Krenek, Ernst

The Dictator (Der Diktator)

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Ernst Krenek

«The Dictator»

Tragic opera in one act, op.49

(b. Vienna, 24 August 1900 — d. Palm Springs, California, 22 December 1991)

1926 was a busy year for Ernst Krenek: as well as finishing his infamous «jazz opera» Jonny spielt auf, he also began work on his trilogy of Einakter, and completed the first of the set, Der Diktator, in August of that year. Featuring an episode from the life of an unnamed dictator, the work did not hit the headlines in the same way as his notorious «jazz opera» Jonny; Krenek called the trilogy of Einakter (Der Diktator, Schwergewicht, oder Die Ehre der Nation und Das geheime Königreich (both 1927), all intended to be performed in one evening) «sort of elaborate marginal remarks» to Jonny.1 The works continue some of the ideas found in Jonny itself: for instance, although an artist-figure is absent from all three of the Einakter (as is exemplified by both Jonny and Max in the earlier work), Der Diktator and Schwergewicht are both similar to Jonny in the way they examine the place of the individual within modern life, and in how they show characteristics of Zeitoper – a genre to which Jonny definitely belongs. Musically, the works are in many ways similar to Jonny, although without the infamous «jazz» connotations.

Krenek was born in Vienna in 1900, moving to Germany in the 1920s, where he studied in Berlin, and then acted as assistant to the Intendant Paul Bekker at the opera houses in Kassel and Wiesbaden. He emigrated to the US in 1936, dying in Palm Springs, California in 1991. Over the course of his long life, he completed some 240 works, including many music theatre pieces, and explored a variety of different styles. Indeed, one could say that the manner in which he shifted between different musical languages is one reason for his relative neglect as a composer: he does not fit into any neat boxes. While he began his career with free atonal works, such as his early sympho-nies, in the mid-1920s he became fascinated with jazz, and contemporary French music such as that of Les Six. His wish to write in a similarly accessible style reached its highest expression in Jonny spielt auf. At this point of his career, Krenek believed that the idea «that an artist creates because he must, and therefore doesn’t have to concern himself with whether he’ll find an ear that wants to listen to him, is so stupid and feeble, that it’s hardly worth repeating it».2 Music, he said, must be simplified in order to reach its audience, and the composer must aim for «the widest possible comprehensibility of the musical substance».3 While, unlike Jonny, the Einakter do not use popular music to achieve this aim, the three works have a tonal and accessible musical style in common with the earlier opera, placing them within the same aesthetic – an aesthetic heavily influenced by Krenek’s mentor Bekker, and particularly his concept of the «gesellschaftbildende Macht» (socially-forming power) of music.4
The enormous success of Jonny spielt auf seems to have come as a shock to Krenek; despite the financial benefits the opera brought him, he was troubled by the suspicion he had aroused amongst his composer colleagues. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, his music went in the direction of «neo-tonality»; while many aspects of the musical style of Der Diktator are reminiscent of Jonny, the most blatantly populist «jazz» elements are abandoned, in favour of more subdued tonal, and particularly Italianate, influences, and this can be seen as part of his «neo-tonal» trajectory. In the early 1930s he decided to compose with Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, the rigour and logic of which appealed to him; his opera Karl V is seen by many as his first significant work to use this approach. Krenek’s stylistic adventures did not end there, though: after World War II, he took another step, this time onto the road of total serialism, as well as experimenting with electronic music; he was to remain faithful to total serialism for the rest of his life.

The first performance of Der Diktator, along with those of Schwergewicht and Das geheime Königreich, took place as part of the Maifest-Tage in Wiesbaden in 1928, under the direction of Paul Bekker.5 Krenek reported that: «My own operas came over well, although the success, naturally, was not sensational».6 The opera depicts an episode from the main character’s life, and the libretto was written by Krenek himself: he called it «a bloody story of murder from the private life of a contemporary dictator».7 The Dictator falls in love with Maria, whose husband (the Officer) has been blinded in a war started by the Dictator. Maria, however, wants to avenge her husband and kill the Dictator. When she goes to carry out this deed, though, she changes her mind: when she realises that the Dictator loves her, she is «hypnotised», and sings that she now begins to understand him. The Dictator’s wife, Charlotte, overhears their conversation and, possessed by jealousy, tries to shoot her husband. Maria throws herself protectively in front of him, and dies in his place. The opera ends with Maria’s husband coming onto the stage, looking for her. While Krenek admitted that his «dramatic efforts» suffered under «a certain simplicity and naiveté», he could «change these weaknesses into advantages, because the lack of poetic depth allows a healthy directness».8

Although Der Diktator might seem prescient of National Socialism to us now, Krenek in fact modelled his main character on Mussolini, who had come to power in Italy in 1922.9 Another political event of the era can also be found in the opera: the First World War. This is particularly apparent when the Officer’s wounding is described, from bar 295.10 The emphasis on strength, and the strong man, which can be found in Der Diktator is reminiscent of the Italian artistic and philosophical movement of Futurism: the Futurists saw strength, violence and energy as something positive, and for them, it was not only important to embrace modern life, and particularly technology, enthusiastically, but to use it to wage war and perpetrate violence. This allusion to Futurism seems, in some respects, to give the opera a stronger Italian accent than the reference to Mussolini.

With its central character of the Dictator, it might seem on first appearance that a principle theme of the opera is politics. Krenek’s own comments on the political, or even ideological, potential of opera as a genre are contradictory, though. For instance, in 1927, he said that «Theatre is not an institute for the propagation of some ideology, whether that’s a moral or a political one, least of all one concerning music».11 A few years later, though, in 1932, he said that «an unpolitical or politically neutral, indifferent art

[…] is impossible»,12 while in 1936, he said that «both areas», the political and the cultural, «cross over greatly».13 In Der Diktator we get hardly any idea how the main character actually rules. Although his power is an important element of the plot, how he wields this power in his country is not portrayed. Der Diktator is more concerned with the effects of power on individuals: as in his opera of 1940 Tarquin, Krenek is interested in the idea of «being a dictator» – in particular, what impact such a position has on the person himself, and his personality. Krenek said about Der Diktator, «By dictator, I understand not the exponent of a particular political ideology, but a type of person whose dominant qualities express themselves through a persuasive domination of his environment, also from a political perspective, which, however, did not interest me at all in this case.»14



Read full preface / Komplettes Vorwort > HERE

Score No.



Opera Explorer


160 x 240 mm








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