Ernst Křenek

On 22 May 1938, the 125th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth, the Reichsmusiktage (Reich Music Days) officially opened in Düsseldorf.  This was a long-planned and carefully orchestrated event, intended to show both Germans and the international community that the musical arts were thriving under the Nazi regime.  New works by leading 'Aryan' composers were premiered, and the programme was dominated by the works of great German composers from Mozart to Wagner and Bruckner.  In addition to the wide range of performances and lectures, the Reichsmusiktage also marked the opening of the Entartete Musik (Degenerate music) exhibit, organised by Hans Severus Ziegler.  Modelled after the previous year’s successful exhibit of Entartete Kunst (Degenerate art), the exhibit was intended to show the cultural degradation and moral threat posed to the nation by Jewish and other ‘degenerate’ musicians.  The category of ‘degenerate’ was difficult to define, in music as much as in the visual arts, but the dominant criteria for inclusion in Ziegler’s show were race and ‘modernism’.  The advertisement for the exhibit showed a black jazz musician with the features of an ape, playing a saxophone and wearing a Jewish star.  Perhaps ironically, the composer whose opera was the source of this image was neither Jewish or black; rather, it was the Catholic Austrian Ernst Krenek, whose enormously popular opera Jonny spielt auf (Jonny Strikes Up) became the inspiration for Ziegler’s nightmare of musical and racial degeneration.

Ernst Krenek was born in Vienna in 1900, and studied music in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin, with Franz Schreker among others.  Deeply embedded in the cultural world of Weimar Germany, Krenek was friends with the greatest musicians of his day, and enjoyed a brief marriage to Gustav Mahler’s daughter.  His jazz-inspired opera Jonny spielt auf was one of the most popular and widely performed compositions of the period, touring all over Europe and the United States.

In his early years Krenek was not a modernist, but later started using Schoenberg’s 12-tone system.  His musical alliance with Schoenberg, his brief marriage to Mahler’s daughter, and above all his opera, convinced many Nazis that he must, somehow, be Jewish.  Having already fled the increasingly reactionary environment of Germany in 1928 for his homeland, in the early 1930s the composer responded to the political crisis by re-asserting his faith in Catholicism as a supranational religion and his faith in Austria as a supranational state.  His first work in the 12-tone system, the opera Karl V, was conceived as anti-Nazi, pro-Austrian and Catholic.  Commissioned by the Vienna Opera, Karl V was completed in 1933, but under pressure from Hitler’s supporters its scheduled premiere was cancelled.  In dire economic straights, the composer emigrated to the United States.

Unimpressed with the American lifestyle and cultural scene, Krenek had an initially difficult time.  His early concerts were unpopular, and a teaching appointment ended in humiliation when suspicious colleagues got him fired in 1942 for his allegedly ‘communist’ modernist leanings.  Despite the difficulties and restrictions of America, Krenek managed to establish a strong modern music scene in the small Minneapolis college of Hamline, before moving to California in 1950.  Happy in the warm weather, and living in the Los Angeles area where both Schoenberg and Stravinsky had settled earlier, he secured a steady income for himself through teaching and composing.  His operas remained far more popular in Germany and Vienna than in the land that inspired his masterpiece Jonny spielt auf.  Krenek died at the age of 91 in California.


Kater, M.H., 1997. The Twisted Muse: Musicians and their Music in the Third Reich, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Perle, G., 1993. Krenek. The Musical Quarterly, 77(1), 145-153.

Prieberg, F.K., 1982. Musik im NS-Staat, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.