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Ernst Krenek; Avant-Garde Composer Revered Abroad


Ernst Krenek, whose avant-garde compositions ranged from piano sonatas to television operas to jazz-flavored romanticism, has died in a Palm Springs hospital near his home. He was 91.

Although relatively unheralded in his adopted land, he was lionized in his native Europe.

Krenek, who came to the United States in 1937 and had lived in the Palm Springs area since 1947, composed more than 240 works, wrote 16 books and was rewarded with dozens of gold medals and other honors throughout Europe. He died Sunday of respiratory ailments, it was reported Tuesday.

He was considered one of the century's masters of the 12-tone system and his later compositions were written primarily in serial style.

Probably his most famous work is the epochal opera "Jonny Spielt Auf" ("Johnny Strikes Up") a semi-parody of a free-spirited black jazz violinist--a beloved scoundrel in the age of the flapper. It has been performed in more than 100 cities around the world and translated into 18 languages.

The opera, composed in 1925-26, featured bawdy jazz themes surrounded by the raucous realities of automobile horns, train whistles and other sounds of the time.

It was hailed at its 1927 premiere in Leipzig, Germany, where its impact was so great that an Austrian brand of cigarette was named for it. The work has since been sung around the world by such vocalists as Kirsten Flagstad and Lawrence Tibbett.

Martin Bernheimer, The Times music critic, writing of it after a revival in Long Beach in 1986, said the opera "can be described as dissonant-romantic. There are lots of introspective monologues, lyrical duets, old-fashioned multilayered ensembles. Krenek moved from bleak sentiment to lush indulgence to sarcastic commentary to cartoon distortion with dazzling ease. . . . "

The sweep of Krenek's influence was reflected on his 90th birthday, Aug. 23, 1990, which was marked by a series of celebrations stretching from Stuttgart, Germany, to Little Rock, Ark.

As Los Angeles Times music writer John Henken noted, "considering the collective embarrassment still felt in the local music community over the neglect of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, it is not too much to imagine that such a (composing) hero would be hailed here (in Southern California) as well, were he in residence."

Or as Igor Stravinsky wrote in 1963: "Krenek will be honored one day even at home."

But Krenek long ago had abandoned such hope.

As he wrote for the Newsletter of the Ernst Krenek Archive in San Diego:

"It has been observed that after the demise of personalities who had reached a certain degree of notoriety, a certain lacuna of 30 to 40 years develops in the attention paid to their memory. In my case this lacuna seems to have opened somewhat earlier since, after having spent more than 50 years in this country, I feel like having more or less dropped out of its consciousness."

He had, wrote one critic, "universal respect but limited adoration."

But European stage managers and directors more than filled that void over the years with performances of his one-act operas in Vienna, weeklong festivals of his symphonies in Stuttgart and a production of his opera "Orpheus und Eurydike" at Salzburg.

In 1960 he wrote "Ausgerechnet und Verspielt" (a title Krenek said defied translation) for television. It is a short (85 minutes), nine-scene opera telling of chance, luck and gambling and written in Krenek's sparse, conversational tone.

Krenek was born in Vienna and studied in Berlin, becoming an assistant conductor at opera houses in Kassel and Wiesbaden, Germany, before the acclaimed debut of "Jonny."

He was rehearsing for the debut of his opera "Karl V" in Vienna in 1933 when political opposition developed over its salutatory appraisal of Emperor Charles V and the adulation expressed for Austrian nationalism and Catholicism. Fifty years were to pass before the Viennese saw it.

Frustrated by the political climate of Europe, Krenek came to the United States, where he taught in the East and Midwest before moving to Southern California.

Bernheimer said on learning of the composer's death:

"Ernst Krenek was a tough and glorious anachronism, a thinker in a world that valued emotion above intellect, an adventurer who refused to be typecast, an independent among conformists.

"The Europe that he fled regarded him as a giant of 20th-Century composition. His adopted America tried hard not to notice him, however, and too often succeeded. Although he spent much of his life in Southern California and died in Palm Springs, he enjoyed recognition from Los Angeles' myopic musical Establishment only in those unglamorous areas occupied by academics and modern music specialists."

Survivors include his wife, Gladys Nordenstrom, a fellow composer who studied with him at Hamline University in Minnesota.

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