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Ernst Krenek: Ernst Krenek (b. Vienna, 23 Aug 1900).
Though nearly half of his life has been spent in the United States to which he emigrated when Hitler invaded Austria, Ernst Krenek is very much part of the Austrian musical tradition. In his native Vienna, he studied composition with Franz Schreker at the Academy of Music, and when Schreker, himself a remarkable composer, became Director of the Berlin Academy of Music in 1920, Kfenek followed him and continued his studies there. In the Prussian capital he broadened his musical and artistic horizons through his meetings with Busoni, Artur Schnabel and others, and finally parted company from his old teacher in 1923, by which time he had already built up an impressive list of compositions which were predominantly late-romantic in style. Schreker had kept his young pupil away from the music and influence of Schoenberg and his experiments in atonality, and it was only during his Berlin years that Ernst Krenek began cautiously to explore Schoenberg's world. Ernst Krenek himself has said that at this time he also became attracted to the music of Bartok, 'and began to write music that dispensed rather cavalierly with the respectability of tonal relationships, and was rich in dissonant polyphony and rhythmic insistence on protracted ostinatos.' His early string quartets, written during this period in Berlin, certainly betray Bartokian leanings, though his first Symphony, also composed in 1921, already reveals Ernst Krenek as being a continuer of the Austrian symphonic tradition whose last great representative had been Gustav Mahler. In 1922, Ernst Krenek married Mahler's daughter, Anna.
Opera was to play an important part in Ernst Krenek's oeuvre, and his first steps in this direction were taken in Germany, where his one-act opera Die Zwingburg and his fulllength comic opera, Der Sprung 'uber den Schatten, whose style encompasses jazz and atonality, were produced in Berlin and Frankfurt. During the 1920s he worked in opera houses at Cassel and Wiesbaden, and it was at Cassel that his next opera, Orpheus und Eurydike, composed on a libretto by the painter Kokoschka, was produced. While he was at Wiesbaden, Kr'enek composed the opera which was to make him famous. This was Jonny spielt auf (Johnny strikes up), whose libretto he also wrote. The story of a black jazz violinist and his involvements with white women, Jonny spielt auf again utilised a mixture of musical styles. Its Leipzig premiere in 1927 attracted a great deal of attention, and the opera soon achieved a kind of notoriety when the German Nazis decided it was offensive to their ideals of racial purity. Soon, Jonny spielt auf had achieved production in more than a hundred opera houses, and its composer from then on was able to live in comfortable independence and devote his time to composition. When his first marriage broke up, he married an actress, Berta Herrmann, and returned to Vienna. The next years, until the Anschluss of 1938, Ernst Krenek spent composing, and visiting other countries as conductor or performer of his own music. The satirical operas he wrote immediately after Jonny failed to duplicate the success of that work, nor did his tragic opera, Leben des Orest (Life of Orestes) fare better, and much of Ernst Krenek's music written in the 1930s returned to that mood of nostalgic Sennsucht to which every Viennese composer, from Schubert through Johann Strauss to Mahler and Berg, has access. One of the most attractive of Ernst Krenek's works in this vein is his song-cycle, Reisebuch aus den osterreichischen Alpen, for which the composer wrote the words: a set of sentimental, ironic and philosophical sketches in praise of the Austrian Alps, but clearly modelled on Schubert's Die Winterreise.
It was in Vienna in the 1930s, however, that Kr'enek first seriously came to grips with the new Viennese school, and with the music and theories of Schoenberg's disciples, Berg and Webern. His last years in Vienna were spent acquiring a new technique of composition, and also lecturing and writing. One of the first fruits of his involvement with serial technique was his huge play with music, Karl V, produced in Prague in 1938. After his emigration to America, where he undertook several academic engagements before finally making his way to the West Coast, Ernst Krenek plunged into composition, producing chamber operas, choral works, and symphonies. If the music of his mature years has failed to engage the public attention as forcefully as those works he composed in Europe, Ernst Krenek has nevertheless continued to tread his own path, and to refuse to be deflected from it by fashion. In recent years, he has written a great deal about music, most notably in Exploring Music (1966) and Horizons circled (1974). A recent large-scale work which proved that, in his seventh decade, Ernst Krenek's creative forces are undiminished, is the opera Sardakai (1969).
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