Ernst Krenek


Krenek’s career can be seen as a virtual template for the wild fluctuations and extreme expressive volatility of music in the twentieth century.  Though never as widely known or as frequently played as members of the first generation of modernists, in all of its stylistic divergences, Krenek’s music has an individuality and seriousness of purpose matched by few other artists of his day.

Studies and Early Works

Ernst Krenek was born on August 23, 1900 in Vienna, Austria.  His father was an officer in the Imperial Army and Ernst grew up in Vienna where he showed precocious abilities both in music and literature.  Krenek studied piano from the age of six, developing a particular facility for sight-reading, and began studying composition with the Austrian composer Franz Schrecker at sixteen.

After the First World War, during which time he was stationed in Vienna performing relatively light duties, Krenek moved to Berlin where Schrecker had taken a position at the Hochschule für Musik.  In Berlin, Krenek rapidly produced an enormous number of works, including three operas (Die Zwingburg, Orpheus and Eurydike, and Der Spring über den Schatten), four string quartets and four symphonies, along with other chamber and vocal music. This outpouring (Krenek was to remain the most prolific of composers), along with the highly contrapuntal and extremely dissonant nature of his music, established Krenek as the enfante terrible of German music.

Marriage, French Influence, and Jonny spielt auf

In 1922 Krenek met and soon married Anna Mahler, Gustav and Alma Mahler’s oldest daughter.  Their temperaments were quite dissimilar, however, and the marriage lasted less than a year.  In 1925 Krenek visited Paris where the music of Les Sixes was the current trend, and Krenek had the first of several profound stylistic shifts in his career.  Adopting the French school’s light, cool textures and embracing the enormous infusion of American popular and jazz music, Krenek quickly composed the work that made him, albeit briefly, the most famous composer in the world.

Written in 1925, this work, Jonny  spielt auf (roughly, “Johnny plays on”) was set in modern times and told the story of a despairing composer, a great virtuoso, and an African-American jazz musician as a kind of allegory for the emptiness of older European culture and the triumph of the fresh new vitality of the Americas.  “Jonny” was an almost unprecedented triumph all over Europe (though, interestingly, it was something of a failure in America where Krenek’s naive approximation of jazz was looked on somewhat condescendingly by the better-informed New York audience).

Krenek followed up “Jonny” with three more contemporary-themed light operas: Der Diktator (1926), Das geheime Königreich (1926), and Schwergewicht, oder Die Ehre der Nation (1928).  None of these works, however, had anything like the impact of “Jonny,” and Krenek, now back in Vienna, soon underwent another period of stylistic evolution.

Neo-romanticism and the Twelve-tone Method

Following through with his “return” to tonality of the light operas, Krenek became obsessed with the music of Schubert and wrote many lieder and other works aiming to extend the tonal practice and lyric sensibility of his great Viennese progenitor.  In the midst of this “neo-romantic” period, Krenek also became friends with some of the leading figures of Viennese modernism – Alban Berg, Anton Von Webern, Theodore Adorno, and Karl Krauss

Partially due to the influence of these men, but also in response to the growing reactionary current in German culture as the Nazi movement gained strength, Krenek, who had previously made light of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method, took up this approach to composition and remained committed to it for the rest of his life.

The first major work composed in his new idiom was the Grand Opera Karl V based on the life of the great Austrian emperor.  This work was programmed in Vienna in 1933, but the rise of Hitler and his supporters in Austria led to its being cancelled and Krenek’s music, considered “decadent” along with so many other great German artists, became virtually un-programmable.

America and Academic Life

After the Anchluss (the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany) of 1937, Krenek immigrated to the United States like so many other Europeans of the time whose lives were endangered by the rise of fascism.  Krenek held a series of positions at American Schools (the Malkin Conservatory in Boston I 1938-9, the University of Michigan Summer Program in 1939, and Vassar College in 1939-42) until settling in Saint Paul, Minnesota at the tiny Hamline University.  Not surprisingly, during this time Krenek’s output was reduced, but he did compose the major work Lamentation Jerimiae Prophetae (1941-2), as well as write a serious musicological appraisal of the work of Ockeghem and renaissance polyphonic techniques.

Krenek taught at Hamline until 1947, during which time he formed a close association with the famed conductor Dimitri Mitropolous who led the orchestra in the twin cities.  Works from these years include the Cantata for Wartime (1943), Santa Fe Timetable (1945) and the Fourth Symphony (1947).

California and Last Years

Frustrated with the provincialism of Minnesota and fed up with the cold weather, Krenek decided abruptly to quit his post and to move to Los Angeles where he hoped to make his way as a professional composer.  This move ended up being quite difficult and, in economic straits, he did accept further teaching positions.  With the end of the war, he was invited to teach at the summer program at Darmstadt but, even though he was at this point the last of the living pre-war serialists, young composers such as Stockhausen and Boulez had little interest in his music or his views.

Though ultimately he never left southern California, Krenek’s music was virtually unperformed in America.  He was, however, widely lauded and commissioned in Europe and several works from these years, particularly the chamber operas Dark Waters (1950) and The Bell Tower (1955-6) and the fifth and sixth piano sonatas (1950-51) are considered equal to his earlier compositions.

In the early 1950s Krenek developed a close friendship with Stravinsky.  This relationship was instrumental in Stravinsky’s embrace of the twelve-tone method and many of Stravinsky’s procedures in his late period bear a greater similarity to Krenek’s than to the works of the Second Viennese School composers proper.

Krenek remained productive and prolific until the end of his life. His last major work was an oratorio entitled Opus sine nominee (1980-8).  He died a few years later at home in Palm Springs on December 22, 1991.


Bowles, Garret: ‘Krenek [Křenek], Ernst’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 19 November 2006), <>

Stewart, John L.  Ernst Krenek: The Man and His Music.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991.