Composer  Ernst  Krenek
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Ernst Krenek

Ernst Krenek (August 23, 1900 – December 22, 1991) was an Austrian-born composer of Czech ancestry; throughout his life he insisted that his name be written Krenek rather than Křenek, and that it should be pronounced as a German word. He explored atonality and other modern styles and wrote a number of books, including Music Here and Now (1939), a study of Johannes Ockeghem (1953), and Horizons Circled: Reflections on my Music (1974).

Krenek was born in Vienna. He studied there and in Berlin with Franz Schreker before working in a number of German opera houses as conductor. During World War I, Krenek was drafted into the Austrian Army, but he was stationed in Vienna, allowing him to go on with his musical studies. In 1922 he met Gustav Mahler's daughter, Anna, and her mother, Alma, who asked Krenek to complete her late husband's Symphony No. 10. Krenek helped edit the first and third movements but went no further. In 1924 he married Anna, only to divorce her before the first anniversary.

His journalism was banned and his music was targeted in Germany by the Nazi Party in 1933. On March 6, one day after the Nazis gained control of the Reichstag, Krenek's incidental music to Goethe's Triumph der Empsindsamkeit had to be withdrawn in Mannheim and pressure was brought to bear on the Vienna State Opera, which cancelled the commissioned premiere of Karl V. The jazz imitations of Jonny spielt auf were included in the 1938 Degenerate art exhibition in Munich. He moved to the United States of America in 1938 where he taught music at various universities, including Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota from 1942-1947. He became an American citizen in 1945. His students included George Perle and Robert Erickson. [See Bruce Duffie's Interview with George Perle, and his Interview with Robert Erickson.] Krenek died in Palm Springs, California.

Krenek's music is in a variety of styles. His early work is in a late-Romantic idiom, showing the influence of his teacher Franz Schreker. He later embraced atonality, but a visit to Paris, during which he became familiar with the work of Igor Stravinsky and Les Six, led him to adopt a neo-classical style. His opera Jonny spielt auf (Johnny Strikes Up, 1926), which is influenced by jazz, was a great success in his lifetime, playing all over Europe. In spite of Nazi protests, it became so popular that even a brand of cigarettes, still on the market today in Austria, was named "Jonny". [Illustration of a pack is shown in the box below.] He then started writing in a neo-Romantic style with Franz Schubert as a model, with his Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen as prime example, before using Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique; the opera Karl V (1931-33) is entirely written using this technique, as are most of his later pieces. In the Lamentatio Jeremiae prophetae (1941–42) he combined twelve-tone writing with 16th century techniques of modal counterpoint. He also composed electronic and aleatoric music.

In January of 1986, Ernst Krenek graciously permitted me to call him at his home for an interview.  We had written back and forth, and he was aware of my background and interests.  The conversation went very well, and the composer was enthusiastic in responding to my questions.  While getting the recording equipment set up at my studio, we spoke briefly about the myriad ways in which people communicated and shared their ideas in the electronic age.

Bruce Duffie:    Are we bombarded today with too much stimulus of all kinds?

Ernst Krenek:    That depends on what you understand by stimulus.  If you mean the influence of television and radio and so forth, then I think that is a bit too much, indeed.  Of course I don't hear much, I might confess, but I don't listen much to television; usually just the news.  I don't care for the other programs because they're not that interesting for me.  But I could imagine that people who listen to this for hours a day are very well filled up with this, and don't have much time for anything else.

krenek BD:    But of course this is a conscious choice on your part.

EK:    Yes, that's right naturally.  That's just because in previous years I have tried to listen to this or that and found out that it didn't interest me, so I just let it go at that.

BD:    Is it necessary for any composer to keep up with the times?

EK:    It can't do any harm.  I think I am still interested although I'm now of advanced age, as you know.  I've been interested what goes on in music, what the younger people do.  I can't say that I like it very much, but never mind.  I like to get involved; I want to listen to what they are doing.  Of course here in Palm Springs I have not so much opportunity, but I still like to go to concerts or opera once in a while and see what goes on.

BD:    But in Palm Springs
or even in perhaps the most remote part of the earththere are satellite communications so that you can have music or entertainment of any kind almost anywhere.

EK:    Yes, that is true.  As I said before, I don't feel that this is very interesting for me.  We can hear anything over the satellite, but I don't think that much contemporary music comes over the satellite, or anywhere else.  That comes from human sources, for orchestra, chamber music, or others, and there is not so much of that here.

BD:    Let me ask about the other kind of music.  There's a whole range of popular music.  Do you consider this junk music in the same way that we have junk food?

EK:    No, I wouldn't say that.  As you know, in my younger years in the 1920s, I was very much interested in this kind of music, and I wrote a famous opera, Jonny spielt auf, which uses jazz idiom and is based on this whole idea of the contemporary field of music.  But this stopped at the end of the 1920s.  I lost interest in this kind of music.  I turned to the twelve-tone technique, which is a different pallet style and different kind, and my interest has developed in a different direction.  So I am now not any longer so much interested in this music, and I must say I lost track of all the many different issues that exist, such as country music, spirituals, rock 'n roll, metal, and whatever comes up every day.  Who is to say, even if I ever hear it, which happens really rarely enough.

BD:    Is "rock" music?

EK:    [Thinks for a moment]  Maybe so; I don't know.  I don't know exactly the definition of music, much less the definition of rock, so I can't say much about this.

BD:    What caused you to lose interest in the use of jazz in your music?

On Dec. 6., 2011 Decca Classics' latest slate of back-catalogue opera reissues includes the important  Leipzig recording of Ernst Krenek's jazz opera Jonny spielt auf.

krenek An Austrian of Czech descent, Krenek (1900-1991) was no jazzman. He was in fact a fiercely eclectic, modern composer whose music veered from tonality to serialism and sometimes back again in the course of a long, brilliant career. Today, he is best remembered as a music educator and for making the first attempt to edit the score of Mahler's Tenth Symphony. He is also an important, underrated composer in the 20th century whose cerebral music deserves more exposure.

Jonny (the title translates as Jonny Plays On) was the hot opera of 1928. Krenek was inspired by the jazz revue Chocolate Babies. The opera premiered in Leipzig in 1927 and was an instant success. It is the story of a love affair between Max, an intellectual composer (Krenek himself?) and Anita, a soprano. The title character, an itinerant African-American musician (usually played by a white actor in black-face) sets the world dancing after he steals Max's violin.

When Jonny-mania hit Vienna, Krenek's innovations drew the ire of that city's leading music critic, one Julius Korngold. The father of composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the elder Korngold worked hard to promote the virtues of his son's more conservative (but equally brilliant) opera, Das Wunder der Heliane. But he did so by writing negatively about Krenek's opera. The effort backfired, and Heliane fizzled.

krenek The competition between operas extended as far as the smoke shops of the Austrian capital. Ostereiche Tabakregie promoted the elegant, expensive "Heliane" cigarettes as an alternate to the cheap "Jonny" blend. Like Krenek's opera, the plebian taste proved more popular. (You can still buy Jonny cigarettes in Austria. [See illustration at left.]  In interest of public health, this blog does not recommend you do so.)

The rise of Adolf Hitler led to both operas being labeled "Entarte Musik," examples of what Nazi censors called "degenerate" art, and then banned.  Jonny languished in obscurity for the next 50 years. Although it never regained a place in the repertory, it is staged occasionally, with productions in Vienna (2005) and at the Teatro Colon in Argentina in 2006. Both composers emigrated to America. Krenek became an academic and wrote an important Violin Concerto. Korngold went to Hollywood and found fame writing film scores.

The recording in question comes from the 1990s, when Decca started a program to record and preserve these specific operas that were declared "degenerate." Both Jonny and Heliane were recorded as part of that series. The jazz opera was preserved on this excellent two-CD set, featuring the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Lothar Zagrosek. The cast features heldentenor Heinz Kruse as Max, and soprano Allessandra Marc as Anita. Thanks to this reissue, you can discover Jonny for yourself.

--  From a blog called "Superconductor" by Paul Pelkonen (with correction)

EK:    I think it was just that at the end of the 1920s, I had arrived at sort of a dead end in the music of this earlier period.  I wrote this in the 1920s in a kind of Romantic or neo-Romantic idiom.  This opera, Jonny spielt auf, and also a song cycle and other things had elements influenced by Schubert.  One should not be surprised because it's nothing to do with jazz, but at the end of the 1920s I felt that this expression was a dead end and I couldn't get to the any further.  I became acquainted with the other kind of "new music" at that time, that is the music of the Schoenberg School.  I used to live in Vienna in these last years of the '20s, hence I knew Alban Berg and Anton Webern personally.  They were my friends, and I began to study their music very carefully.  They were much older than I, so I didn't ask them, "How did you do this," and "What is this here and there?'  I wanted to study it myself, and I came to the conclusion that this was the way for me to get out of this problem.

BD:    Did they have a very large influence on your musical style?

EK:    Yes, undoubtedly, yes.

BD:    Did you continue with this same kind of style, or did you progress into new and different styles throughout your music?

EK:    No, I felt sure.  I was rather surprised that I kept doing this twelve-tone technique basically for the remainder of my life, but not so strictly and dogmatically.  I wrote some different kinds of compositions for some occasions, some choral pieces and so on, but the twelve-tone technique has remained the essential method by which I write music.  As I say, it's not based on any strict theoretical background, but roughly speaking the twelve tones are always present and organized in various ways.

BD:    When people come to hear your music, what do you expect from the audiences?

EK:     I expect them to enjoy it.  [Both chuckle]  It's very simple.  I like them to listen to it without any foreknowledge or prejudice, and so to open their ears and their minds and absorb the music as it comes along and make their own response to it as it comes to them.  I don't think that music tells any stories.  I don't believe in program music.  Stravinsky's attitude was that music doesn't express anything.  All that music expresses is really brought into it by the listener.  There are associations as he hears music.  He thinks of roses or a meadow or mountains or the Last Supper or whatever it is, but then he imagines that the music expresses all this and that the composer must have wanted this when he wrote the music, but I don't think that is true.  What a composer was thinking when he wrote the music, nobody knows that.


BD:    Do you then expect to have as many different reactions as there are people who are listening to the music?

EK:    Undoubtedly yes, and I don't mind their reactions.  Let them think what they want.

BD:    Do you expect your music to be understood, or do you just wait for the various reactions to come?

EK:    Well, that is a different category.  I think that music can be perceived in three different ways.  One can listen to it like they listen to music in an elevator or in the dentist's office, but this way means they hardly listen at all; it just goes by.  But we can also listen to it with emotional reaction.  Most people cry or hoot, but there is some kind of expression which they've done first, and they believe their emotional reactions come from the music.  Finally they can listen to it intellectually.  They can follow the process, they can visualize what happens to the piece
how this theme is modified and how it is repeatedand how all of the motives come back and get changed and so forth.  But that would be another kind of listening to music which is not as commonplace as the others.  It's more efficient for us who are writing music most of the time.

BD:    Do you expect all of these things to be going on all at the same time?

EK:    Yes, I would think so.  I can listen to television when some of the greats play a sonata by Beethoven on the piano.  I can just listen away from it because I don't pay attention, but I can also turn around if I am much interested and say how does this go, or how this is made or how it is put together; how was this developed or what happens to the subject.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you're writing music, how much of your music is inspiration and how much is technique?

EK:    I couldn't tell exactly the percentage, but I hope all the elements are in it.

krenek BD:    Where is the balance?

EK:    [Chuckles]  That is not quite so easy to say.  What is inspiration anyway?  I've thought about it, and inspiration is a rather complicated process since many things are stored in one's mind.  It depends on happenings, upbringing, deliberations, associations, education, reminiscences, recollections, and maybe new ideas which ones picks up from anywhere.  One can't control it.  One doesn't know.  It just goes by, so one must try to find a more effective way to harness and utilize it.

BD:    Can we be too analytical about music in theory classes?

EK:    I think so.  One can analyze music from various viewpoints.  After all, as you teach composition you do this all the time.  You analyze music for the students, try to explain to them how it was put together, how it was made, how it was constructed.

BD:    You spent a number of years teaching music and teaching composition.  Can musical composition really be taught or learned, or is it something that just must come out of the genius of each individual?

EK:    Yes, I think so.  What you can really teach is technique.  You can teach 16th-century counterpoint, because that's a body of music which grows itself historically.  You know exactly what the rules are.  You can point out to students, "This is wrong because they never made this kind of a skip of a third.  So you can't do this."  Or, "You can't do this if the dissonance is not resolved."  You can always point out what's wrong.  And you can teach, to an extent, 12-tone technique in a similar way.  You can always say, "This is wrong because you have left out one tone; you have skipped from here to there; that was not supposed to come," and so forth.  In order to teach this way, you need some material that is absolutely and unequivocally wrong.  But teaching composition is very difficult because it involves the idea of imagination.  You can't teach anybody imagination; you can just stimulate the imagination, not necessarily by musical examples, but by talking, by discussing all sorts of things.  This will bring ideas to his mind, and then he turns the moment over into musical ideas.  That is a rather complicated process, but not very easy to describe and also not very reliable.  So how you can teach composition I really don't know any longer.  I've not been doing it, actually, for at least the last 30 years, I would say.

BD:    It seems like you can point out what’s wrong, but you can't really point out what's right.

EK:    That's right.  That's correct.

BD:    In one of your letters to me, you were very surprised to learn that a certain piece of yours had been recorded.  Does it surprise you that some of your more obscure pieces are done?

EK:    Yes, that surprises me once in awhile because as composer I'm usually the last one to learn when something is performed anywhere.  I learn it usually from the publisher after two years or so, when I get a statement about royalties... and so it goes.  But there are many things of mine which are being played here and there, and I just don't know about it.

BD:    The recording that you mentioned is Parvula Corona Musicalis: ad honorem Johannis Sebastiani Bach, Op. 122.  Why does it surprise you that it was done?  You say it's sort of an obscure and out-of-the world piece...

krenek EK:    Yes.  I was asked by the Italian Radio to write a piece for the 200th anniversary of Bach's death, which was in1750.  I came to this idea to write a piece which is all dressed up in a sense that it is a kind of compressed picture of my idea of the development of music history since Bach.  I start with this theme of B-A-C-H, and I find it again in the last four string quartets by Beethoven, and suddenly in Tristan by Wagner and eventually in our new 12-tone music.  This is exemplified in this piece.  It's a string trio, and I had to write a preface, so what should I do?  I don't speak enough Italian; they don't know English, and they don't know German, so I wrote it in Latin.  I wrote a Latin preface which I still remembered from my high school days.  It was very well done when they played this piece, but it was printed only in the publication called Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute, and nowhere else.  I was astonished to see it being performed here and there, so it gets around without my knowing.

BD:    You have conducted a number of your works, have you not?

EK:    I did; yes, I did some conducting.

BD:    Are you the ideal interpreter of your music?

EK:    I would reckon so.  I'd rather say that I was the only authentic interpreter.  I know that a few things I can do better than others because I simply know them better.  That's very simple.  I know exactly what's in this music, where the difficulties are and how to get around them.  While that is experience that conductors face, sometimes one little detail doesn't work and it doesn't come.  Finally I sit there and tell him, "Now why don't you try it this way?"  He does it, and immediately it functions.  So while I'm not particularly proud of this, it simply happens that I know this music better than they do because they're outside of it and perhaps not prepared.  But I'm absolutely not obsessed about this, and I love professional conductors.

BD:    Do you find that other conductors or performers find things in your music that you did not know were there?

EK:    That's possible too.  Yes.  I will not deny this, although it may not happen very frequently, but why not face the fact that maybe I'm forgetting my pieces.  It happens very easily since after all, I'm not a library any more.  I don't keep my library in my head.  I write a piece and then it's done and I go to the next.  The previous piece is not entirely forgotten, but it vanishes from my memory so I can't tell exactly how it goes.  There may be a conductor who discovers it after 20 years and finds quite a few things which I didn't notice or had forgotten.  It's entirely possible that it happens once in a while.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let's move over to some of the operas.  First a genereal question.  For you, what should opera be?

krenek EK:    Opera should be a theater piece.  That's the main thing; it's a dramatic piece to be put on stage, and it is permeated by music.  The music comes from the orchestra, which is below, but the first thing is that it's a dramatic piece.  The subject matter and the dramatic treatment is of utmost importance.  That is a mistake which I have noticed frequently.  Students of mine would rave about a fiction book they have read.  They would say, "This is a wonderful opera libretto and I don't know what I want to do with this."  But they forget that it's not dramatic.  It has too many descriptions and not enough facilities for dialogue since they're simply not dramatic situations.  It doesn't lend itself to dramatic treatment.  The drama is the first thing you feel with all great operas.

BD:    You've written a number of your own libretti.  Is that the best way to go about it, to have the composer be his own librettist?

EK:    I had this experience and I wouldn't miss it.  I have written one or two operas with somebody else's libretto, and one of them is very good, I know that.  But it is easier and more to the purpose if I write my own libretto because then I can control everything.  At first I had to adjust as the words developed.  In earlier days, I wrote the music and words at the same time.  Since I had a perfect picture
an outline of the dramatic developmentI knew exactly what was going to happen in every scene; but the actual dialogue I wrote down with the music, which is an advantage because you can control it at every any given moment.  Since everything is in one's own hand, it's in meter after writing each sentence.  When I wrote the opera Karl V, I wrote the libretto beforehand because I felt that it should be a perfect piece of literature, apart from just subject meant matter for an opera.  Basically I think it is the best thing to compose the libretto itself first.

BD:    I would think that then you would need to be someone who is not only crafty at writing music, but someone who is intelligent about writing drama.

EK:    Yes, and I confess that I believe I have a literary talent, because I have written many books.  There are sixteen of them or so, both in German and English, so I think I have a certain ability to express myself in literature.

BD:    The prose writing that I have read of yours is really extraordinary.  I've been very enlightened by what I have read.

EK:    That's very kind of you.  Thank you very much.  I like to hear that.

BD:    Now you say you like to be more in control in the opera.  When the opera is being produced for the first time, do you get directly involved and help the conductor and the director, or do you let them get on with the production and only help when it's absolutely necessary?

EK:    That is a sore point.  I'm sorry.  I like to get involved, or I used to get involved, but usually it doesn't help very much.  The stage directors do whatever they please, and not what pleases me, and [laughs ironically] you should be flattered.  I had many of experiences with this that I don't want to recall in detail, but nowadays the stage directors fell that the opera is just raw material with which he can do or treat as he sees, as he likes, as he feels.  He can make cuts or insert things or do whatever he wants.  These days, the composer of the opera is not asked many questions.  He just sits by and watches how his work is demolished.  At least with conductors one can talk.  They have come down from their high horse.  They were previously were more conceited, but now one can talk with them.  Usually they are more or less accessible.  Also, they can't change the music so much because after all, the score is the score, and it's supposed to be played as it is.  They can do little changes here and there, but never mind, I respect them.  But the stage directors are very difficult.

BD:    Who is responsible for letting the stage directors take too much control upon themselves?

EK:    They just do it and nobody is stopping them, so they are just overlords.  I don't know who is responsible; perhaps it is the director of the theater.

BD:    In an essay about 50 years ago you responded to the question, "Is opera still possible today?"  How would you respond to that now?

EK:    I think it is certainly possible because operas are still being written.  I remember that this question came up when I was in the beginning of my career in the 1920s.  Well, it is now sixty years later and it may be a bit way-out, but opera is still around.

BD:    Are great operas still being written, or are the operas that are coming out today rather mediocre?

EK:    I can't answer that in too much in detail because I haven't seen many operas in recent years.  I don't know what exactly what goes on today in an opera production.  I keep reading about operas that are produced somewhere, and that usually the crowds are promising.

BD:    Does opera work on television?

krenek EK:    Yes.  I wrote two operas and one short play for television.  I liked to do that very much, especially the first opera that was written for the Austrian Television.  It was a superior production, really excellent.  There was a television stage director who really understood his job, and he understood what I wanted.  He created an excellent production, but unfortunately he has died.  But it was interesting because they said they wanted a live production with video and audio at the same time.  That was a rather difficult job because I was conducting the orchestra in the radio building in the broadcasting station, and the singers were singing and acting out their parts about six miles away in Castle Schönbrunn.  I had a camera on myself so that they could see my conducting, but actually actors or singers cannot watch from a screen, so they had two auxiliary conductors jumping around between the cameras and taking my beat from the screen and passing it on to the singers.  Those extra conductors also had to be watching so that they wouldn't get in the field of vision of the camera.  So that was something.

BD:    Did it all get coordinated?

EK:    Yes, it all went very well.  The second opera was done in Munich for the Bavarian television, but that was done in a conventional way as a movie.  First they made a tape of orchestra and singers, and then they would do the action at a different place and different time.  The tape which had been made before was played to them so they could hear it.  They could hear themselves singing and they pretended they were singing again.

BD:    These were works that were written specifically for the television.  Do regular operas work on television?

EK:    That can be done, sure.  I have seen several of those operas on television, and in certain cases it has worked out very well.

BD:    I just wondered how you feel about bring bringing a live theatrical experience onto the little box and the little screen.

EK:    I don't mind at all.  If it's done well, it can be very effective.  I have seen several operas such as Falstaff and Madame Butterfly, and also The Ring that were all done very well.  They came over quite convincingly.  The television medium was strong, very much like a film that you can concentrate on what you should see.  One doesn't have to see always the whole stage and all the singers who have nothing to do and just stand around; so you can concentrate on one singer and on some details of the scenery and not just see everything at once.  This is sometimes tiring in an opera house.  I liked like this process the same in film.

BD:    Does opera work in translation?

EK:    I have translated four or five of my operas into English, and I think I have done a very good job, so I have no qualms about opera in translation.  As a matter of fact, I think it has to be in translation because people should understand as much as they can.  It makes no sense to play an opera in Russian or Hungarian or whatever, and have people sit there who don't understand a word.  They have to understand that it was a European tradition for hundreds of years, but opera has always to be done in the vernacular.  It makes no sense otherwise.  Nowadays, even with the strongest performing tradition, the central essential thing is that you have to be able to understand the words... apart from the fact that the singers should also understand their own words.  [Both chuckle]

BD:    You're in a unique position, though, to be able to translate your operas from one language to another.

EK:    Yes, at least from one to one other.  I wouldn't be able to translate my German operas into Spanish because I don't know Spanish, but I happen to know English, so I could translate that way.

BD:    On the television they have the sub-titles subtitles running along with the picture.  Do you think that's a good compromise?

EK:    Yes, I think that is a possible compromise.  I have nothing against that.  That is helpful, and now I hear about this system in opera houses.

BD:    They call them surtitles or supertitles, and they put them into the theater.  Have you seen any productions with them?

EK:    No, I have not seen any, and I would say that up to a point it might be useful.  I would have nothing against it, since after all they're
used to watching movies and films in the movie house where there are these captions below.  You have to read and watch the movie, and sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don't.  The text is not projected on the screen for very long, so sometimes you can't read it all and still see the action.  That's the problem.  Singing usually takes longer than speaking, so the text experience can be seen for a longer time than the supertitles in a movie.  It is a rule of thumb that a spoken play takes usually about three times as long as the same text in an opera.

BD:    About three times?

EK:    Yes.  The music makes it longer.

BD:    So when composers are thinking about doing an opera, if they read the text they should figure that their opera will last about three times longer.

EK:    Exactly, exactly.  This is the situation to keep in mind.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is opera art, or is opera entertainment?

EK:    That depends on the opera and on the attitude of the audience.  I think opera is art, certainly, but it may also be entertainment at the same time.  Many comic operas are perfectly excellent operas.  Figaro is vigorous and frivolous and it's also entertaining, so I don't see that much of a contrast.

krenek BD:    Are you a good audience for standard works
Beethoven symphonies, Mozart operas, things like that?

EK:    [In a very blasé, unenthusiastic tone of voice]  Not potentially for me.  I must remember that patrons ask for Beethoven or Schumann or Schubert, and sometimes it is boring because it was a poor performance.  I admit that some of this Classical or early Romantic music is very repetitious, and that tires me.

BD:    What can we do to get more people to come to the opera houses and the concert halls?

EK:    That is a question which I don't think I am competent to answer, because I'm not a publicity man or the manager of an opera houses house, so I don't know what I should suggest.

BD:    How much should the composer get involved in the business side?

EK:    Sometimes, when I am asked how I would counsel a young composer, I frequently say, "Choose another vocation."  [Both laugh]

BD:    [Surprised]  Really???  Why?

EK:    Because it's a long, difficult way.  You write a piece, and then you have to sign your rights away to the publishing house.  You might find a publisher who will take a number of pieces, but then you have to negotiate about everything.  You go through all this motion, and then you have to prod him to promote this piece.  Actually, a composer is always convinced that his publisher is not doing enough for him, only for others.  So he's always competing with his colleagues, and is convinced that his publisher is taking care of them.  But then he is proud of a piece, and if things go right he continues with the publisher.  He should promote the piece with the right methods.  He sets up interviews, for instance.  [Both chuckle]

BD:    You don't seem to object to doing some interviews, though.

EK:    Not at all.  I'm enjoying it, but that's something also which is simple self-fulfillment.  On the strength of this interview, somebody will play a piece of mine in some unknown village, and I will never hear of it!  These are the difficulties of composer's life, but he chooses it and that is his business.  I have no further advice.

BD:    Does it give you a good feeling to know that your music will continue to be played fifty, a hundred, two hundred years from now?

EK:    That is great, yes, and I like to believe that.  It gives me some comfort when I am in a bad mood, but it takes a certain effort to believe it.  I just have to make an effort to keep this conviction.

BD:    Do you think there will come a time when the public has progressed to the point where some of the music of Ernst Krenek is old hat?

EK:    That may be so.  As a matter of fact, I think some of the avant garde public, and certainly some of my younger colleagues, find my music is old hat.  That I know, but that doesn't exactly influence me too much because that is the way it has gone all the time.  A music is new for a certain period of time, and then it automatically becomes old, or not so new any longer.  That goes in waves up and down, and later, after another fifty years, it's again coming up and creates more interest.  But these things are very hard to predict.  That's a natural way for the human life that these waves come and go.

krenek BD:    Is the public always right in its taste, dictating who will be played and who will not be played?

EK:    No, I am convinced the public is not at all right.

BD:    How can we get the public to play more contemporary music, or to appreciate more contemporary music?

EK:    That's a pickle.  I think contemporary music is just not played much and is not played well enough when it is done.  I can tell that because always, when there is a concert with a new work and two or three old works, the old ones are much better rehearsed.  That's usually the prerogative of the conductor, and the new pieces just come at the end when there's little time left.  The conductor seems to just go through it, as if it will take care of itself.  It's interesting to look at programs of early the nineteenth century.  Those concerts were much longer than we are used to now.  There were many more pieces on one program, and almost all of them were contemporary.  Today we have developed a classical repertoire. 

BD:    What is the role of the critic?

EK:    [Thinks for a moment]  You could ask what should be the role of the critic.

BD:    OK, what should be the role of the critic?

EK:    He should educate the public, in my opinion.  He should try to pitch a different attitudes attitude towards contemporary music.  He should express his point so that people approach this music with an open mind.  I know a number of critics, and I've known many of them in my earlier life.  Most of them aren't that satisfied, or they step aside from modern music.  They usually don't pay much attention to it, and rather talk about nuances of performance of old music.  A sensible or analytical or appreciative approach to modern music is very rare.

BD:    I noticed some electronic pieces in your catalogue.  Is this a big interest for you?

EK:   I have an electronic studio in my home, but it's rather old-fashioned.  It was installed in 1967, so it's now a dinosaur, it's prehistoric.  One could renew it every year by spending $60,000 for new equipment, but I don't do that.  I have still this old equipment, and I like it because it serves me better than anything else.  It's very good for composing electronic music, which I have done to an extent.  I like to do that mainly in connection with other instruments or voices.  I've written a number of pieces which I think are very interesting or very good including a piece for two pianos and tape, and one for narrator, oboe, piano, percussion, and tape.

BD:    So then you see the electronic sounds really as just more items on your palette.

EK:    Yes, exactly.  That's the main thing.  I like to create sounds which I could not get from live instruments.  They call it the synthesizer because they wanted to make synthesized music
that is music without using instruments but imitating the real thing.  That doesn't interest me for one minute because if I want to have live music, I can listen to a pianist play something.  But I like sounds which I could not make on the piano or get from instruments.  This is the interesting part of it, and this is what I have tried to do in these pieces.  I think that's a very interesting approach, the development of electronic music.

BD:    Have you done some that are purely electronic, or is it all electronic and live performers?

EK:    In the beginning I made a few tapes with electronic sounds alone, but they are more experiments and I don't count them.  They're not well created and I do not care for them.

BD:    I would think that in a purely electronic piece you would have the ultimate control over everything!

EK:    That's absolutely correct, yes, and that's sometimes why a composer is tempted to write or to create electronic music, because then he has not to deal with different interpreters.

BD:    But you don't feel this way; you would rather deal with interpreters.

EK:    Yes, even though they're they are not all positive and not all of them are suited in the first place.  But I can understand this attitude of wanting to do it all by myself and let them go to hell.  I am not of this opinion.  I like the mixture of sounds.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

EK:    Oh yes, relatively yes.  There will always be music, so what more can we ever expect?  I am optimistic that people will always make music, I am sure.  Music will always be, so let's be cheerful about it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Coming back to your operas, you've written both large-scale works and chamber works.

EK:    Yes.

BD:    Do you feel differently about writing a great big grandiose work as opposed to a smaller work?

krenek EK:    The chamber operas were mainly written for special occasions.  There was either a commission or a small beautiful studio, or television with a small orchestra or small ensemble.  It depends a little on these things.  Most of the full-sized operas were commissioned by opera houses.  So it depends on the occasion how such things originate.  In the early days when I was not yet so established, I had no commissions.  I just had the idea for Jonny spielt auf and I did it, I wrote it on my own.  I was tempted to use the terrific machinery of the theater.  At that time I was employed by the opera house in Kassel for ten years, and I learned about all this machinery and gadgets which you can use.  It was a challenge to write an opera where all these techniques should be to put into action.  We couldn't have done Jonny spielt auf without a lot of that equipment.

BD:    Is that really the best way for a composer to understand the opera, to actually work in the opera house in some capacity?

EK:    Yes, I think that's a very good idea.  That's a very good way, and many composers have done so in their time.  One can collect practical experience in an opera house.  I also conducted opera, so that all belongs to it, and it's very useful.

BD:    Were you a better conductor of other people's music because you were a composer also of your own music?

EK:    No, just the opposite.  I think a composer is always better in conducting his own music.  Once or twice I conducted something by someone else, but I don't conduct any longer.  But I think he should concentrate on his own music, because if he conducts other people's music, then he exposes himself to comparisons with the great podium virtuosos.  They do everything much better, and he then is compared, so he shouldn't do that; he should stick to his own music.

BD:    What is next on the calendar for Ernst Krenek?

EK:    I just finished today
this very daya string trio.  It which was commissioned by the Alban Berg Foundation in Vienna, and I just finished the last measure today.

BD:    Does it give you a sense of satisfaction the day you finish a piece?

EK:    Yes, that's a great satisfaction, indeed, and at the same time I am sorry it's finished.  There is nothing to do.  I wish I had some other projects on hand which I could go into.

BD:    Throughout your composing career, have you generally worked on one piece at a time, or have there been several pieces going at once?

EK:    That depends; usually on one piece.  Occasionally it may have happened that I have worked on two pieces, but it's not usual.  About fifteen years ago or so, I started writing a piece of music not from the beginning.  I started maybe in the middle or so, and I didn't know then how it would hang together.  But it came gradually together and I think that's from the experience of electronic sound.  When I create electronic music, I can start and stop; measure 1, measure 2 and then measure 3.  One makes sounds and puts them away.  It takes a long time to make one piece of sound, and when it's done one puts it away.  Then one makes another one, and gradually creates a number of elements of sound by this process, and then brings them together gradually.  That appeals to me, so I use this method in my writing music on paper.

BD:    I want to thank you for all of your music, and for all of the work you have done.  I also want to especially think you for spending the time with me this evening. It's been most gracious of you.

EK:    It was a great pleasure.  I enjoyed every minute of it


© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on January 18, 1986.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1990, 1995, and 2000.  A copy of the unedited audio was given to Yale University, as part of their Oral History American Music archive.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.