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Ernst Krenek's Recollections of Schreker in Berlin

by Peter Tregear
posted 8 August 2005

This paper was delivered to the conference ‘Thwarted Voices: Franz Schreker and his Pupils in Berlin (1920–1933)’ at the University of London , Sunday–Monday, 2–3 July 2000


This paper examines Ernst Krenek’s recollections of Schreker as a teacher, as retold through both published and private sources. Cordial and deferential to begin with, by the end of 1921 their relationship had collapsed, and along with it much of Krenek’s initial respect for Schreker as both teacher and composer. Krenek’s views later softened, and the imprint of Schreker’s style can easily be traced through much his later oeuvre. But the breakdown nevertheless brought to the fore significant differences in attitude between the two men over their understanding of the nature and extent of the aesthetic ‘responsibility’ of the composer as a social agent, indeed over their understanding of modernity itself. In attempting to provide something of a context for these differences, the paper will consider issues of personality and environment, not least the impact of Schreker’s move to Berlin , suggesting how the contrasts between Vienna and Berlin might have served to promote disquiet between master and pupil.

Ernst Křenek’s involvement with Schreker as a pupil of composition extended from 1916 to 1921, encompassing Schreker’s move from Vienna to Berlin . For a composer born in 1900 these were to be formative years of instruction and aspects of what one might call the ‘Schreker style’ were to remain present in Krenek’s compositional manner for the rest of his long productive life.(1) But the relationship between the two men, cordial and deferential to begin with, ended in a nigh complete breakdown. I wish to suggest ways we can interpret this breakdown, which points not only to the peculiarities of Krenek’s personal and stylistic coming-of-age, but also reflects more profound generational differences concerning the nature and function of modern art itself. Furthermore, I argue that these differences were accentuated by the contrasts between not only between the cultural but also the very physical environments of Vienna and Berlin .

Not just a prolific composer but also a prolific writer, Krenek’s recollections of his compositional studies with Franz Schreker extend across several public and private sources and many decades. The most important published documents are his Selbstdarstellung (Atlantis Musikbücherei, Zürich, 1948), and the more recent Im Atem der Zeit (Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg, 1998), both written shortly after the Second World War. Krenek was also a gregarious correspondent, and his many letters from Berlin to his parents, now held in the Stadt- und Landesbibliothek in Vienna , provide a contemporary, and often candid, additional primary source.

Křenek was a precocious youth, his particular aptitude for composition leading him to Schreker’s classes at the Imperial and Royal Academy for Music and the Performing Arts in Vienna in 1916. For the next two years, Křenek attended his Gymnasium in the morning and classes in the Academy in the evening. Quite the youngest in the class a this time, Křenek clearly enjoyed the company of his more mature contemporaries, including Max Brand, Karol Rathaus, Wilhelm Grosz and Alois Hába, as much as he enjoyed, at least to begin with, the attention of one of Vienna’s most famous musical celebrities.(2) It was a remarkable cohort by any standards, and the group soon developed a youthful self-confidence which Schreker found uncomfortable.

His reputation as a ‘modernist’ aside, Schreker’s teaching concentrated in large part upon instilling in his students a firm grounding in the traditional disciplines of tonal counterpoint. This ‘nuts and bolts’ approach was something for which Krenek remained ever grateful. Schreker’s teaching was, as Krenek remembered it, ‘vaguely delineated by the landmarks set up by Debussy, Max Reger, Richard Strauss, and perhaps Scriabin’.(3) This was, Krenek believed, the generally accepted image of what modernism was in Vienna at this time, one that still fitted into the orthodox boundaries of what music was meant to be, not overly shocking or absurd, not questioning the fundamental premises of the western musical tradition.

But external events soon encouraged Křenek to begin questioning the validity of such a conception. The death of the Emperor Franz Joseph I and the end of World War One brought to Vienna , as Krenek recalled, an overwhelming sense that an age was coming to an end. For those who, like him, had been lucky enough to avoid direct contact with the horrors of the battlefield it was, indeed, the coming of peace which proved catastrophic. The Empire that had previously appeared so stable was suddenly a republic, and a tenuous one at that. Austrians were now divided between those who exalted in their new-found freedoms and those who saw the collapse of traditional systems of social order a calamity of unparalleled proportions.(4)

Of a naturally conservative temperament, Křenek avoided direct involvement in the political upheavals that followed the end of the war, and instead was drawn into what he considered to be the sympathetic literary world of Frank Wedekind, August Strindberg, and above all, Karl Kraus. Kraus had prominently and courageously opposed Vienna ’s uncritical endorsement of the war through the pages of Die Fackel. But Kraus’ means of protest had extended far beyond merely lampooning the journalistic excesses and recklessness with the truth of the Viennese press. As early as 1914 he had drawn together his anti-war critique and his aesthetic thinking by arguing that there was a direct link between the degrading of traditional literary values and the proliferation of pro-war propaganda and journalese.(5) Art, for Kraus, ‘should be the embodiment of an idea [Gedanke] and not the socially acceptable veil for an opinion’,(6) the idea should grow out of the work itself, not be the result of some imposed artifice.(7)

Although Křenek would not meet Kraus until 1930, these ideas nevertheless had an immediate effect on the young composer. Specifically, he had been introduced to the notion that art could be conceived in terms that extended beyond mere technical competence and the search for novelty: it could have a theoretical and political grounding as well. But such notions were far from Schreker’s classroom in Vienna ; and for Křenek the contrast was stark, and so he came to remember Schreker as ‘not very articulate and intellectually somewhat dull, naïve to the extent of childishness’.(8)

In the post-War haze Křenek had also discovered a liking for expressionist art, for, as he wrote, ‘as far as the cause of progressive art is concerned, a complete collapse of political and social conditions is certainly a powerful promotional factor’.(9) But, to begin with, there was little sign that he was to be more than a mere interested observer of such iconoclastic novelties. In a sense, this reflected the mood in Vienna itself. Austria ’s finances after the war had been placed under the control of the League of Nations and any possibility of a similar entrepreneurial spirit arising out of the chaos after World War Alongside it, any economic, let alone, artistic entrepreneurial sprit quickly suffocated. Circumstances intervened in both Schreker’s and Křenek’s favour when early in 1919 Schreker was invited to become the director of the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin . Schreker encouraged his best composition students to follow him and Křenek, who by Schreker’s own estimation was chief among them, was offered the additional incentive of remission of the first-term fees.

Schreker’s departure from Vienna in 1919 was part of a larger drain of talent attracted by the ‘powerful magnetism of Berlin ’, where, as Krenek put it, ‘almost everyone could be sure of arousing attention and making a quick buck’.(10) Amid the political instability of the emerging ‘ Weimar ’ Republic there had arisen in its capital a culture that seemed almost to delight in the often-ludicrous political spectacle that unfolded around it. Indeed, despite the common outsider’s perception of a city constantly on the verge of civil war, Berlin thrived, and – what is more – in a fashion which left Vienna far behind in its wake. Krenek wrote vividly of the contrast between the two metropolises in his autobiography:

Life was unquestionably more expansive and intense than in Vienna , which means that the state of affairs that had existed before the Great War had been turned upside-down […]. While Austria emerged completely broken from the war and numbed by the awful blow which it had received, Germany at once transformed the effect of the disaster into a new impulse and showed an astonishing amount of vitality and vigour. The fact that Germany had lost the war was intentionally and unintentionally displaced in the consciousness of the public by the prevailing will to make everything yet larger and better than it had ever been before. Those who have not lived in Germany can understand this phenomenon only with difficulty because one went to great trouble to present to the outside world a picture of an impoverished country on the edge of economic breakdown, torn to pieces by riots and political differences. Despite this, Germany recovered during this time in a supremely astonishing way, notwithstanding the crisis caused by the invasion of the Ruhr area, and the madhouse of inflation. Before, during and after this apparently catastrophic process it was easy in Germany for anyone to find money for new enterprises, for whom novelty appeared to open up and promise bold, unprecedented developments.(11)

Křenek thus found Berlin refreshingly free of the post-War, post-Empire, insecurities of Vienna ; to him it seemed it had simply got on with life, and with the business of post-War reconstruction. Even local artists such as George Groz, for whom the internal contradictions of the city were an everyday experience, acknowledged how easy it was to be taken in ‘by the gay whirl, by the abandoned night-life, by the so-called freedom of expression and the flowering of the arts’.(12) Unlike Vienna , Berlin had emerged from the War with a future, not as the stuffy bastion of a lost imperial order, but as a leading light of modernity. And this was quite a different modernity than had emerged in Vienna before the War. Simply speaking, Berlin was becoming attuned in ways that Vienna could never be to a new urban landscape, one born not of medieval Europe but of the rhythms and physical forms of American metropolis. Vienna as a city conists of a core, the medieval town, surrounded by three concentric rings: the Ringstraße district, the inner suburban zone, and the outer suburbs, each clearly defined in relation to the others, as well as having distinct street networks and a different character of building. In Vienna one knew one’s place, both physically and metaphorically, in relation to an old social order; the Habsburgs might have gone, but the architectural shell of an ancient aristocracy remained the city’s epicentre. In Berlin, by contrast, it was all to easy to get lost in the grid-based expanses of new urban developments, or blinded by a multitude of flashing neon lights lining the large public boulevards, or – indeed – lost among the waves of immigrants and tourists who flooded to the city to join in or marvel its success. So it was for Siegfried Kracauer that it seemed that ‘whoever stays for any length of time in Berlin hardly knows in the end where he really came from’.(13)

In the midst of this ‘sharp atmosphere’(14), Křenek’s musical horizons expanded dramatically. Whereas in Vienna , he had felt content to be an observer of any radically new art, now he felt empowered, if not compelled, to become an experimenter himself. It was as if here too new maps would have to be drawn. Concurrently, his dissatisfaction with Schreker’s teaching only grew. Initially this perceived limitation concerned technical matters, such as Schreker’s avoidance of any confrontation in his class with so-called ‘free atonality’, and also Křenek’s frustration at Schreker’s frequent absences from Berlin to attend premieres of his own works. But this dissatisfaction also came to encompass both an historical and an ethical dimension.

Schreker’s view of musical progress was not outwardly so different from that of Schoenberg’s, that is, essentially a process of historical inevitability. But Křenek came to believe that Schoenberg had proved ‘much more articulate and more courageous in living up to the conclusions he had derived from his view of history’.(15) But he steadfastly refused to proffer an integrated artistic methodology; rather, his aesthetic judgments were often limited simply to ‘Das klingt nicht gut’’(16). What in Vienna had been Schreker’s strength, his refusal to impose a particular ‘school’ of musical composition upon his students become now a troubling weakness. In the middle of all the shock of the new that was post-War Berlin , Křenek longed for the force of personality of Kraus or Schoenberg, one who would be prepared to make pronouncements about the future of art in this brave new world of ameliorated or re-landscaped traditions. By comparison, Schreker’s style was too easily reducible, or so it seemed, to one of mere effect, the sort of art that Nietzsche had once described as ‘one more expression of the physiological overexcitability pertaining to everything décadent’.(17) Objective truth seemingly gave away to subjective intuition, illusion and deception. By extension, Schreker’s distinctive aural chiaroscuro came to be inferred also as a moral one and he lacked the intellectual standing and verbal savvy to defend himself. (18) But now, in the chaotic freedom of Berlin , Křenek wanted his artistic choices more than ever to be founded on some form of moral certainty.

Křenek was eventually to find such guidance through one of the many contacts he was able to make as a talented pupil in Berlin , the Latvian pianist Eduard Erdmann. Four years his elder, Erdmann was an articulate and scholarly champion of modernism, and immediately filled the role of intellectual mentor that Křenek had found lacking in Schreker. Erdmann was at root a musical formalist, who directed Křenek towards a Schoenberg-like appreciation of advanced atonal music, in so far as it fulfilled the demands of the musical material.(19) The contrast with Schreker’s style and methodology could not have been more acute; Křenek ceased to think of music ‘as an agglomeration of interesting and startling effects derived from the operatic stage, and began to see it as a formidable construction completely free of sentimental connotations, a law unto itself’.(20) Imbued with this new creed, he later wrote to Erdmann:

We create things which could turn out one way or perhaps another. This must not be. To wish to give up certainty and conviction to inspiration is to choose a cheap excuse and a disgraceful escape route. Absolute certainty must be found in the material itself, this is our irrevocable intellectual responsibility.(21)

Křenek drew both specific technical grounding and general encouragement for his new approach to conceiving the task of the composer from Ernst Kurth’s Grundlagen des Linearen Kontrapunkts, a text he had first seen in a bookcase in Schreker’s teaching rooms in Vienna in 1917.(22) Principally a study of Bach’s counterpoint, the approach to counterpoint expressed therein seemed to offer a theoretical rigour which Křenek felt Schreker had neglected; so taken was he by the book that Křenek had, in 1921, written to Kurth seeking guidance in teaching counterpoint.(23) Many years later, he recalled how

I read the disquisition of the Austrian-Swiss musicologist with rapt attention, and it turned my entire musical orientation inside out. I was fascinated by the notion that music was not a vague symbolization of ‘Gefühl’ [emotion] instinctively conjured up into a pleasant sounding matter, but a precisely planned reflection of an autonomous system of streams of energy materialized in carefully controlled tonal patterns.(24)

The contrast between this and, for instance, Paul Bekker’s praise of Schreker in an article written in 1920 is stark. Here Bekker writes: ‘What is new and refreshing about Schreker is the naiveté with which he translates his stage vision into material appearance without speculation, without consciously engaging in any ethical or confessional tendencies’.(25)

Easily convinced, at least at first, of both the technical and ethical superiority of the new music, Křenek developed an aggressively atonal style. In quick succession he produced a series of substantial ground-breaking works, written without Schreker’s knowledge. It was no surprise, then, that his professional and personal relationship with Schreker soon collapsed. In 1921, at the age of 20, Křenek launched himself as a fully professional composer.

His break with Schreker and his reasons for it are reflected, of course, in the broader trend of the younger generation of composers towards a new ‘call to order’, now referred to as ‘neue Sachlichkeit’. And yet, even by 1924, at the very same time this new movement was becoming in itself something of a new orthodoxy, elements of Schreker’s particular musical style and compositional method were to reassert themselves in Křenek’s music. It seems that, in fact, Křenek himself was aware that the composer’s task could not be so simply reducible down to an opposition between Klang and Idee. Indeed, Křenek begins to make the struggle between these two ideas about music, and – by extension – about modernity itself and our place in it, part of the very subject matter of his operas. The character of the composer Max in Jonny spielt auf (1926), for instance, is by the composer’s own admission an auto-biographical parody of the artist who over-intellectualises or internalises his art. Likewise the contrast between the King of France and the Emperor Charles V in Karl V (1933) is also a thinly veiled discourse on the problem of the composer himself, negotiating the pitfalls of art too simply defined as Klang or Idee.

Were Křenek’s criticisms of Schreker’s approach to composition therefore somewhat unfair, or even a little disingenuous, reflecting perhaps more personal than aesthetic concerns? Perhaps, but I think one can be as sympathetic to Křenek’s difficulties with his teacher as to the fate of Schreker himself. For Křenek, the problem of what art was and what it ought to be was always going to be much more fraught and contestable than for someone born in 1878. He had come of age into a social framework (post-War Austria ) and then to a city ( Berlin ), which had seemingly lost all its fixed points of cultural reference. As a consequence, what exactly it was to be a composer was a much more difficult question to answer, and his apparent inconsistency in response throughout the 1920s only reflects the complexity of the issues which he saw his art as having to address.

Without a context for Křenek’s challengingly restless musical style in such a way, he too has become something of a ‘thwarted voice’. Indeed, the reception of both Schreker’s and Krenek’s music has suffered from the continued currency of an exclusive definitions of modernism, an ironic fate given that both men were in their own ways were so concerned to explore the limits of what was conventionally conceived of as ‘modern’. Their respective fearlessness as musical explorers in part explains the vehemence that was to be directed towards them by the National Socialists. But it also remains the persuasive basis for their call upon our attention today.

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(1) Křenek dropped the hacek in his surname after his arrival in the USA .

(2) Křenek, Im Atem der Zeit, pp. 134–36. For a digest of student recollections of Schreker as a teacher, cf. Christopher Hailey, Schreker, Oxford University Press, Oxford and London , 1991, Chapter 3, pp. 47–65.

(3) Křenek, ‘Circling My Horizon’, in Horizons Circled, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1974, p. 20.

(4)Cf. Alfred Diamant, Austrian Catholics and the First Republic , Princeton University Press, Princeton , 1960, pp. 116–17.

(5) ‘In dieser grossen Zeit’, Die Fackel, December 1914, p. 1; quoted in Frank Field, Last Days of Mankind, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1967, p. 138. This moral attitude to the use of language was to be mirrored in Heidegger’s lectures on metaphysics to the University of Freiburg in 1935, in which he argued that ‘words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those whose write and speak. It is in words and language that things first come into being and are. For this reason the misuse of language in idle talk, in slogans and phrases, destroys our authentic relation to things’, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Ralph Manheim, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1959, pp. 13–14. The impossibility of sustaining a ‘pure’ relationship to language was later to become the central theme of the composition of Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron.

(6) ‘Das geschriebene Wort sei die naturnotwendige Verkörperung eines Gedankens und nicht die gesellschaftsfähige Hülle einer Meinung’ – Kraus, Schriften, Band 8: Aphorismen, ed. Christian Wagenknecht, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1986, p. 111.

(7) ‘Ansichten pflanzen sich durch Teilung, Gedanken durch Knospung fort’ – Karl Kraus, ibid.

(8) Křenek, Im Atem der Zeit, p. 121.

(9) ‘In den Vordergrund trat der Expressionismus nach der Katastrophe von 1918, als einerseits der Instinkt der Öffentlichkeit, die voller Enttäuschung alles Vergangene für die gegenwärtige Notlage verantwortlich machte, sich allem zuwandte, was ‘modern’, neu, gewagt und progressiv erscheint, und als anderseits die Unsicherheit des postrevolutionären Daseins dem Publikum die Augen für die phantastische, unberechenbare Lebhaftigkeit dieses neuen Stils öffnete. Was die fortschrittliche Kunst betrifft, so wird sie durch den vollkommenen Zusammenbruch der politischen und sozialen Verhältnisse sicher stark gefördert’; Křenek, Im Atem der Zeit, p. 181.

(10) ‘[D]ie gewaltige Anziehungskraft trockengelegt, die von Berlin ausging, wo fast jeder sicher sein konnte, Aufmerksamkeit zu eregen und schnelles Geld zu machen’. Křenek, AdZ, p. 230. Alfred Einstein similarly went to great pains subsequent to the rise of Nazism to stress the extraordinary vitality in Germany that had existed after World War I. ‘The years which followed 1918 were years of confusion and experimental striving; the good and the bad; success and failure; but they were years which marked the highest development of German operatic art and the activity of the concert-room’; Alfred Einstein, ‘The Present State of Music in Germany’, The Musical Times (1933), p. 977.

(11) ‘Dieses Leben war zweifellos extensiver und intensiver als das in Wien, womit die Situation, die vor dem großen Krieg geherrscht hatte, ins Gegenteil verkehrt worden war [...]. Während Österreich vollkommen gebrochen aus dem Krieg hervorging und von dem schrecklichen Schlag, den es erhalten hatte, betäubt war, verwandelte Deutschland die Wirkung der Katastrophe sofort in einen neuen Impuls und zeigte ein erstaunliches Maß an Vitalität und Spannkraft. Die Tatsache, daß Deutschland den Krieg verloren hatte, wurde im Bewußtsein der Öffentlichkeit absichtlich und unabsichtlich von dem vorherrschenden Willen verdrängt, alles noch größer und besser zu machen, als es je gewesen war. Wer damals nicht in Deutschland gelebt hat, kann dieses Phänomen nur schwer verstehen, weil man sich große Mühe gab, der Außenwelt das Bild eines verarmten Landes am Rand des wirtschaftlichen Zusammenbruchs zu präsentieren, das durch Aufruhr und politische Differenzen in Stücke gerissen war. Trotzdem erholte Deutschland sich während dieser Zeit auf höchst erstaunliche Weise, ungeachtet der Krise durch die Besetzung des Ruhrgebiets und des Tollhauses der Inflation. Vor, während und nach diesem anscheinend katastrophalen Prozeß war es in Deutschland leicht, für jedes neue Unternehmen Geld aufzutreiben, das neuartige Wege zu öffnen schien und kühne, beispiellose Entwicklungen versprach’ – Křenek, Im Atem der Zeit, pp. 229–30.

(12) George Grosz, George Grosz: An Autobiography, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998, p. 115.

(13) Quoted in Alexander Richie, Faust’s Metropolis, HarperCollins, London, 1998, p. 407.

(14) Křenek, Selbstdarstellung, Atlantis, Zurich, 1948, p. 10.

(15) Křenek, ‘Circling My Horizon’, in Horizons Circled, p. 20.

(16) Křenek, Im Atem der Zeit, p. 157.

(17) Quoted in Peter Conrad, Modern Times, Modern Places: Life and Art in the 20th Century, Thames & Hudson , London , 1998, p. 22.

(18) Such an aversion to impressionism received its most forthright presentation in Walter Niemann’s Die Musik seit Richard Wagner, Schuster & Loeffler , Berlin , 1913, later published as Die Musik der Gegenwart (1922). For Niemann impressionist music offered ‘nothing for the soul. The psyche becomes physical, the physical impression becomes physiological and pathological’ (p. 216; quoted in Hailey, Schreker, p. 41). Křenek unflatteringly describes Schreker in his biography as ‘not very articulate and intellectually somewhat dull, naïve to the extent of childishness’ – Im Atem der Zeit, p. 121.

(19) Although they did not meet formally at this time, Schoenberg knew and respected Křenek’s early atonal compositions. Eduard Steuermann recalled Schoenberg saying of Křenek: ‘That is a man whose mother tongue is music’ (quoted in Gunther Schuller, ‘A Conversation with Steuermann’, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 3, 1964–65, pp. 22–35.

(20) Křenek, ‘Self Analysis’, New Mexico Quarterly, 23 (1953), p. 10.

(21)‘Wir machen Dinge, die so, aber auch ein bißchen anders sein könnten. Das darf nicht sein. Die Sicherheit und Überzeugungskraft der Inspiration überlassen zu wollen, hieße eine billige Ausrede und einen schimpflichen Notausgang wählen. Es muß die absolute Sicherheit im Stoff gefunden werden, die unabänderliche intellektuelle Verantwortung’ – letter from Křenek to Erdmann dated 13 July 1924 (quoted in C. Bitter and M. Schlösser (eds.), Begegnungen mit Eduard Erdmann, Erato Press, Darmstadt, 1968, p. 263).

(22) Křenek, Im Atem der Zeit, p. 195.

(23) Letter, Křenek to Ernst Kurth, 13 April 1921 ; quoted in Lee A. Rothfarb, Ernst Kurth as Theorist and Analyst (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), p. 225.

(24) Křenek, ‘A Composer’s Influences’, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 3, 1964, p. 36.

(25) Paul Bekker, ‘Franz Schreker’, Baseler National-Zeitung, 28 May 1920, reprinted in Klang und Eros, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart, pp. 20–22, and quoted in Hailey, Schreker, p. 110; my emphasis.

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NOTE: Held at SOAS University of London, Sunday 2nd July - Monday 3rd July 2000. The papers from the conference "Thwarted Voices: Franz Schreker and his Pupils in Berlin (1920–1933)" have not been published in hard copy. They will now appear in this online journal, to meet the growing interest in Schreker and the rise in performances of Schreker’s works such as the Opera "Die Gezeichneten" at the Salzburg Festival this Summer.

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