Krenek spielt auf?

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Sunday, February 10, 2019

On today’s date in 1927, at the Neues Theater in Leipzig, a new opera had its premiere performance. It was entitled “Jonny spielt auf” or “Johnny Strikes Up the Band,” and was the work of a Viennese composer named Ernst Krenek. Ostensibly, it tells the story of a Negro jazz band leader named Jonny, who steals a valuable European violin, but in symbolic terms it deals with both the role of music in society and the conflict between the artistic traditions of the old and new worlds.

Krenek’s jazzy score was a tremendous success. In its first season it was produced at 42 opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York. By 1929 the libretto had been translated into 14 languages. Its overwhelming success made the opera’s “Jonny” a pop icon and household name and provided Krenek a comfortable cushion of financial security.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany and Austria, however, Krenek’s security evaporated. For the Nazis, his opera was a prime example of what they termed “degenerate art,” and its composer wisely chose to emigrate to America, where he became a citizen in 1945. Krenek taught at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie and Hamline University in St. Paul before eventually settling in California, where he died in 1991 at the age of 91.

The music Krenek wrote during his long life covers a wide range of styles, but even though he composed twenty operas, five symphonies and four piano concertos, he remains best known as the creator of “Jonny” and his “jazz” opera from 1927.