Karl V Stage Work with Music in Two Parts
(b. Vienna, 23 August 1900 – d. Palm Springs, CA, 22 December 1991)
Ernst Krenek was one of the most prolific and controversial composers of the twentieth century. He began to study piano at the age of six and in 1916 he became a composition student of Franz Schreker at the Vienna Music Academy. When Schreker moved to Berlin, Krenek followed him where he became a regular at the salon of Ferruccio Busoni.
Although Krenek is most often associated with the dodecaphonic school, he actually embraced a Stravinsky-like stylistic eclecticism, at times utilizing romantic, neo-classical and atonal techniques. From an aesthetic point of view, Krenek was his own man, a rugged individualist believing in the superiority of art to politics and ideology. As such, it was almost inevitable that he would eventually run afoul of the ideological forces that embroiled Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.
Krenek’s greatest success as a composer came with the premiere in 1927 of his opera Jonny spielt auf, a highly ironic work pitting the sensuality of Negro jazz against the more emotionally nuanced art music of Western Europe. Although Krenek ultimately granted pride of place to Western art music, his utilization of jazz techniques and a black title character aroused the ire of reactionaries and radicals alike.
With the international recognition gained from the notoriety of Jonny spielt auf, Krenek began to travel and write extensively in addition to his compositional activities. In 1937 Krenek made his first to the United States where he emigrated in 1938 after the Nazi Anschluss of Austria. The composer became an American citizen in 1945 and taught at a variety of American universities.
Karl V (1933) is emblematic of the difficulties Krenek faced both as an individualist in an era of stultifying ideologies and as a champion of modernist compositional techniques. Although the work was commissioned by the Vienna State Opera, the 1934 premiere was cancelled, the result of political intrigue and artistic sabotage.
Krenek had become a controversial figure by the early 1930s. His compositions and essays had earned him the enmity of the Nazis, and his works were banned from performance in Germany from 1933 onwards. Although the subject matter of Karl V (about a Holy Roman emperor who attempts to reunite the Christian world) should have found favor with Austrian conservatives, Krenek’s political aloofness and modernist compositional techniques made him a suspect figure in Austrian cultural circles as well.
The premiere of Karl V was also sabotaged by the political machinations of its conductor, the talented and ambitious Clemens Krauss whose later career was tainted by his enthusiastic collaboration with the Nazis. Contemporary accounts also show that the singers of the Vienna State Opera were less than enthusiastic with Krenek’s difficult work, and balked at having to learn a dodecaphonic score. The premiere of Karl V did not take place until 22 June 1938 at the Neues Deutsches Theater in Prague. Krenek was not in attendance as he had already emigrated to America. The Viennese premiere of the opera finally occurred in 1984.
The subject matter of Karl V was a longtime interest of Krenek’s. The enigmatic figure of the Holy Roman Emperor who willingly yields his power in order to spend his last days in a spiritual retreat at a monastery was not a traditional heroic opera protagonist, but it nevertheless gave the composer a subject in which he was not bound by the conventions of a well-known story. Indeed, the freedom to interpret the Emperor’s psychological and spiritual struggles allowed Krenek’s libretto to break the bounds of historicity and to achieve a sense of universality. As the composer stated in his unpublished English memoirs: “historical facts do not really exist except in the reports made about them, which by necessity include an interpretation of those facts.”
Krenek utilizes a highly unusual and modern dramatic structure in Karl V. The opera begins with the Emperor arriving in 1558 at the monastery of San Geronimo de Yuste in Estremedura, Spain. He believes that God has called him to account for his life, particularly the failure to unite the world in a universal Christian empire. Then he begins a series of interviews with his confessor, Juan de Regla. Krenek avoids a Messiaen-like dramatic stasis by interrupting these interviews with a series of flashbacks in which the major events of Karl’s life are vividly brought to life. In particular, Karl is seen in confrontations with Martin Luther, Pope Clement VII, King Francis I of France and Moritz of Saxony. The flashback technique owes much to the influence of film and to similar techniques used in Darius Milhaud’s opera Christophe Colomb, a work seen by Krenek in 1930. At the end of the opera, Karl dies, and his survivors make the case that the former Holy Roman Emperor has saved his soul since his intentions were pure and the task he took upon himself was too enormous to complete in one lifetime.
Krenek’s text has a depth and complexity seldom seen in an opera libretto. Karl is obsessed with doubt and guilt over his having failed to achieve a universal Christian empire. Yet, he even supposes that his failure might be part of God’s greater plan. On the other hand, Karl is the victim of treachery and betrayal. After having spared Francis’ life, the French king repays Karl’s goodness by plotting with the Ottoman Sultan Soliman to effect Karl’s downfall. And Moritz of Saxony betrays his allegiance to the Emperor and joins Luther’s Protestant forces.
Against all of this is the looming visual presence of Titan’s famous painting “La Gloria” (“The Last Judgment”) which is featured prominently at the beginning and end of the opera. For it is judgment—perhaps not the ultimate judgment of God at the end of time, but its more mundane counterparts in historical and artistic interpretation—that forms the crux of the opera’s dramatic motivation. Krenek reports the facts of Karl’s life, but also tries to demonstrate what these facts mean. But Krenek is no truth-denying deconstructionist. Meaning may be elusive, subtle, difficult to apprehend, but it exists—and that is what makes Karl’s final spiritual quest so heart-rending and ultimately satisfying. In many ways, Krenek’s Karl is the antithesis of Goethe’s Faust. While the restless Faust is always looking for that pure moment of repose (“Verweile doch du bist so schoen”), Karl seeks nothing more than an eternal striving for God (“Immer weiter! Zu Gott!).
Karl V has the distinction of being the first complete 12-tone opera. From an aesthetic point of view, Krenek’s use of dodecaphonic techniques provides a unifying structure to the work’s episodic dramatic outline while simultaneously allowing an otherworldly and unsettling melodic/harmonic overlayering. Like Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aaron, Krenek employs a wide range of vocal techniques: “normal” singing, sprechstimme-like vocalizing, quasi-recitative, and spoken dialogue. Due to the theological nature of the opera, the various voices often sing many syllables on a single note, just like a psalm-tone. This is an ingenious way in which the musical setting of the text is in keeping with its historical context as well as following the strictures of the tone row.
It is also interesting that Krenek reserves some of the best music for the character of Martin Luther, himself a musician of no mean accomplishment. The siren-like call of Luther’s Reformation is in opposition to the more staid music of Karl’s dream of a universal Catholic empire. The age-old antinomy of music and words, therefore, is used symbolically by Krenek to refer to the struggle between the Reformation and Catholicism. This is very much in evidence at the beginning of Part II in which the spoken dialogue between Juan de Regla and Francisco Borgia is juxtaposed with Luther’s sung declamations to his non-musical follower Moritz of Saxony.
The Chorus has an especially important role in this opera from both musical and visual standpoints. At times, the Chorus must represent a group of Monks, a group of Soldiers, and even the Voice of God. The Chorus is also onstage a great deal, especially in the re-enactments of significant events in the life of Karl.
Karl V is an unqualified masterpiece. Its flashback technique anticipates the film montage sequence in the original version of Alban Berg’s Lulu. The dramatic structure of the opera itself in some ways foreshadows the Samuel Beckett of Krapp’s Last Tape. It was a tragedy that this work’s premiere was aborted, thereby denying it its proper place in the history of 20th-century music. Later stagings of the opera in 1958 (Duesseldorf), 1965 (Munich), 1969 (Graz), 1971 (Aachen), and 1984 (Vienna) have done much to perpetuate interest in the opera. In 2000 the Orchester der Beethovenhalle Bonn and the Czech Philharmonic Chorus of Brno released the first complete recording of Karl V on cd.
William Grim, 2004
Performance material: Universal Edition, Vienna