Krenek, Ernst


Krenek, Ernst

Das geheime Königreich Op. 50

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Ernst Krenek

Das geheime Königreich op. 50 (1926-7)

Fairy-tale opera in one act (two scenes) on a libretto by the composer.

(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 psychology 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.

Shortly after completing his phenomenally successful opera Jonny spielt auf (1926) Krenek embarked on a «triptych» of one-act operas, each in a different style and each representing what he considered to be an important aspect of his artistic persona. The model, whether conscious or not, was Puccini’s celebrated triptych of Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi (1918), and Krenek adopted the same Puccinian pattern of lurid melodrama (Der Diktator), other-worldly romanticism (Das geheime Königreich), and light-weight comedy (Schwergewicht). Once again, he wrote all three librettos himself.

Das geheime Königreich («The Secret Kingdom») is an elaborate fairy-tale involving a kingdom in revolt, a monarch of Hamlet-like despondency who would like nothing better than to abdicate (or, failing that, to commit suicide), and a queen who seeks to usurp her husband’s throne and establish a new kingdom with the leader of the rebellion. In the end all of the characters are thwarted, and a new kingdom, based on a love of nature and a veneration of the Divinity, is magically created in a remote forest. Krenek was moved to this untimely subject, the opposite of a Zeitoper, by his reading of King Lear (the scene of the King and the two drunk rebels was influenced by Lear on the blasted heath) and by Goethe’s play Der Triumph der Empfindsamkeit (1787), for which he had just composed incidental music for a production in Kassel (1926) and which also deals with a distorted relation to Nature. The plot can be seen as a serious response to Krenek’s light-hearted opera of 1923, Der Sprung über den Schatten, which likewise involves a reluctant ruler and a seething revolution. That the composer intended Das geheime Königreich to function as a sort of ideological testament is clear from the description of it in his autobiography, translated here from the German edition: «The second of the three operas was a fairy-tale that apotheosized the simple life, submission to Nature, joy in little things, and the renunciation of ambition, fame, and glory. It is interesting that I developed this philosophy at the same moment that I myself achieved fame and honor

[through Jonny spielt auf] without having wished for either. As I view it now, my attitude was a sort of synthesis of my ‘Parisian’ philosophy and Karl Kraus’s disgust at ‘this world.’ If I argued on behalf of a ‘yes’ toward life, just as a Parisian prostitute or a Marseilles fisherman would have done in my sentimental imagination, I also wanted to say ‘no’ to modern civilization, which, I felt, consisted of dehumanized haste, degrading commercialization, and hopeless universal corruption.»

The alternative to modern civilization, Krenek felt, was a return to an innocent and pristine Nature, «the legendary and paradisiac state of humanity […] which the individual can and ought to reclaim, like the Heavenly Kingdom of the gospel that is within ourselves.» Viewed in this light, Das geheime Königreich foreshadows two portentous developments in Krenek’s own thought: his return to a Schubertian romanticism and nature-worship, soon to find expression in his song-cycle Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen (1929), and his reaffirmed commitment to a Catholic world-view that informs his magnum opus of the 1930s, the twelve-tone opera Karl V. (1932-3).

Das geheime Königreich was premièred at the Hessian State Theater in Wiesbaden on 6 May 1928, along with the other two pieces in the trilogy. The stage direction was entrusted to Krenek’s former employer, Paul Bekker; the conducting duties were handled by Joseph Rosenstock. The entire triptych was immediately snapped up by Otto Klemperer for the Kroll Opera in Berlin, where it received an outstanding production on 2 December 1928. The fairy-tale opera was the least well-received of the three, however, and soon had to yield its place to other one-act operas in billings with the more popular Schwergewicht. This situation changed during the Krenek renaissance of the 1990s, when the triptych was revived in Stuttgart (1990), Linz (1993) and elsewhere and was recorded by Marek Janowski and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. Perhaps because of a renewed interest in the late-romantic repertoire, or perhaps because of the timeliness of its environmentalist subject-matter, Das geheime Königreich is now often better-received than its two companions. Accordingly, in addition to the original full score and vocal score published by Universal in 1928, it has been re-issued by the same publisher in a scaled-down version for chamber orchestra, prepared by Rainer Schottstädt in 2002.

The King – Baritone
The Queen – Coloratura soprano
The Fool – Baritone
The Rebel – Tenor
The Three Singing Ladies – Soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto
First Revolutionary – Tenor buffo
Second Revolutionary – Basso buffo
A Watchman – Tenor
Chorus of rebels, dancers, ladies of the Queens chamber

Place: a fairy-tale land.

Scene 1, a room in the King’s palace: While cries from the rebellious population are heard offstage, the Fool muses about the King, the people, and himself. The King hands him his crown; he wants to fight for his true kingdom in the streets. A captive rebel is brought in, a handsome man who captures the interest of the Queen, but his only concern is to obtain the crown and hand it to his followers. Now the Queen too demands the crown. With the help of the Three Ladies, some wine, and a deck of cards, she manages to trick the Fool into losing his motley and the crown. The Rebel, now freed from prison by the Queen, incites the people to storm the palace. The Fool, the Queen, and the King, dressed in fool’s motley, flee in panic.

Scene 2, a moonlit forest: The Rebel wants to kill the Queen, who still has the crown. In her duress, she begins to disrobe. The Rebel weakens and flings himself upon her. But a higher power transforms her into a tree. Horrified, the Rebel rushes out of the enchanted forest. Two drified into a pristine being. The King suddenly recognizes the beauty of his realm, the grandeur of nature, and a flower as a divine miracle. He enters his true kingdom and falls asleep. The Fool ends the play by delivering an epilogue to the audience.

Bradford Robinson, 2006

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

Score Data


Opera Explorer


160 x 240 mm







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