my background and interests. The conversation
went very well, and the composer was enthusiastic in responding to my
questions. While getting the recording equipment set up at my
studio, we spoke briefly about the myriad ways in which people
communicated and shared their ideas in the electronic age.
Are we bombarded today with too much stimulus of all kinds?
Ernst Krenek: That
depends on what you understand by
stimulus. If you mean the influence of television and radio and
so forth, then I think that is a bit too much, indeed. Of course
I don't hear much, I might confess, but I don't listen much to
television; usually just the news. I don't care for the other
programs because they're not that interesting for me. But I could
imagine that people who listen to this for hours a day are very
well filled up with this, and don't have much time for
BD: But of course this
is a conscious choice on your part.
that's right naturally. That's just because in previous years I
have tried to listen to this or that and found
out that it didn't interest me, so I just let it go at that.
BD: Is it
necessary for any composer to keep up with the times?
EK: It can't do
any harm. I think I am still interested
although I'm now of advanced age, as you know. I've been
interested what goes on in music, what the younger people do. I
can't say that I like it very much, but never mind. I like
to get involved; I want to listen to what they are
doing. Of course here in Palm Springs I have not so much
opportunity, but I still like to go to concerts or
opera once in a while and see what goes on.
BD: But in Palm
Springs — or even in perhaps the
most remote part of the earth — there
communications so that you can have music or entertainment of any
kind almost anywhere.
EK: Yes, that is
true. As I said
before, I don't feel that this is very interesting for me. We can
hear anything over the satellite, but I don't think that much
contemporary music comes over the
satellite, or anywhere else. That comes from human sources, for
orchestra, chamber music, or others, and there is not so much of
BD: Let me ask
about the other kind of music. There's
a whole range of popular music. Do you consider this junk music
in the same way that we
have junk food?
EK: No, I
wouldn't say that. As you know, in my younger
years in the 1920s, I was very much interested in this kind of
music, and I wrote a famous opera, Jonny
spielt auf, which uses jazz idiom and is based on this whole
idea of the contemporary field of music. But this stopped at the
end of the 1920s. I lost interest
in this kind of music. I turned to the twelve-tone
technique, which is a different pallet style and different
kind, and my interest has developed in a different direction. So
I am now not any longer so much
interested in this music, and I must say I lost track of all the many
different issues that exist, such as country music,
spirituals, rock 'n roll, metal, and whatever
comes up every day. Who is to
say, even if I ever hear it, which
happens really rarely enough.
BD: Is "rock"
EK: [Thinks for a
moment] Maybe so; I don't know. I don't know exactly the
definition of music, much less the definition of rock, so I can't say
much about this.
BD: What caused
you to lose interest in the
use of jazz in your music?
|On Dec. 6., 2011 Decca Classics'
latest slate of back-catalogue opera reissues includes the
Leipzig recording of Ernst Krenek's jazz opera Jonny spielt auf.
Austrian of Czech descent, Krenek (1900-1991) was no jazzman. He was in
fact a fiercely eclectic, modern composer whose music veered from
tonality to serialism and sometimes back again in the course of a long,
brilliant career. Today, he is best remembered as a music educator and
for making the first attempt to edit the score of Mahler's Tenth Symphony. He is also an
important, underrated composer in the 20th century whose cerebral music
deserves more exposure.
Jonny (the title
translates as Jonny Plays On)
was the hot opera of 1928. Krenek was inspired by the jazz revue Chocolate Babies.
The opera premiered in Leipzig in 1927 and was an instant success. It
is the story of a love affair between Max, an intellectual composer
(Krenek himself?) and Anita, a soprano. The title character, an
itinerant African-American musician (usually played by a white actor in
black-face) sets the world dancing after he steals Max's violin.
When Jonny-mania hit Vienna,
Krenek's innovations drew the ire of that city's leading music critic,
one Julius Korngold. The father of composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold,
the elder Korngold worked hard to promote the virtues of his son's more
conservative (but equally brilliant) opera, Das Wunder der Heliane. But he did
so by writing negatively about Krenek's opera. The effort backfired,
and Heliane fizzled.
The competition between operas extended as far as the
smoke shops of the Austrian capital. Ostereiche
promoted the elegant, expensive "Heliane" cigarettes as an alternate to
the cheap "Jonny" blend. Like Krenek's opera, the plebian taste proved
more popular. (You can still buy Jonny cigarettes in Austria. [See
illustration at left.] In interest of public health, this blog
recommend you do so.)
The rise of Adolf Hitler led to both operas being labeled "Entarte
Musik," examples of what Nazi censors called "degenerate" art, and then
obscurity for the next 50 years. Although it never regained a place in
the repertory, it is staged occasionally, with productions in Vienna
(2005) and at the Teatro Colon in Argentina in 2006. Both composers
emigrated to America. Krenek became an academic and wrote an important Violin Concerto. Korngold went to
Hollywood and found fame writing film scores.
The recording in question comes from the 1990s, when Decca started a
program to record and preserve these specific operas that were declared
"degenerate." Both Jonny and Heliane
were recorded as part of that series. The jazz opera was preserved on
this excellent two-CD set, featuring the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
conducted by Lothar Zagrosek. The cast features heldentenor Heinz Kruse
as Max, and soprano Allessandra Marc as Anita. Thanks to this reissue,
you can discover Jonny for yourself.
-- From a blog called
"Superconductor" by Paul Pelkonen (with correction)
EK: I think it was
just that at the end of the 1920s, I had
arrived at sort of a dead
end in the music of this earlier period. I wrote this in the
1920s in a kind of Romantic or neo-Romantic idiom. This
opera, Jonny spielt auf, and
also a song cycle and other
things had elements influenced by Schubert. One should not be
surprised because it's nothing to do with jazz, but
at the end of the 1920s I felt that this expression was a
dead end and I couldn't get to the any further. I became
acquainted with the other kind of "new music" at
that time, that is the music of the Schoenberg School. I used to
live in Vienna in these last years of the '20s, hence I knew Alban Berg
and Anton Webern personally. They were my
friends, and I began to study their music very carefully. They
were much older than I, so I didn't ask them, "How did you do this,"
and "What is this here
and there?' I wanted to study it
myself, and I came to the conclusion that this was the way for me
to get out of this problem.
BD: Did they have
a very large influence on your
BD: Did you
continue with this same kind of style, or did you progress into new and
different styles throughout your
EK: No, I felt
sure. I was rather surprised that I
kept doing this twelve-tone technique basically for
the remainder of my life, but not so strictly and dogmatically. I
wrote some different
kinds of compositions for some occasions, some choral pieces and so on,
but the twelve-tone technique has remained the essential method
by which I write music. As I say, it's not based
on any strict theoretical background, but roughly speaking the twelve
tones are always
present and organized in various ways.
people come to hear your music, what do you expect from the audiences?
EK: I expect
them to enjoy it. [Both chuckle] It's very simple. I
like them to listen to it without any foreknowledge or
prejudice, and so to open their ears and their minds and absorb the
music as it comes along and make their own response to it as it
comes to them. I don't think that music tells any stories.
I don't believe in program music. Stravinsky's attitude was that
music doesn't express anything. All that music expresses is
really brought into it
by the listener. There are associations as he hears
music. He thinks of roses or a meadow or mountains or the Last
Supper or whatever it is, but then he imagines that the music expresses
this and that the composer must have wanted this when he wrote
the music, but I don't think that is true.
What a composer was thinking when he wrote the music, nobody knows
BD: Do you then
have as many different reactions as there are people who are listening
to the music?
yes, and I don't mind their
reactions. Let them think what they want.
BD: Do you expect
your music to be understood, or do you just wait for the various
EK: Well, that is
different category. I think that music can
be perceived in three
different ways. One can listen to it like they listen to
music in an elevator or in the dentist's office, but
this way means they hardly listen at all; it just goes by. But we
also listen to it with emotional reaction. Most people cry or
hoot, but there is some kind
of expression which they've done first, and they believe their
emotional reactions come from the music. Finally they can listen
to it intellectually. They
can follow the process, they can visualize what happens to the piece
— how this theme is modified and how it is
repeated — and how all of the motives come back
and get changed and so forth. But that would be another kind of
music which is not as commonplace as the others. It's more
efficient for us who are writing music most of the time.
BD: Do you expect
all of these things to be going on all at the
EK: Yes, I would
think so. I can
listen to television when some of the greats play a sonata by
Beethoven on the piano. I can just listen away from
it because I don't pay attention, but I can also turn around if I am
much interested and say how does this go, or how this is made or how it
put together; how was this developed or what happens to the subject.
BD: When you're
writing music, how much of your music is
inspiration and how much is technique?
EK: I couldn't
tell exactly the
percentage, but I hope all the elements are in
BD: Where is the
[Chuckles] That is not quite so easy to say. What is
inspiration anyway? I've thought about it, and inspiration is a
rather complicated process since many things are stored in one's
mind. It depends on happenings, upbringing, deliberations,
associations, education, reminiscences, recollections, and maybe new
ideas which ones picks up from anywhere. One can't control
it. One doesn't know. It just goes by, so one must try to
find a more effective way to harness and utilize it.
BD: Can we be too
about music in theory classes?
EK: I think
so. One can analyze
music from various viewpoints. After all, as you teach
composition you do this all the time. You analyze music for the
students, try to explain to them how
it was put together, how it was made, how it was constructed.
BD: You spent a
number of years teaching
music and teaching composition. Can musical composition really be
taught or learned, or is it something that just must come out of the
genius of each individual?
EK: Yes, I think
so. What you can really
teach is technique. You can teach 16th-century
counterpoint, because that's a body of music which grows itself
historically. You know exactly what the rules
are. You can point out to students, "This is wrong because they
never made this kind of a skip of a third. So you can't do
this." Or, "You can't do this if the dissonance is not
resolved." You can
always point out what's wrong. And you can teach, to an extent,
12-tone technique in a similar
way. You can always say, "This is wrong because you have left out
tone; you have skipped from here to there; that was not supposed to
come," and so forth. In order to teach this way, you need some
is absolutely and unequivocally wrong. But teaching
composition is very difficult because it involves
the idea of imagination. You
can't teach anybody imagination; you can just stimulate the
necessarily by musical examples, but by talking, by discussing all
things. This will bring ideas to his mind,
and then he turns the moment over into musical ideas. That is a
rather complicated process, but not very easy to
describe and also not very reliable. So how you can teach
composition I really don't know any longer. I've not been doing
it, actually, for at least the last 30 years, I would say.
BD: It seems like
you can point out
what’s wrong, but you can't really point out what's right.
right. That's correct.
BD: In one of your
letters to me, you were very surprised
to learn that a certain piece of yours had been recorded. Does it
surprise you that some of your more obscure
pieces are done?
EK: Yes, that
me once in awhile because as composer I'm usually the last one to learn
when something is performed
anywhere. I learn it usually from the publisher after two years
or so, when I get a statement about royalties... and so it goes.
But there are many things of mine which are being played here and
and I just don't know about it.
BD: The recording
mentioned is Parvula Corona Musicalis: ad honorem Johannis Sebastiani
Op. 122. Why does it surprise you that it was
done? You say it's sort of an obscure and out-of-the world
Yes. I was asked by the Italian Radio to write a piece for
the 200th anniversary of Bach's death, which was in1750. I came
to this idea to write a
piece which is all dressed up in a sense that it is a kind
of compressed picture of my idea of the development of music
history since Bach. I start with this theme of B-A-C-H, and I
find it again in the last four string quartets by Beethoven, and
suddenly in Tristan by Wagner
and eventually in our new 12-tone music. This is exemplified in
piece. It's a string trio, and I had to
write a preface, so what should I do? I don't speak
enough Italian; they don't know English, and they don't know German, so
I wrote it in Latin. I wrote a Latin preface which I still
from my high school days. It was very well done when they
played this piece, but it was printed only in
the publication called Journal of
the Riemenschneider Bach Institute, and nowhere else. I
was astonished to see it being
performed here and there, so it gets around without my knowing.
BD: You have
conducted a number of your works, have you not?
EK: I did; yes, I
did some conducting.
BD: Are you the
interpreter of your music?
EK: I would reckon
so. I'd rather say that I was the only authentic
interpreter. I know that a few things I can do better than others
because I simply know them better. That's very simple. I
know exactly what's in
this music, where the difficulties are and how to get around
them. While that is experience that conductors face,
sometimes one little detail
doesn't work and it doesn't come. Finally I sit there
and tell him, "Now why don't you try it this way?" He does
it, and immediately it functions.
So while I'm not particularly proud of this, it simply
happens that I know this music better than they do because they're
outside of it and perhaps not prepared. But I'm absolutely not
obsessed about this, and
I love professional conductors.
BD: Do you
find that other conductors or performers find things in your music that
you did not know were there?
possible too. Yes. I will not deny this,
although it may not happen very frequently, but why not face the fact
maybe I'm forgetting my pieces. It happens very easily since
after all, I'm not a library any more. I don't keep my library
in my head. I write a piece and then it's done and I go to the
next. The previous piece is not entirely forgotten,
but it vanishes from my memory so I can't tell exactly
how it goes. There may be a conductor who discovers it after 20
years and finds quite a few things which I didn't notice or had
forgotten. It's entirely possible
that it happens once in awhile a while.
BD: Let's move
over to some of
the operas. First a genereal question. For
you, what should opera be?
EK: Opera should
be a theater
piece. That's the main thing; it's a dramatic
piece to be put on stage, and it is permeated by music. The music
comes from the orchestra, which is below, but the first thing is that
it's a dramatic piece. The subject matter and the dramatic
treatment is of utmost
importance. That is a mistake which I have
noticed frequently. Students of mine would rave about
a fiction book they have read. They would say, "This is a
opera libretto and I don't know what I want to do with this." But
they forget that it's not dramatic. It has too many
descriptions and not enough facilities for dialogue since they're
simply not dramatic situations. It doesn't lend itself to
treatment. The drama is
the first thing you feel with all great
BD: You've written
a number of your own
libretti. Is that the best way to go about
it, to have the composer be his own librettist?
EK: I had this
experience and I
wouldn't miss it. I have written one or two operas with
somebody else's libretto, and one of them is very good, I know
that. But it is easier
and more to the purpose if I write my own libretto because
then I can control everything. At first I had to adjust as the
words developed. In earlier days, I wrote
the music and words at the same time. Since I had a
perfect picture — an outline of the dramatic
development — I knew
exactly what was going to happen in every scene; but the
actual dialogue I wrote down with the music, which is an advantage
because you can control it at every any given moment. Since
everything is in one's own hand, it's in meter after writing each
sentence. When I wrote the
opera Karl V, I wrote
the libretto beforehand because I felt that it should
be a perfect piece of literature, apart from just subject
meant matter for an opera. Basically I think it is the best thing
compose the libretto itself first.
BD: I would think
that then you would need to be someone who is not only
crafty at writing music, but someone who is intelligent about
EK: Yes, and I
confess that I
believe I have a literary talent, because I have written many
books. There are sixteen of them or so, both in German and
English, so I think I have a certain ability to express
myself in literature.
BD: The prose
that I have read of yours is really extraordinary. I've been very
what I have read.
EK: That's very
kind of you. Thank you very much. I like to hear
BD: Now you say
you like to be more in control in the
opera. When the opera is being
produced for the first time, do you get directly involved and help the
conductor and the director, or do you let them get
on with the production and only help when it's absolutely necessary?
EK: That is a sore
point. I'm sorry. I like to get involved, or I used to get
involved, but usually it doesn't help very much. The stage
directors do whatever they please, and
not what pleases me, and [laughs ironically] you should be
flattered. I had many of experiences with this that I don't want
to recall in detail, but nowadays the stage directors fell that the
opera is just raw material with which he can
do or treat as he sees, as he likes, as he feels. He can make
cuts or insert things or do whatever he wants. These days, the
composer of the opera is not asked many questions. He just sits
by and watches how
his work is demolished. At least with conductors one can
They have come down from their high horse. They were previously
were more conceited, but now one can talk with them. Usually they
are more or less accessible. Also, they can't
change the music so much because after all, the score is the score, and
it's supposed to be played as it is. They can do little changes
here and there, but never
mind, I respect them. But the
stage directors are very difficult.
BD: Who is
responsible for letting the stage
directors take too much control upon themselves?
EK: They just do
and nobody is stopping them, so they are just overlords. I don't
know who is responsible; perhaps it is the director of the theater.
BD: In an essay
about 50 years ago you
responded to the question, "Is opera still possible today?" How
would you respond to that now?
EK: I think it is
certainly possible because operas are
still being written. I remember that this question came
up when I was in the beginning of my career in the 1920s. Well,
it is now sixty years
later and it may be a bit way-out, but opera is still around.
great operas still being written, or are the operas that are coming out
today rather mediocre?
EK: I can't answer
that in too much in detail because I haven't seen many operas in recent
years. I don't know
what exactly what goes on today in an opera production. I keep
about operas that are produced somewhere,
and that usually the crowds are promising.
BD: Does opera
work on television?
EK: Yes. I
wrote two operas and one short play for television. I liked to do
that very much, especially the first opera that was
written for the Austrian Television. It was a superior
production, really excellent. There was a television stage
director who really understood his job, and he understood what I
wanted. He created an excellent production, but unfortunately he
has died. But it was interesting
because they said they wanted a live production with video and
audio at the same time. That was a rather difficult job because
I was conducting the orchestra in the radio building in the
broadcasting station, and
the singers were singing and acting out their parts
about six miles away in Castle Schönbrunn. I had a camera on
myself so that they could see my conducting, but actually actors or
singers cannot watch from a screen, so they had two auxiliary
around between the cameras and taking my beat from the screen
and passing it on to the singers. Those extra conductors also had
to be watching so that they wouldn't get in
the field of vision of the camera. So
that was something.
BD: Did it all get
EK: Yes, it all
went very well. The second opera was done in Munich for
the Bavarian television, but that was done in a conventional way as a
movie. First they made a tape of orchestra and
singers, and then they would do the action at a different place
and different time. The tape which had been made before
was played to them so they could hear it. They could hear
themselves singing and they pretended they were singing again.
BD: These were
works that were
written specifically for the television. Do regular operas work
EK: That can be
done, sure. I have seen several of
those operas on television, and in certain cases it has worked out very
BD: I just
wondered how you feel about bring bringing
a live theatrical experience onto the little box and the little
EK: I don't mind
at all. If it's done well, it
can be very effective. I have
seen several operas such as Falstaff
Butterfly, and also The Ring
were all done very well. They came over quite convincingly.
The television medium was strong, very much like a film that you
can concentrate on what you should see. One doesn't have to see
always the whole stage and all the singers who have nothing
to do and just stand around; so you can concentrate on one
singer and on some details of the scenery and not just see everything
once. This is sometimes tiring in an opera house. I liked
like this process the same in film.
BD: Does opera
work in translation?
EK: I have
translated four or five of my operas into English, and I
think I have done a very good job, so I have no qualms
about opera in translation. As a matter of fact, I think it has
to be in translation because people should understand as
much as they can. It makes no sense to
play an opera in Russian or Hungarian or whatever, and have people sit
there who don't understand a word. They have
to understand that it was a European tradition for hundreds of years,
but opera has always to be done in the vernacular.
It makes no sense otherwise. Nowadays, even with the strongest
performing tradition, the central essential thing is that you have to
be able to understand the words... apart from the fact that the singers
should also understand their own words. [Both chuckle]
BD: You're in a
unique position, though, to be
able to translate your operas from one language to another.
EK: Yes, at least
from one to one other. I
wouldn't be able to translate my German operas into Spanish because I
don't know Spanish, but I happen
to know English, so I could translate that way.
BD: On the
television they have the sub-titles subtitles
running along with the picture. Do you think that's a good
EK: Yes, I think
that is a possible compromise. I have nothing against that.
That is helpful, and now I hear about this system in opera houses.
BD: They call them
supertitles, and they put them into the theater. Have you seen
any productions with them?
EK: No, I have not
and I would say that up to a point it might be useful. I
would have nothing against it, since after all they're
used to watching movies and films in the
movie house where there are these captions
below. You have to read and watch the movie, and sometimes you
succeed and sometimes you don't. The text is not projected on the
screen for very long, so sometimes you can't read it all and still see
the action. That's the problem. Singing usually takes
longer than speaking, so the text experience can be
seen for a longer time than the supertitles in a
movie. It is a
rule of thumb that a spoken play takes usually about three times as
long as the same text in an opera.
BD: About three
EK: Yes. The
music makes it longer.
BD: So when
thinking about doing an opera, if they read the text they should figure
that their opera will last about three times longer.
exactly. This is the
situation to keep in mind.
BD: Is opera art,
or is opera
EK: That depends
on the opera and on the attitude of the
audience. I think opera is art, certainly, but
it may also be entertainment at the same time. Many
comic operas are perfectly excellent operas. Figaro is vigorous and frivolous
and it's also
entertaining, so I
don't see that much of a contrast.
BD: Are you a good
audience for standard
works — Beethoven symphonies, Mozart operas,
EK: [In a very
blasé, unenthusiastic tone of voice] Not potentially for
me. I must remember that patrons
ask for Beethoven or Schumann or Schubert, and sometimes it is boring
because it was a poor
performance. I admit
that some of this Classical or early Romantic music is very
repetitious, and that tires me.
BD: What can we do
to get more people
to come to the opera houses and the concert halls?
EK: That is a
question which I don't think I am competent to
answer, because I'm not a publicity man or the manager
of an opera houses house, so I don't know what I should suggest.
BD: How much
should the composer get involved in the
when I've I am asked how I would
counsel a young composer, I frequently say, "Choose
another vocation." [Both laugh]
[Surprised] Really??? Why?
EK: Because it's a
long, difficult way. You write a piece,
and then you have to sign your rights away to the publishing
house. You might find a publisher who will take a number of
pieces, but then you have to negotiate about everything. You go
through all this motion, and then you
have to prod him to promote this piece. Actually, a composer is
convinced that his publisher is not doing enough for him, only for
he's always competing with his colleagues, and is convinced that his
publisher is taking care of
them. But then he is proud of a piece, and if things go right he
continues with the publisher. He should promote the piece with
the right methods. He sets up interviews, for instance.
BD: You don't seem
to object to doing some interviews, though.
EK: Not at
all. I'm enjoying it, but that's something also which is simple
self-fulfillment. On the strength of this interview, somebody
play a piece of mine in some unknown village, and I will
never hear of it! These are the
difficulties of composer's life, but he chooses it and that is his
business. I have no further advice.
BD: Does it give
you a good
feeling to know that your music will continue to be
played fifty, a hundred, two hundred years from now?
EK: That is great,
yes, and I like to
believe that. It gives me some comfort when I am in a bad mood,
but it takes a certain
effort to believe it. I just have
to make an effort to keep this conviction.
BD: Do you think
there will come a
time when the public has progressed to the point where some
of the music of Ernst Krenek is old hat?
EK: That may be
so. As a matter of fact, I
think some of the avant garde public, and certainly some of my younger
find my music is old hat. That I know, but that doesn't
exactly influence me too much because that is the way it has gone all
the time. A music
is new for a certain period of time, and then it automatically
becomes old, or not so new any longer. That goes in waves up and
down, and later,
after another fifty years, it's again coming up and creates more
interest. But these things are very
hard to predict. That's a natural way for the human life that
these waves come and go.
BD: Is the public always
right in its taste,
dictating who will be played and who will not be played?
EK: No, I am
convinced the public is not
at all right.
BD: How can we get
the public to play more
contemporary music, or to appreciate more contemporary music?
EK: That's a
think contemporary music is just not played much and is not played well
enough when it is done. I can tell that because always,
when there is a concert with a new work and two or three old works, the
old ones are much
better rehearsed. That's usually the prerogative of the
conductor, and the new
pieces just come at the end when there's little
time left. The conductor seems to just go through it, as if it
will take care of itself. It's interesting
to look at programs of early the nineteenth century. Those
concerts were much longer than we are used to now. There were
many more pieces on one program, and almost all of them were
contemporary. Today we have developed a classical
BD: What is the
role of the critic?
EK: [Thinks for a
moment] You could ask what should be
the role of the critic.
BD: OK, what
should be the role of the critic?
EK: He should
educate the public, in my opinion. He should try to pitch a
different attitudes attitude towards contemporary music.
He should express his point so that people approach this music with an
open mind. I know a number
of critics, and I've known many of them in my earlier life. Most
of them aren't that satisfied, or they step aside from modern
music. They usually don't pay much attention to it, and rather
about nuances of performance of old music. A sensible or
or appreciative approach to modern music is very rare.
BD: I noticed some
electronic pieces in your catalogue. Is this a big interest for
EK: I have an
electronic studio in my home, but it's rather old-fashioned. It
was installed in 1967, so it's now a dinosaur, it's prehistoric.
could renew it every year by spending $60,000 for
new equipment, but I don't do that. I have still this old
equipment, and I like it because it serves me better than anything
else. It's very good for composing electronic music, which I
have done to an extent. I like to do that mainly in
connection with other instruments or voices. I've written a
of pieces which I think are very interesting or very
good including a piece for two pianos and tape,
and one for narrator, oboe, piano, percussion, and tape.
BD: So then you
see the electronic sounds really as just
more items on your palette.
exactly. That's the main thing. I like to
create sounds which I could not get from live instruments. They
call it the synthesizer
because they wanted to make synthesized music — that
is music without using
instruments but imitating the real thing. That doesn't
interest me for one minute because if I want to have live music, I can
listen to a pianist
play something. But I like sounds which I could
not make on the piano or get from instruments. This is the
interesting part of it, and this is what I have tried to
do in these pieces. I think
that's a very interesting approach, the development of electronic music.
BD: Have you done
some that are purely
electronic, or is it all electronic and live performers?
EK: In the
beginning I made a few tapes with
electronic sounds alone, but they are more experiments and I
don't count them. They're not well created and I do not care for
BD: I would think
that in a
purely electronic piece you would have the ultimate
control over everything!
absolutely correct, yes, and that's sometimes why a composer is
tempted to write or to create electronic music,
because then he has not to deal with
BD: But you don't
feel this way; you would rather
deal with interpreters.
EK: Yes, even
though they're they are not all positive and not all of them are suited
in the first place. But I can understand this attitude of wanting
to do it all by myself and let
them go to hell. I am not of this opinion. I like the
mixture of sounds.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the
future of music?
EK: Oh yes,
relatively yes. There will always
be music, so what more can we ever expect?
I am optimistic that people will always make music, I am
sure. Music will always be, so let's be cheerful
BD: Coming back to
your operas, you've written both large-scale works and chamber works.
you feel differently about writing a great big grandiose work as
opposed to a smaller work?
EK: The chamber operas
were mainly written for special occasions. There
was either a commission or a small beautiful studio, or television with
a small orchestra or
small ensemble. It depends a little on
these things. Most of the full-sized operas were commissioned by
opera houses. So it depends on the occasion how such things
originate. In the early days when I was not yet so established, I
commissions. I just had the idea for Jonny spielt auf and I did it, I
wrote it on my
own. I was tempted to
use the terrific machinery of the theater. At that time I was
employed by the opera house in Kassel
for ten years, and I learned about all this machinery and gadgets which
you can use. It was a challenge to write an
opera where all these techniques should be
to put into action. We couldn't have done Jonny spielt auf without a lot of
BD: Is that really
way for a composer to understand the opera, to actually work in the
opera house in some capacity?
EK: Yes, I think
that's a very good idea. That's a
very good way, and many composers have done so in their time. One
can collect practical experience in an opera house. I also
conducted opera, so that all belongs to it, and it's very
BD: Were you a
better conductor of
other people's music because you were a composer also of your own music?
EK: No, just the
opposite. I think a composer is
always better in conducting his own music. Once or twice I
conducted something by
someone else, but I don't
conduct any longer. But I think he should concentrate on his own
music, because if he conducts other
people's music, then he exposes himself to comparisons with the great
podium virtuosos. They do everything much better, and he then is
compared, so he shouldn't do that; he should stick to his own music.
BD: What is next
on the calendar for Ernst Krenek?
EK: I just
finished today — this very day — a
string trio. It which was
commissioned by the Alban Berg Foundation in Vienna, and I just
finished the last measure today.
BD: Does it give
you a sense of satisfaction the day you finish a
EK: Yes, that's a
great satisfaction, indeed, and at the same
time I am sorry it's finished. There is nothing to
do. I wish I had
some other projects on hand which I could go into.
your composing career, have you generally worked
on one piece at a time, or have there been several pieces going at once?
EK: That depends;
usually on one piece. Occasionally it
may have happened that I have worked on two
pieces, but it's not usual. About fifteen years ago or so, I
started writing a piece of music not from the beginning. I
started maybe in
the middle or so, and I didn't know then how
it would hang together. But it came gradually together
and I think that's from the experience of
electronic sound. When I create electronic music, I can start and
stop; measure 1, measure 2 and
then measure 3. One makes sounds and puts them away. It
takes a long time to make
one piece of sound, and when it's done one puts it away. Then one
makes another one, and gradually creates a number of elements of sound
by this process, and then brings them together gradually. That
appeals to me, so I use this
method in my writing music on paper.
BD: I want to
thank you for all of
your music, and for all of the work you have done. I also want to
especially think you for spending the time with me this
evening. It's been most gracious of you.
EK: It was a great
pleasure. I enjoyed every minute of
© 1986 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded on the telephone on
January 18, 1986.
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB in 1990, 1995, and 2000. A copy of the unedited
audio was given to Yale University,
as part of their Oral History
American Music archive. This
made and posted on this
website in 2012.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
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century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.