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Ernst Krenek, Kleine Symphonie (Little Symphony)

This essay appeared in the Cleveland Orchestra's program book for the 2023–24 subscription concert "The Miraculous Mandarin."

It's fitting that a composer of classical music born at the dawn of the 20th century, in August 1900, would come to embrace nearly all of its major musical styles. Over Ernst Krenek's astonishingly prolific seven-decade career, the Austrian composer produced a body of work that emerged from the hyper-expressive world of fin de siècle romanticism before exploring more radical paths of atonality, serialism, electronic music, and the aleatoric style that fascinated artists during the second half of the century.


Unlike many contemporaries who composed with an eye toward posterity — Zukunftsmusik, or music of the future, as Richard Wagner coined it — Krenek was consistently an artist of his time. From a survey of his 200-plus compositions, ranging from operas and ballets to symphonies, string quartets, and solo piano music, one hears Krenek moving in lockstep with the musical evolution of each passing decade. Although he was never part of the avant-garde at any moment in his career, he consistently adapted his style to align with the latest innovations.


But Krenek didn't foresee becoming such a chameleonic composer at the beginning of his career. In his early 20s he had one mission in mind: to write in the style of the late Gustav Mahler, whose titanic, heaven-storming symphonies proved a major milestone in the development of the Austro-German symphony. "I put it down as a note in a diary," Krenek recalled, "to become the successor of Mahler in the field of the symphony."


His quest to assume the mantle of Mahler began in a blaze of glory, with Krenek composing three large-scale symphonies before the age of 23. Encompassing more than two hours of dissonant, expressionistic music, these works fused the jarring parody and banality of Mahler's symphonies with the kinetic rhythms and vivid orchestral colors of another composer Krenek revered, Béla Bartók.


Performances of these early works positioned Krenek as the enfant terrible of contemporary music in Vienna, and he quickly became part of the city's musical elite. He sparred with Arnold Schoenberg on the future of tonality in music. He antagonized his teacher Franz Schreker by producing reams of scores the elder composer found too extreme. He grew close to Alma Mahler, Gustav's widow, and the couple's youngest daughter Anna, whom Ernst wedded in early 1924 — a tumultuous marriage that ended before their first anniversary.


Just as quickly as Krenek's marriage to Anna had dissolved, so too would his desire to uphold her father's writing style. Emotionally distraught by his impending divorce and caught at a crossroads in his bourgeoning career, Krenek embarked on a journey to Paris in the fall of 1924 that would transform his approach to composition.


During his trip, Krenek got to know Igor Stravinsky and was charmed by the members of Les Six, a Parisian composer collective championed by the cultural maven Jean Cocteau. Les Six merged the worlds of the concert hall and the dance hall, producing music that mixed elements of Baroque and Classical style with those of cabaret, vaudeville, and — most intriguing of all to Krenek — American jazz. Krenek's immersion in this hothouse of artistic innovation prompted, in his words, "a complete about-face in my artistic outlook."


"I was fascinated by what appeared to me the happy equilibrium, perfect poise, grace, elegance, and clarity I perceived in the French music of that period, as well as in the relations of French musicians with their public," he later wrote. "I decided that the tenets which I had followed so far in writing 'modern' music were totally wrong. Music, according to my new philosophy, had to fit the well-defined demands of the community for which it was written. It had to be useful, entertaining, practical."


Krenek's epiphany mirrored that of many European artists during the 1920s. From the smoldering ashes of World War I emerged a new wave of musical thought, neoclassicism, which traded in romanticism's excessive emotionality and highbrow complexity for a style that prized objectivity, accessible musical language, and a cool, even whimsical sensibility. Neoclassicism became Krenek's musical focus for the next five years, culminating in his raucous, jazzy Kleine Symphonie (Little Symphony).


Completed in 1928, Kleine Symphonie marks the last of Krenek's neoclassical works and stands in stark contrast to the primal screams woven throughout his early symphonies. As opposed to the large orchestras required of those works, here Krenek guts the orchestra considerably, removing the oboes, French horns, violas, and cellos. The entire string body is composed of just violins, basses, harp, and — in a nod to the instruments so beloved by Cocteau and the Parisian bohemians — a group of mandolins, banjos, and guitar.


But rather than eschew every element of the symphonic tradition he was distancing himself from, Krenek attempts to reconcile past and present. Kleine Symphonie follows the three-movement structure of the 18th-century symphony, but Krenek turns this traditional form on its head by introducing hallmarks of 1920s music: a saucier approach to harmonic dissonance, the spiky rhythmic distortions he admired in Stravinsky and Bartók's music, and iridescent rainbows of instrumental color that speak to European culture's feverish obsession with le Jazz Hot.


Krenek's playful mixing of old and new begins in the first bars of the introduction, where he introduces three elements that will drive the first movement's action: a series of Mozartean fanfares; a jagged melody that emerges from the gravelly contrabassoon; and jaunty dance rhythms that quickly accelerate, plunging us into the main body of the movement. Melodic fragments fly across every corner of the orchestra, where dizzying changes in character abound — from jazzy woodwind syncopations to sinister martial figures in the trumpets and drums, and the quivering hum of mandolin and banjo. Oom-pah figures in the low brass and percussion evoke the raucous music of the dance hall, rushing the music along as Krenek's harmonic tricks tickle the ear. Rather than give listeners the ecstasy of a bright, brassy finish, the music quietly disappears like the final plume of smoke from a cigarillo.


The central movement is built around an obsessive ostinato in the guitar and harp, written in a set of changing asymmetrical meters that prevent the music from ever finding a stable groove. Over this foundation a series of instruments take turns singing a minor-key aria teeming with bluesy arabesques — first in the clarinet, followed by trumpet, bassoon, and finally, the captivating combination of flute and trombone.


For the finale, Krenek delivers a deliriously spirited rondo, in which the primary melody — first introduced in the bassoons — is repeated throughout, always giving the ear clear anchor points as the rowdy music traverses new territories of harmony and rhythm. Dominated throughout by the repetition of hammer-like chords that call to mind the fierce dissonance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the music builds to a fury of sound. Strings and percussion persist with their ferocious ostinato, flutes and clarinets spit out rapid-fire scales that act like gale-force winds swirling around the orchestra, as this little symphony marches headfirst into its cheeky, high-octane conclusion.

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