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The Krenek Sestinas

poetry by Don Mager

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The Austrian and American composer Ernst Krenek’s (b.1900) career stretched from 1919 to 1990, during which he was a trailblazer in a number of movements including Second Viennese School atonalism, expressionism, neo-Schubertian lyricism, twelve tone serialism, total serialism, and post-serial atonality. Among his 240 opus numbers, is this century’s most sensational operatic triumph, Jonny Spielt Auf (1926); but his most enduring legacy includes the string quartets, piano sonatas, Symphony No.2, Sestina, Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae and the set of remarkable works from his last few years--a final refulgence on the scale of a Haydn or a Verdi.
At the height of his serial period, in 1957, Krenek wrote Sestina Op.161 for soprano and instrumental ensemble. He wrote the text himself in German. Not only did he rotate the final words, but every aspect of the music too: the row, they rhythm, the timbres and the instruments. In 1965, I heard him lecture on this piece And played a tape of it at Syracuse University. I was very impressed. By this point, the European avant garde, especially Stackhausen’s Darmstadt group, vociferously denounced Krenek the theoretician as reactionary; performances of his latest works in Europe were one occasion boycotted by Stackhausen’s disciples.
One of his late works is The Dissembler, Op.229 for baritone and ensemble, text by the composer in English. Some commentators see this statement of the elusiveness of dogmatic position to be Krenek’s artistic credo.
During his last decades, Krenek and his wife lived in the desert outside Palm Springs--a locale they had come deeply to love; but has his acclaim in Austria grew in the post-war era, he visited more and more often, rediscovering his boyhood love of the Tyrolean Alps.


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