Jonny spielt auf
Jonny spielt auf, op. 45 (1925-6)
Opera in Two Parts on a libretto by the composer
(b. Vienna, 23 August 1900 — d. Palm Springs / California, 22 December 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 Martinu — 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 twentieth-century and brought him literary friendships with figures as diverse as Rilke, Adorno, and Thomas Mann. But his lasting place in history most likely belongs to a single work which, in later years, he grew more and more to regard as atypical, ephemeral, and profoundly misunderstood: his “jazz” opera Jonny spielt auf.
The son of an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, Krenek was an only child and enjoyed the best education, both in music and the liberal arts, that Habsburg Vienna could offer a child of the middle bourgeoisie. He excelled at school and obtained a solid background in music from his many visits to Vienna’s concert halls and opera house, his avid sight-reading at the piano, and his private lessons with Vienna’s leading composer, Franz Schreker. After following Schreker to Berlin in 1920, he soon created a sensation among Germany’s musical intelligentsia with his compositions even before he had taken a degree. His First and Second Symphonies (1921-2), First String Quartet (1921), and other works quickly placed the young man at the forefront of post-war German composers alongside Paul Hindemith and, slightly later, Kurt Weill. 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. Unlike Hindemith and Weill, however, he avoided the musical capital of Berlin, preferring instead to remain in the provinces, whether in Switzerland as the protégé of a wealthy art patron (1923-5) or in Kassel and Wiesbaden as a literary adviser to the local opera house (1925-7). This aversion to the professional limelight was typical of his character; even in later life it posed an obstacle to the advancement of his career and the dissemination of his music.
Krenek began work on Jonny spielt auf (“Johnny Strikes Up”) in the fall of 1925, when he started to draft the libretto. The music and the text rapidly took shape in parallel (he always worked on both simultaneously, leaving the final wording of his librettos to the act of composition), and the score was fully complete by June 1926. After being rejected by the Hamburg Opera, the new work was accepted for performance by the relatively small but venturesome City Theater in Leipzig, where it duly received its première on February 10, 1927, conducted by Gustav Brecher (1879-1940) and staged by Walter Brügmann. Within days the new work had become a succès de scandale among critics and a box-office sensation with the public: in the 1927-8 season alone it was given 421 times in 45 different cities. Before long, productions were scheduled in virtually every opera house in Germany, and the work was being mounted in France, Finland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, and the New York Met. The runs in Vienna and Berlin alone each exceeded fifty performances, an unheard-of phenomenon that dwarfed the success of new operas by Puccini and Strauss and bore comparison only with the great hits of the silent cinema, with which Jonny had many features of dramatic structure in common. A further dimension of popularity arose from the Act 1 arietta “Leb wohl, mein Schatz” (mm. 960ff.), which, under the title of Jonny’s Blues, was very successfully marketed in arrangements for jazz band or salon orchestra and was released on several 78 rpm recordings. Indeed, it is safe to say that more Central Europeans heard Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf and Jonny’s Blues during the late 1920s than ever heard a note of legitimate American jazz. The opponents of modern music who were to accede to power in Germany in the 1930s therefore had every reason to equate Krenek and his opera with the German Jazz Age in toto, as is all-too apparent in the visual motifs that adorned the poster of the Nazi’s vicious “Degenerate Music” exhibition in 1938. So great was the Nazi’s animus toward Krenek that he was even honored with a lengthy entry in Stengel and Gerigk’s notorious Lexikon der Juden in der Musik (1940) although he had no Jewish ancestry at all.
The success of Jonny made Krenek, for the moment, a wealthy man and steeled his resolve to remain a freelance composer. Yet his sudden rise to fame as one of the best-known composers in Central Europe came at a psychological price. As he was to confide later in his remarkably candid Memoirs (MS, Library of Congress, pp. 780-81):
“Writing down these lines I observe that I am increasingly slowed down in the fluency of my discourse and that I feel more and more inhibited about reporting and commenting on these events. The reason probably is that this sudden, unexpected success threw me completely off balance, from which I am suffering to this day. Summing up the consequences of that success, I find that the satisfaction was superficial though considerable, the material benefits handsome but shortlived, and the suffering intense and permanent. Thus it is more difficult for me to speak about this externally most important event in my artistic life than about a great many seemingly less noteworthy affairs. My memory is noticeably reluctant to furnish material, probably because the shock that resulted from that event is still not absorbed.”
And this in 1954, almost thirty years after Jonny had been committed to paper!
In retrospect, it is not difficult to understand the sensational, if fleeting, success of Krenek’s opera. Always attracted to the theater, he had used his years in Kassel to form an intimate acquaintance with the workings of the operatic stage. He approached the new piece as a jeu d’esprit:
J. Bradford Robinson, 2004.
Read full preface / Komplettes Vorwort > HERE