The hermeneutic for understanding (and hopefully enjoying) Austrian/American composer Ernst Krenek’s music is the realization that his style is diverse. Virtually, every ‘ism’ in 20th century music can be discovered in his massive catalogue. This ranges from post-Romantic scores to electronic music, by way of atonality, serialism, neo-classicism, jazz, and even aleatory techniques. It is just a question of knowing the aesthetic of the work in hand. And one ought to remember that his musical style began to synthesise several of these elements towards the end of his life.
The Toccata and Chaconne is a big work by any standards, at nearly 25 minutes. It had its origins in a joke designed to fool musicologists and music critics. Krenek, and his friend the pianist Eduard Erdmann, created a subtitle for this piece: über den Choral ‘Ja ich glaub’ an Jesum Christum’ (on the chorale ‘Yes I believe in Jesus Christ’). There is no such old Lutheran melody, merely a pattern of words Erdmann made up to help him memorise the music. Yet, the title stuck. The liner notes quote the composer: “We anticipated that they of course would not bother to investigate whether any such chorale existed nor become suspicious on account of the utterly unchorale-like melody which consisted of wide skips and chromatic progressions, and would indulge in remarks on my treatment, or mistreatment, as the case may be, of the ‘well-known’ chorale. It was not hard to predict that in this calculation we were absolutely right.”
The Toccata and Chaconne tends towards atonality. This powerful work explores a wide variety of moods. Despite the joke, it could well do much to encourage a timid listening public to come to terms with a musical style now at least a century old and still detested by many ‘music lovers’. And there was a follow-on. From the same ‘chorale’ Krenek created a Little Suite, op.13a, presenting the melody in several formal constructs – Allemande, Sarabande, Gavotte, Waltz, Fugue and Foxtrot. I guess the joke was carried to the extreme here. As Krenek recalled: “Those hostile towards new music were unanimous in condemning me for the blasphemous idea of dragging the sacred theme through the gutter of dissolute, obscene jazz rhythms, after having been defiled by the ‘cacophonous’ orgies of atonality.” Unfortunately for the composer, this jest was later to cause him problems with the German authorities. As for the music, this is a lovely suite. Full of delicious clichés and parodies, it is entertaining from the first note to the last – provided one knows the gag!
The Two Suites, op.26 were dedicated to the great pianist Artur Schnabel. The movements in these suites are not given titles, only tempo instructions. Krenek does not deploy wit here so much as a serious reflection on modern dance forms. Out go the sarabande and the gigue, in comes the Foxtrot, the Charleston and the Tango. Yet, the ethos of these dances is explored: there is virtually no pastiche. This music is serious rather than flippant. Both Suites are worthy of the attention of contemporary pianists.
Of all the works on this CD, the Piano Sonata No.5, op.121 shows the composer doing his own thing. It was written in 1950, when the intelligentsia in Darmstadt and other centres of learning were endeavouring to evacuate music of any tonal references and attempting to organise every aspect of compositional technique by integral serialism. What Krenek has done in this Sonata is to create a serial work that is tightly controlled by the tone row. But he has not gone to the extent of total organisation that characterized the music of, say, Pierre Boulez at that time. Despite my best endeavours, I have never really got my mind around integral serialism. I understand (to a certain extent) how it is done but I do not ‘get it’ as a form of musical expression. I imagine that precious few composers use this methodology these days. The whole project has passed into history as a lost cause. (Naturally, I stand to be corrected on this last statement!)
To quote from the liner notes again: “Thus, notwithstanding its tautness of musical organisation, the Sonata avoids the total pre-organisation of musical material that characterises the music of Boulez of this time. There are, indeed, allusions both to the thematic dualism of nineteenth-century sonata form, and to traditional tonality itself (especially through the emphasis of the interval of a third, and through the use of scalar passages on the ‘white’ keys of the piano across all three movements).” Krenek’s Sonata is a success, because his innate musicality has overcome the demands of the process. He has created a work of art that uses total organisation but at socially distanced length! And a good piece it is too.
The final work on this CD is Sechs Vermessene, Op. 168. The title can be literally translated as Six Measures. Yet the ethos of the work may require a subtler interpretation. ‘Vermessene’ can mean ‘measured’ (as in restrained or thoughtful) as well as ‘self-willed’. These pieces do deploy integral serialism. This means that not only are the notes derived from the 12-tone series, but rhythm, dynamics, and density. Around the time that Krenek wrote the [pece, composers were beginning to experiment with aleatory music. Many felt that integral serialism has reached an impasse. The liner notes explain: “Each untitled piece explores in epigrammatic fashion a rarefied aspect of musical structure: not only pitch but also rhythm and even pitch-density are subject to serial organisation.” Without the score and the tone row it is difficult to work out what is happening. But is appears that Krenek has crossed the line from complete control into improvisation. These noticeably short pieces are often quite beautiful (in their own way) and can also be seen to nod towards free jazz.
I enjoyed every piece on this imaginative exploration of Krenek’s piano music. I have, alas, not heard Volume 1 in this cycle (review). Peter Tregear’s liner notes make essential reading: I have relied on them heavily for my assessment of this disc. Ernest Krenek certainly has a sympathetic campaigner in Ukrainian-born pianist Stanislav Khristenko.
I understand that only the Zwei Suiten, op.26 is a first recording. It is my loss that I have not heard these pieces in other versions. Sadly, it would seem unlikely that this piano repertoire will feature in many piano recitals in the United Kingdom. I look forward to further volumes in what I hope will eventually become a complete cycle of Ernst Krenek’s piano music. Meanwhile, I must get myself up to speed with this rewarding composer’s catalogue of music.
- John France (musicweb-international)