Krenek, Ernst


Krenek, Ernst

Der Sprung über den Schatten

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Ernst Krenek

Der Sprung über den Schatten op.17 (1923)

Comic opera in three acts (ten scenes)
Music and libretto by Ernst Krenek

(b. Vienna, August 23, 1900; d. Palm Springs, December 22, 1991)

In his long, diverse, and extraordinarily productive career, Ernst Krenek passed through many compositional styles and aesthetics, from the unbridled atonal Expressionism of his youth to an energetic espousal of indeterminacy in his old age, and was not even averse to trying his hand at Tin Pan Alley songs. Gifted with unusual facility, he turned out a body of music that in sheer bulk brooks comparison with the most prolific composers of the century – Darius Milhaud, say, or Bohuslav Martin? – while surpassing them in the variety and versatility of his technique. His essays on music, literature, even psycho-logy and sociology place him among the most incisive musical minds of the twentieth century and brought him literary friendships with figures as diverse as Rilke, Adorno, and Thomas Mann. His early First and Second Symphonies (1921-2) and First String Quartet (1921) quickly placed the young man at the forefront of post-war German composers before he had even completed his music degree. He immediately abandoned his studies and, armed with an exclusive publishing contract from Universal-Edition in Vienna, advanced upon a career as a freelance composer, where he stood alongside Hindemith and, later, Kurt Weill, as one of the three most gifted German composers of his generation.

In 1923, in the midst of the post-war Hyperinflation and the political turmoil preceding the Beer Hall Putsch, Krenek resolved to write a comic opera as a successor to his still unperformed operatic tragedy, Die Zwingburg (1922). The setting – a tyrannical petty prince, an oppressed populace, an atmosphere of court intrigue – was much the same, but this time he chose a decidedly satirical, almost operetta-like twist. As he wrote in later years (1938), «This is a comic opera partly with a satirical tendency directed against the aberrations of modern society (corruption, occultism, snobbism, dance craze, etc.), musically combining seriously treated atonal elements with deliberate banality.» As with Die Zwingburg, Krenek wrote the libretto himself, adding the peculiar burden of placing it entirely in rhymed verse. The words flowed easily from his pen and, as he later recalled, «The libretto seemed to reveal a clear talent of which I was not at all aware while I was writing it.» From then on he would write all of his librettos himself.

As the title and starting point of his new work Krenek chose a German proverb «No one can jump over his own shadow,» meaning, roughly, everybody has his limits. The point of the title is that those limits can be overcome after all with a so-called «Schattensprung,» that is, by jumping over one’s shadow. This newly-coined term also alludes to the German word «Seitensprung» for extramarital affair, thereby situating the opera clearly in the category of a sex comedy. To this basic structure Krenek added an extraordinarily complicated plot based on multiple disguises and mistaken identities (a legacy of operetta), a «disinhibiting» figure who stirs up the society around him and frees it from constraints (another legacy of operetta), and a wealth of topical references: revolution, divorce, the overthrow of the aristocracy, psychoanalysis (in the form of hypnosis), parapsychology (in the form of seances), modern detective stories, and general sense of society careening out of control. The music fell into two antithetical styles with little attempt to find a stylistic common denominator: what Krenek himself called an «aggressive atonal language,» and clear references to Germany’s syncopated dance music of the day. This latter was the first appearance of «jazz» in Krenek’s stage works; and although it bore little resemblance to the American original (Germany was then isolated from the international record industry, and no American jazz musician appeared in Germany before 1924), it was to prove a harbinger of things to come. The score abounds musical references: a quotation from Franz Schreker’s opera Die Gezeichneten, an allusion to the opening of Marriage of Figaro, a claxon horn, the Marseilles transformed into low-brow dance music, a foxtrot replete with imperfectly understood «blue notes» (see No. 8), and a full-scale revue number, the unfortunately titled «Song of the Nigger Boy.» The many undigested contrasts, Krenek later admitted, brought the new opera to the verge of Surrealism.

The première took place at the Frankfurt Opera on 9 June 1924, conducted by Ludwig Rottenburg and staged by the enfant terrible of Weimar’s opera, Walter Brügmann. Although not remarkably successful by Krenek’s later standards, it drew attention in the right circles and may safely be said to have launched the new genre of «jazz opera» that would later lead to Hindemith’s Neues vom Tage, Weill’s Royal Palace and Der Zar läßt sich photographieren, and of course Krenek’s own noteworthy contributions: Schwergewicht, Das Leben des Orest, and the phenomenally successful Jonny spielt auf. Perhaps the most remarkable revival took place in Leningrad on 21 May 1927, when Der Sprung über den Schatten became the first modern European opera to be performed in the Soviet Union. Its success was extraordinary: the run lasted for forty-two performances and the work was hotly discussed in the Soviet press («With Mozart-like powers of observation, nonchalance, and directness, Krenek portrays an astutely chosen group of people who have lost the healthy attitude towards life, and are seeking sensuous excitement at any price»). One of the more appreciative members of the audience was Paul Hindemith, then on a tour of Russia.

In retrospect, Der Sprung über den Schatten appeared to Krenek as a «preliminary study» for Jonny spielt auf. The parallels are indeed easy to find: a tormented artist figure depicted in expressionist strains (Goldhaar/Max), a high-born lady of society searching for an amorous adventure (Leonore/Anita), a equally high-born cuckold (Kuno/Daniello), a sexually emancipated servant girl (Odette/Yvonne), and above all the disinhibiting outsider (Dr. Berg/Jonny). The figure of Goldhaar, like Jonny’s Max, bears distinctly autobiographical traits, as Krenek later somewhat shamefacedly confessed. And like Jonny the work ends in a triumphant scene of dancing as the characters comically – and unsuccessfully – attempt one last time to «jump over their shadow.»

Kuno, reigning prince (bass)
Princess Leonore, his wife (soprano)
Countess Blandine, her lady-in-waiting (mezzo-soprano)
Odette, her chambermaid (soprano)
Dr. Berg, a hypnotist (baritone)
Marcus, a private detective (tenor)
Laurenz Goldhaar, a poet (tenor)
A valet to the prince (tenor)
A courtier (tenor)
Captain of the Guard (bass)
Four magistrates (2 tenors, 2 basses)
Man from the crowd (tenor)
A waiter (speaking role)
A chamberlain, a barrister (dumb characters)

Chorus: Visitors to Dr. Berg’s séances, guests at a masquerade, spectators in the courtroom

Place: the seat of a small princedom.
Time: the present.

Act 1
Private detective Marcus, a specialist in exposing adultery, receives a phone call from the reigning Prince Kuno, who instructs him to shadow his wife, Princess Leonore. The prince has become suspicious of her many visits to the séances held by the hypnotist Dr. Berg. Being Marcus’s friend, Dr. Berg overhears the conversation and offers to play the role of detective himself, giving him a welcome opportunity to get closer to the princess. But Leonore has another admirer: Laurenz Goldhaar, a poet manqué full of inhibitions.

A séance at Dr. Berg’s. The princess is undecided whether to take part in an artists’ party that very evening, where she hopes to find the poet Goldhaar. Dr. Berg hypnotizes her and convinces her to «jump over her shadow» and attend the party.

The artists’ party begins with a busy choral scene in which we hear the Song of the Nigger Boy: «In the free country of America there once lived a little black boy who danced and shimmied far and wide and always danced some more.» Leonore finds Goldhaar among the maskers but refrains from revealing her identity. The clueless Goldhaar continues to search for his flame. Prince Kuno, likewise on the prowl, dances with Odette, who pokes fun at him when he proves unequal to the ticklish jazz rhythms. Blandine, the lady-in-waiting, is hoping for a rendezvous with Dr. Berg, but mistakenly latches on Goldhaar instead. Leonore turns away from him in high dudgeon. Blandine, still thinking Goldhaar is Dr. Berg, invites him to a midnight tryst at the castle bridge. Identifying mark: a small rose.

Act 2
Prince Kuno returns home from the dance, exhausted. He is informed that his wife was also at the dance. He reproaches the feigned detective (Dr. Berg in lieu of Marcus) for not having watched Dr. Berg. When Blandine too tells the fictitious detective about her love for the unknown Dr. Berg, the hypnotist suddenly finds himself in a double bind. As if that weren’t enough, she asks him to conduct her own hypnotist (Laurenz Goldhaar) to the castle at the appointed hour. Prince Kuno, who has eavesdropped on the conversation, instructs the detective to entice the victim into a trap.

Goldhaar appears at the castle bridge and is about to regret his momentary dalliance when the detective persuades him to come to the castle. Once there, in a comedy of mistaken identities, each of the would-be lovers bumps into the other in the dark, until finally Goldhaar is arrested as the alleged hypnotist by the Captain of the Guard.

Act 3
Goldhaar bewails his lot in prison, but Leonore gains access to him and offers him comfort. The poor poet is now brought to trial as the alleged hypnotist. In a courtroom parody, Dr. Berg, in disguise, assumes the role of barrister. But when the court decides to summon the private detective to the witness stand, he resolves to stop at nothing. He petitions for a divorce for the princely couple – the only way to avoid scandal and impending revolution. But the disaster is already under way. The people rebel.

The divorce has been carried out. The Prince and Odette have now found each other, and Leonore gets her poet Goldhaar, who, however, is still in prison. To give himself one final chance Dr. Berg proclaims a republic. Thinking that his path to Leonore is now free, he is shocked to discover that she has just departed with Goldhaar.

Enter Marcus, the genuine detective, as a deus ex machina. Dr. Berg’s dual role is unmasked. He is proclaimed president by the people. Marcus announces the moral of the story: «As you see, no sooner had they jumped over their shadow than the old shadow reappeared, and now they merrily trot along.» In conclusion, all the characters perform a grotesque dance by trying in vain to jump over their shadow.

Bradford Robinson, 2006

For performance material please contact the publisher Universal Edition, Vienna. Reprint of a copy from the Universal Edition, Vienna.

Score Data


Opera Explorer


160 x 240 mm







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