Getty Images: Ullstein Bild.
In my post on Erich Korngold, I mentioned Richard Taruskin’s 1994 essay “The golden age of kitsch”, where he reviews CDs of Korngold’s Das wunder der Heliane and Ernst Krenek’s 1937 “jazz opera” Jonny spielt auf [Jonny goes to town, or Jonny strikes up]. So here I’ll introduce the latter.
Alex Ross (The rest is noise, Chapter 6 “City of nets: Berlin in the 20s”) provides background.
For a little while in the late 20s, Krenek acquired certifiable, almost Gershwin-like celebrity. […] Like so many young Austrians and Germans, he yearned to break out of the hothouse of Romantic and Expressionist art, to join the milling throngs in the new democratic street.
Taruskin’s typically polemical essay is worth citing at some length.
The Nazi concept of artistic degeneracy was incoherent and opportunistic, and so is Decca/London’s marketing strategy. It took very little to run afoul of the Nazis then, and it costs very little to deplore them now. Their opposition, especially when it was passively incurred, conferred no distinction, unless their approval is thought to confer distinction on the likes of Beethoven or Wagner. There are no lessons to be learned from studying the Nazi index of banned musical works, which, like the Nazi canon, contained masterpieces, ephemerae, kitsch, and trash, covering a wide stylistic and ideological range. […]
So just this once let’s forget the Nazis. They had nothing to do with Krenek’s opera or Korngold’s opera. They didn’t even ban them. They didn’t have to ban them, for both works had fallen out of the repertory by 1933. […]
What makes these first [CD] releases fascinating is not what they have to say about the Nazis but what they have to say about the artistic atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, which had a thriving operatic economy—the last truly thriving, that is, consumption-driven, economy in the history of opera. Composers wrote for a market. Their work was in demand. They strove not for eventual immortality but for immediate success. Producers could recoup their investment in new works and sometimes exceed it, so they sought out new works. Premieres were more noteworthy than revivals, and commanded the interest of the press.
Was this a degenerative ecology? Did it lead to exploitative “populist” formulas, or to weak imitation? No, it was synergistic; it led to experimentation and to emulation, with the aim of surpassing previous standards of novelty and distinction.
He goes on to note the great success of operas like Berg’s Wozzeck (for Lulu, see here). But even more popular was Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf. Still, Taruskin describes what strikes me as a common trait of WAM until the late 19th century:
Sudden eclipse was part of the bargain. An opera had its place in the sun if it managed to earn one, and then it moved out of the way.
He attributes the waning of this nurturing operatic ecology to the talkies:
The movies did not only preempt the operatic audience. At a profound level, the movies became the operas of the mid- to late 20th century, leaving the actual opera houses with a closed-off museum repertoire and a specialised audience of aficionados, rather than a a general entertainment public hungry for sensation. With the advent of the sound film, opera found its preeminence as a union of the arts compromised and its standing as the grandest of all spectacles usurped. […]
Cinematic transport to distant times and climes was instantaneous. Evocative atmosphere, exotic or realistic, could be more potently conjured up on film than on the best-equipped operatic stage, and the narrative techniques of the movies were unprecedentedly flexible and compelling. […]
But wait, isn’t there another difference, a bigger one? Opera, however, popular, remains an art, while movies, or at least Hollywood movies, are a mass-produced and mass-reproduced medium and amount only to kitsch. Or so we are told. I am not so sure.
The operatic world from which Korngold and Krenek emerged, like the wider world of art in the period following the Great War, was a bitterly divided world. The division was not simply between stylistic radicalism and conservatism, or between a liberating iconoclasm and a hidebound tradition, though that is how a stubbornly Whiggish historiography continues to represent it. Nor was it primarily a division between a senile romanticism and a new classicism, as so many artists of the time liked to say. It was, rather, a difference in the way that art was viewed in relation to the world.
Citing the early Soviet critic Boris Asafyev:
An authentic modern music would have to be “nearer to the street than to the salon, nearer to the life of public actuality than to that of philosophical seclusion”,
Taruskin goes on to contrast the operas of Korngold and Krenek:
Though they are being marketed now under a crude common rubric, they embodied antithetical values.
Unlike Korngold, “the master of musical sacroporn” (an epithet that Taruskin also applies to Turangalîla!), Krenek embodied the new genre of Zeitoper, “now-opera”:
“Now-opera” was not simply a matter of contemporary action, of references to current events and American pop-genres (shimmies, tangos, blues, Negro-spiritualen) and pop-timbres (sax, banjo), though these were the grounds for Jonny’s immediate audience appeal and its subsequent (misleading) reputation as a “jazz opera”. Its main novelty was irony: the clash between the ephemeral content and the “classical” form. And this implied another, more fundamental clash: in place of the music of timeless inner feeling, its unabating fluidity of tempo dissolving chronometric reality, there was now to be a music that proceeded just as unabatingly through through busy ostinatos at what Krenek at one point labelled “schnelles Grammophon-tempo”, emphasising uniformity of physical and physiological motion and banshing psychology. It was a music of corporeal elation and spiritual nihilism, a tonic for the tired and the disillusioned, for people who felt betrayed by the lie of transcendence. It was, in short, the music not of America but of “Americanism”. And so the now-opera was not really sachlich after all but still märchenhaft, embodying not a new reality but a new fairy tale, a new allegory and, yes, a new kitsch.
In Jonny spielt auf, the first now-opera, the allegory is overt and sledge-hammer-subtle. The protagonist is not the title character—a negro band-leader vaguely modeled, it seems, on Sam Wooding, whose Chocolate Kiddies Revue swept Germany in 1925–26—but Max, a Central European composer of traditional transcendental bent.
As the glacier-like Max pursues banjo-playing operatic diva Anita (an evocation of Anna Mahler, to whom Krenek was briefly married), Jonny attempts to steal the enchanted Amati violin of Daniello, a slick, matinee-idol classical virtuoso.
A tiny leitmotif, just a descent through the interval of a fourth to a downbeat, pervades everything. (Anyone who has heard Ravel’s “jazz”-tinged L’enfant et les sortilèges of 1925 will recall this very distinctive idea as the “Maman!” motif. Did Krenek?).
Finally Max, his glacier persona melting, sets off with Anita for America, whither Krenek followed in 1938.
Here’s a playlist of excerpts:
Actually, the opera is far from the accessible populism of The threepenny opera (1928), and jazz plays a very minor role—not least because when Krenek “conceived his libretto, he had never met a Negro or an American”. What he set out to provide was “a hope-inspiring Pied Piper, or a latter-day Papageno, as alluringly Other as possible”.
The everyday, the ephemeral, and the phenomenal […] could function convincingly within the world of opera only as an exotic import. By its very presence, it was exceptional, numinous, and threatening. So now-opera was stil, opera. It could only be a special case, a subgenre; and it could not escape the fate of the genre as a whole.
Taruskin finds the opera dubious politically too:
The freedom celebrated at the end of Jonny spielt auf is only the freedom to seek new masters, to submit to a new hypnosis.
He notes the tendency to forgive both the operas of both Korngold and Krenek their cynicism.
The indulgence, it seems pretty clear, is purchased courtesy of the Nazis. Take away their seal of disapproval, and we are left not with easily dismissed “degeneracy” but with decadence, which is more real, more disquieting, and much harder to get a grip on.
This was the downside of the thriving consumer culture that, in our day, with opera a walking corpse, seems at first so enviable. But this was a culture of frisson and titillation posing as a culture of liberation and uplift.
Going rather far in imputing a moral purpose for “serious music” (“The danger of Taruskin”?!), he suggests:
However it may tickle our sense of irony to contemplate it, and even if we choose to excuse its practitioners on grounds of naïveté or sincere bad taste, it entailed a lack of moral purpose that rendered the “serious” arts defenceless against totalitarian rhetoric, and passively complicit in its triumph.
Given Krenek’s hazy acquaintance with the world he was evoking, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the Real Thing (more leads under Clarke Peters’ radio series on black music in Europe): here’s the Sam Wooding band with Shanghai shuffle in 1925 Berlin (leading us nicely to Shanghai jazz):
and the Chocolate Kiddies in 1933:
Note also the post about Jonny spielt auf on the stimulating site Black Central Europe.
* Ross also cites Slonimsky’s fine summary of Max Brand’s Machinist Hopkins (1929) (evoking Stella Gibbons’ spoof synopsis of a Britten opera):
A cuckolding libertine pushes the husband of his mistress to his death in the cogs of a monstrous machine and strangles her when he finds out she has become a promiscuous prostitute, whereupon the foreman, Machinist Hopkins, dismisses him from his job, ostensibly for inefficiency.