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Ernst Křenek
Schott Promotion / Walter Boje

Ernst Křenek

Country of origin: Austria
Birthday: August 23, 1900
Date of death: December 22, 1991

About Ernst Křenek

'In any case, I believe it is an excellent exercise for every composer of serious music to try and write a hit tune every now and then. The feeling for precision, for a line which ‘sits’ well, for clear, comprehensible, undiluted and catchy formulations of an idea are better sharpened in this genre than anywhere else.' (Ernst Krenek)

With over 240 works created between 1917 and 1989, Ernst Krenek, born in Vienna on 23 August 1900, ranks among the most prolific composers of the 20th century. His oeuvre encompasses numerous compositional movements of his time, earning him the reputation as "one-man history of twentieth-century music" (Glenn Gould). Krenek's literary accomplishments are equally impressive, with over 1,000 essays to his name.

Krenek's early compositions bore the strong influence of late Romantic polyphony and of his teacher Franz Schreker, who had taught him at the Vienna Music Academy since 1916. In 1920, he followed Schreker to the State Academy of Music in Berlin, along with some of his fellow students. In this new environment, and under the influence of well-known figures like Ferruccio Busoni, Hermann Scherchen, Eduard Erdmann, and Arthur Schnabel, the 20-year-old soon emancipated himself from his teacher and began composing freely atonal works with expressionist tones. Krenek gained early recognition with his String Quartet No. 1 Op. 6 and his first two symphonies Op. 7 and 12, establishing himself as a leading figure of the German avant-garde alongside Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill.

However, Krenek did not adhere to the radical approach of his early works for long. After moving to Winterthur, Switzerland in 1923 at the invitation of the prominent music patron Werner Reinhart, his style evolved towards neo-classicism. At this time, the influence of Igor Stravinsky and his Pulcinella Suite, which Krenek heard in Winterthur on 19 December 1923, had a profound impact on him. The most significant and successful work of this period was his Concerto Grosso No. 2 Op. 25. However, it was soon eclipsed by his opera Jonny spielt auf (1926), which brought Krenek worldwide fame.

The opera marked the beginning of his neo-romantic period, influenced by the music of Franz Schubert. From 1925 to 1927, he worked as an assistant to Paul Bekker, director of the Kassel State Opera. The sensational success of Jonny spielt auf had both positive and negative effects on the composer. While many music critics, fellow composers, and supporters of his avant-garde works did not forgive him for the popular success and the more tonal style of his "jazz opera", large part of the audiences showed little interest in Krenek's more modern pieces. Even the fact that, starting with his opera Karl V. Op. 73, he turned to dodecaphony in the early 1930s, did little to change this dilemma.

With the rise of the Nazi regime, Krenek's music was boycotted as "degenerate art," Jonny spielt auf criticized as "Negro opera" and Karl V. removed from the programme of the Vienna State Opera even before its world premiere in 1934. After two trips to the USA and Austria's annexation to Nazi Germany, Krenek finally emigrated to America in 1938 and became a US citizen in 1945.

In the USA, Krenek earned a living mainly by giving numerous guest lectures and through teaching activities at various universities, including serving as head of the Music Department at the School of Fine Arts at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. There, he met the composer Gladys Nordenstrom, whom he married in 1950. In his compositional work, Krenek turned to serial music in the 1940s and, living in Los Angeles, also explored electronic music from the 1950s. Some of the most notable works of those years include the choral work Lamentatio Jeremiae prophetae (1941), the "Cantata for Wartime" Mitternacht und Tag (1943), and the opera Pallas Athene weint (1955). In 1966, Krenek moved to Palm Springs, California, where he spent his final years until his death on 22 December 1991.

Since 1985, Vienna has been awarding the Ernst Krenek Prize every two years as part of a composers’ competition. Krenek himself received numerous awards and honours, including the Music Award pf the City of Vienna (1955), the Grand Austrian State Prize for Music (1963), the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1965), the Bach Prize of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art (1975), and the Grand Decoration of Merit of the State of Salzburg (1990). He was awarded the honorary freedom of Vienna (1980) and New Orleans (1984) and was appointed honorary member of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) (1986).