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Ernst Krenek: Lieder
19 Nov 2005

KRENEK: Lieder

While I was listening to this recording of Krenek’s song cycles Durch die Nacht (op. 67) and Gesänge des späten Jahres (op. 71), I started to think about art and memory.

Ernst Krenek: Lieder

Liat Himmelheber (mezzo soprano), Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir (soprano), Axel Bauni (piano), Isabel Fernholz (piano)

Orfeo C 123 041 A [CD]


When you listen to a piece, or watch a movie, or go to a play or opera, shouldn’t you think about it afterward, if it’s to have some significance for you? For instance, the other night I watched the movie Stage Beauty, about an actor who played women’s roles right during the English Restoration when all of a sudden Charles II decreed that women could perform on stage. No more work for him. In spite of a rather formulaic plot, lots of interesting dialogue was bantered around about “the artist” and gender roles. I’ve been thinking about the film since, and repeating some of the bon mots (“Whenever we’re about to do something truly horrible, we say that the French have been doing it for a long time”). Memory and repetition.

Now, if a piece of music can be said to make an impact on you, beyond just thinking about it, shouldn’t you also be humming snatches? Or at least approximating a “la la la” when you’re telling a neighbor why you liked it? For millennia music was passed along orally. Homer’s tales went from storyteller to storyteller. Plays were passed from actor to actor. If people couldn’t tell their neighbor a couple of the best lines in something they’d just heard or seen, then the Joneses surely must have wondered if it was really all that hot. Memory and repetition.

Twentieth-century classical vocal music, on the other hand, doesn’t tend to be very hummable. Not like something by Rodgers or Kern or Berlin or Sondheim (well, generally hummable). How many college freshmen run in and tell their roommate, “I just heard this great piece! Pierrot lunaire!” “Can you hum a few bars?” It may make an impact, but if we can’t reproduce any of it, how significant is it to us? We can’t all sing “Di quella pira,” but most of us can la la la la-la-la-la-la the opening line. Do we have to be able to hum a few bars for a piece to be significant? Perhaps this decline and fall of hummability is one reason for the current abyss between the public and classical music. Memory but not repetition.

Ravel is hummable. And Poulenc. Is hummability in modern music one of those truly horrible characteristics of French composers? Britten is hummable only some of the time: “O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness ...” Still thinking about the gender roles, apparently. Berg: we don’t usually think of him as a hummable composer, but his early setting of “Schliesse mir die Augen beide” sticks in my resonators for some reason. Othmar Schoeck, the very under-appreciated Swiss composer of many beautiful songs: I can hum almost all of his Hesse setting “Im Nebel.” Maybe because the words mean something to me, in addition to my liking their musical setting. There’s another setting of the same poem by the Austrian Gottfried von Einem, but I can’t hum that one; it’s tonal, but it just isn’t as significant to me.

So now to Krenek. I can hum one snippet of Krenek, from his jazz opera Jonny spielt auf. But Krenek moved on from his jazz style to a more expressionist style, heard in the two cycles in this recording, to serialism, then to an individualistic post-serialist style. Passages of these songs are very Romantic, in the style of, say, Berg, but Krenek puts his study of Schoenberg to good use; the vocal lines tend to be angular, and triads are the new dissonances.

The other issue with these songs, and with all songs, is the text. The first set are based on poems by Karl Kraus, the voice of early-twentieth-century Vienna through his editorship of the journal Die Fackel. Kraus was very influential on other literary and artistic types at the time and for a decade or two following, but he seems awfully dated nowadays, more so than Wilhelm Mueller’s poems when we hear them sung to Schubert’s music. Krenek wrote his own poems for the second set: “the artist” again, the dark night of the soul, etc., etc. I’m not going to argue that it helps in remembering and repeating a song if it’s happy (“Im Nebel” gives the lie to that argument), but, God, so many twentieth-century songs are so dreary! Lorenz Hart may have been a cynic, but then we are “Bewitched.” And it’s always a danger when a composer thinks he or she should write both words and music (Richard Rodgers didn’t have much luck with this). It encourages them to say in 45 minutes what they should have said in 15.

So, taking this admonition about prolixity to heart, I will urge devotees of the twentieth-century lied to add this disc to their collections, even though you probably won’t be able to hum the best bits later. If you know Krenek’s operas of the twenties, these songs show how he made his way to his later important works like the opera Karl V, the ravishing choral work Lamentation Jeremiae Prophetae, or the later piano sonatas, championed by Glenn Gould. The performances are first rate by all concerned; soprano Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir brings a particularly beautiful voice to the first set of songs. I may not be able to hum my favorite passage, but I certainly would be inclined to listen to her performance again. Maybe in this post-oral-transmission age, that’s the best we can hope for nowadays from memory and repetition.

David E. Anderson

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