Thema und 13 Variationen op.69 for orchestra
(b. Vienna, 23 August 1900 — d. Palm Springs / California, 22 December 1991)
Thema und 13 Variationen, op. 69
The somewhat curious neglect of Ernst Krenek’s Thema und 13 Variationen für Ochester, op. 69 may perhaps be explained in part by the timing of its genesis, and by its placement in Krenek’s oeuvre. The work was composed in 1931, during a period in which Krenek was becoming increasingly pessimistic, was ambivalent about his future as a composer, and complained of “spiritual isolation and almost actual physical paralysis.” This was partly attributable to the rise in power of the Nazis in Germany, and partly to the economic instability plaguing Austria at that time (Krenek had settled in Vienna just a few years earlier). For Krenek, a traditionalist who was resistant to social change, the political and economic upheaval in Austria and concomitant concerns over the country’s future left Krenek depressed and withdrawn.
Krenek’s ennui and angst was exacerbated at this time by an aesthetic crisis of sorts. The composer felt himself to be at a crossroads, in the wake of his operatic successes in the vein of neo-classicism in the late 1920s: he was looking for a way forward, and was torn between returning to atonality and sticking with tonality. Indecisive, Krenek turned to a different mode of self-expression, namely writing and doing editorial work for the Frankfurter Zeitung, for which he had been writing some book reviews and editorials.
Interestingly, as a musical diversion, Krenek also began studying the 12-tone method of the Second Viennese School in earnest. Krenek was not a member of Arnold Schoenberg’s circle, and so had no direct access to the progenitors of the method, nor did he necessarily see dodecaphony as a compositional option for himself at that time; rather, he began studying the scores of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern as a sort of intellectual distraction. He would not begin composing using the 12-tone method until the summer of 1932, when he began work on his opera Karl V.
Thema und 13 Variationen, then, sits in an uncomfortable location in Krenek’s oeuvre. It is a tonal piece, coming in the wake of Krenek’s neo-classical and Schubert-inspired music of the late 20s; but it is also nestled up against his intellectual foray into the realm of dodecaphony. Like much of Krenek’s music, op. 69 is intended to be accessible, sociable Gebrauchtsmusik, but it emanates from a place of gloominess and emotional and physical attenuation. The work even begins with a certain ambivalence: the violincelli play an arch-shaped chaccone that is clearly bimodal, flirting with D minor and D major (and perhaps even D Dorian) within the first four measures. This rather lugubrious line, which recurs throughout the work, is here cast in minims in the low strings for its first appearance, and is counterpoised with sprightly dotted rhythms in the winds.
In the 13 subsequent variations, the chaccone appears in a variety of rhythmic diminutions, and distributed throughout the orchestra; it is usually a slower-moving part, often juxtaposed with more active, contrasting textures in other parts. In the first variation, the chaccone theme has moved into the tuba part as staccato crochets (though still two to a measure, like the preceding version in minims). Against this line, the violins play frenzied semi-quavers, marked agitato. Variation II sees the chaconne as long-held notes again—doted crochets, in 12/8 time—against which the horns play a cascading semi-quaver figure. In Variation IV, the theme is heard as a Hauptstimme shared by the oboe and bassoon; in Variation VII, it appears as a fragmented cantus firmus. Variation IX is a fugato, with the chaccone in inversion. Variation XI is the 11th the longest, with frequent changes of tempo and texture. The penultimate variation—marked “misterioso”—conceals the theme in the trombones and violoncelli on the backbeat, while the final variation is a sprightly allegretto with a tierce di picardie in the final measure that brings the piece to a close on a D major sonority.
Alexander Carpenter, 2017
For performance materials please contact the publisher Universal Edition, Vienna (www.universaledition.com).