Schwergewicht oder Die Ehre der Nation Op. 55
(b. Vienna, August 23, 1900; d. Palm Springs, December 22, 1991)
Schwergewicht, oder Die Ehre der Nation op. 55 (1927)
Burlesque operetta in one act on a libretto by the composer.
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.
Schwergewicht, oder Die Ehre der Nation («Heavyweight, or The Glory of the Nation») was written in a fit of pique at a public pronouncement by Germany’s ambassador to America, who claimed that a channel swimmer or some other sports hero accomplished more for Germany’s standing in the world than all of its artists and scientists put together. Krenek immediately resolved to write a satirical opera about a German prizefighter, lightly based on Max Schmeling, who was at that time already well on his way to world fame. He also pilloried the fascination of Germany’s intellectuals for boxing as a mass spectator sport, a phenomenon that left a mark on opera history in Brecht and Weill’s Mahagonny-Songspiel (1927), which is staged in a boxing ring, and the operatic version Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1927-30), which features a prizefight with a murderous outcome. The libretto proceeds at an extraordinarily fast clip («copied from early cinematic farces,» as Krenek later confided), and is constructed to inflict maximum physical and emotional injury on its athletic title-hero. To quote the composer’s own summary (1928):
«Schwergewicht oder Die Ehre der Nation is a burlesque operetta, where the epithet ‘burlesque’ is meant to assign its comic crudities to the improbable realm of farce, and the term ‘operetta’ indicates the scale and character of this little piece. The champion boxer Adam Ochsenschwanz, as befits a hoary formula in farces, is being cuckolded by his wife and a wily dancing teacher. A series of drastic contretemps, patterned after venerable stage tricks of mistaken identity, eventually cause the muscle-bound braggart, seated on a training machine, to be condemned to waste his strength in ceaseless and helpless motion while the physically far inferior fillou abducts his wife. To fully underscore the contrast between the dimwitted athlete’s external fame and his intrinsic worth, a government official appears and commissions him to represent his country at the next Olympics. Ochsenschwanz pleads with him to turn off the pitiless machine so that he can avenge his personal honor, but the official refuses: he mustn’t lose a minute of his precious training, for he is the ‘glory of the nation.’»
This slender plot, reminiscent of a cabaret skit, places the piece squarely among the «sketch operas» that proliferated in Germany in the late 1920s, of which Hindemith’s Hin und zurück («There and back again,» 1927) and Weill’s Der Zar lässt sich photographieren («The Czar has his picture taken,» 1928) are perhaps the best-known examples. The text is peppered with light-hearted stage banter («Do you know Goethe’s Faust?» – «Mine is better!» – punning on the German word for fist) and as much slapstick is might be found in a Mack Sennett comedy (a young female admirer disguised as a training dummy is battered senseless only to exclaim, with transfigured gaze, «That was lovely!»). The whole is set to a musical score in which, as Krenek later confessed, «I submitted to my pent-up desire to write a truly popular hit tune… I wrote paso dobles (à la Valencia, then a very popular hit), tangos, blues, and other such things to my heart’s content.» The orchestra was kept deliberately small, but filled with novelty instruments familiar from the dance bands of the time: woodblocks, a «swanee whistle,» a flexatone (an instrument akin to a musical saw), and an exposed piano part that sometimes functions like a silent movie piano. The entire piece conveyed a sense of breathless pace and topicality guaranteed to grab the attention of Germany’s opera public.
The three one-acters were premièred in Wiesbaden by the Hessian State Theater, where Krenek had until recently been employed, during the May Festival on 6 May 1928. The stage direction was entrusted to his former boss, Paul Bekker, while the conducting duties were handled by Joseph Rosenstock. The triptych was immediately snapped up by Otto Klemperer for the Kroll Opera in Berlin, where it received an outstanding production on 2 December 1928. Thereafter the pieces went their separates ways, with Schwergewicht frequently being performed in combination with other short operas, until the change of taste and political climate in Germany rendered it unperformable. In the 1990s the work was revived in Stuttgart (1990), Linz (1993), and elsewhere as part of the triptych, revealing itself to be a lighthearted and still amusing cultural byproduct of Germany’s Roaring Twenties.
Adam Ochsenschwanz, champion prizefighter – basso buffo
Evelyne, his wife – soprano
Gaston, a dancing teacher – tenor
Professor Himmelhuber – baritone
Anna-Maria Himmelhuber, his daughter – mezzo-soprano
A journalist – tenor
A government official – tenor
Ottokar, Ochsenschwanz’s valet – dumb role
A chambermaid – dumb role
Time: the present.
Place: the champion’s training room. Ochsenschwanz is annoyed to discover his wife and that «nauseating fellow» Gaston training for the world record in marathon dancing. His suspicions are well founded, for Evelyne views the «idiotic prancing» as a pretext to be with Gaston. When he finally catches the two in a surreptitious kiss he loses control of himself and demolishes the breakfast table and his training machine. Gaston secretly escapes into an adjoining room, while Evelyne is locked up in a different room by her husband. Events then come head over heels. A blue-stockinged medical student, Anna-Maria Himmelhuber, sneaks into the room to obtain an autograph from the «champion.» She hides beneath a table but is discovered and transformed by Gaston into a training dummy. Meanwhile Professor Himmelhuber, her father, arrives to bestow an honorary doctorate upon Ochsenschwanz. The boxer demonstrates his prowess on the alleged training dummy and knocks it out. Himmelhuber discovers it to be his daughter; Ochsenschwanz is accused of adultery and statutory rape. To work off his temper, the muscular hero sits down on his training machine. Gaston switches on the power before escaping to freedom with Evelyne. The boxer is now forced to thrash ceaselessly on the running machine. Even the government official who hands Ochsenschwanz his invitation to the Olympics declines to turn off the machine so that the “Glory of the Nation” will not lose a minute of training time.
Bradford Robinson, 2006
For performance material please contact the publisher Universal Edition, Vienna. Reprint of a copy from Universal Edition, Vienna.