Ravel and Krenek: Cosmic Music Makers

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The idea of this cosmic music maker had been with me as far back as I can remember, but it was during my sojourn in Paris that my eyes became really opened to the possibilities of this Pied Piper who strikes up the note of the times for mankind. And this music maker must also be a child of the times, he must wander among us as one of us.
. . . ERNST KRENEK, 1927

Instead of simultaneity we could also use the concept of a meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved.
. . . CARL JUNG, "On Synchronicity," 1952

From its 1927 premiere until the present, Ernst Krenek's Jonny Spielt Auf has been regarded as a "jazz opera." Despite this critical label, there seem to be some striking similarities between Jonny Spielt Auf and Maurice Ravel's 1925 "Fantaisie Lyrique," L'Enfant et les Sortilèges. There is a distinct relationship between the Krenek and Ravel compositions, a unity which exists in spite of the difference of nationality and stylistic expression of the two artists. This article will sample aspects of the cultural and artistic climate, present structural elements of the two operas, and examine specific musical and thematic resemblances between the operas in order to establish that Ravel and Krenek created similar works of art and that these consistencies are to be derived from the generalized age during which they lived and created.

Although the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and World War I served to emphasize the national rivalry between France and Prussia, by the period of the Twenties many shared conditions helped to create similar atmospheres for Krenek and Ravel. The Great War had disrupted the quality of life in Europe; with the signing of the armistice people were eager to transcend national differences and usher in a period of peace and normalcy. The organization of the League of Nations was an expression of the desire to form a united Europe. At the same time, post war inflation and political instability resulted in a general alienation. People were dissatisfied with their urban reality and fed these feelings into a yearning for a fantasy world. Before the war, life seemed more serene; new machines and technological inventions were fascinating for their new possibilities, yet threatening because of the break they represented with the earlier style of life. New art forms such as the film contributed to and reflected the increased speed and stark pace of the modern age. Finally, the prevailing artistic tendency of Modernism expressed the impatience with older, more traditional artistic forms and sought to derive from the traditional forms new manifestations which would represent the artistic form of the age.

 

Ravel and L'Enfant et les Sortilèges

The first performance of this "Fantaisie Lyrique" in two parts in the Theater of Monte Carlo, on March 21, 1925, was received very well; it was at its production in the Paris Opéra-Comique on February 1, 1926, that people were shocked by the duet of the cats, the fox-trotting teapot and the casual manner and lack of pretension.

The libretto, which deals with a child's retreat into the world of make believe, is from a work by Colette, who had chosen the composer from a list of several possible collaborators. Ravel received the text in 1918, but did not actually begin writing until 1920.

The first act is set in the child's room. Refusing to do his homework, the child defies his mother's reprimand and continues on a destructive rampage, breaking his tea cup, yanking the pendulum out of the clock, antagonizing the animals, teasing the cat by pulling its tail, tearing off the wallpaper, propelling his books into the air and finally retreating into his armchair only to find out that all these inanimate objects come to life and berate him for his atrocious behavior. A fairy tale princess materializes to delicately reprimand the child for his distressful behavior, for by destroying the storybook her fate is now unknown. The child vows to defend her but she is quickly abducted by Sleep and Night. Mr. Arithmetic and his gang of numbers appear from the pages of the school book to harass him.

Rejected by both of his cats, the child has meandered into the garden for the second act. Beautiful and serene surroundings metamorphosize and another trial begins. Trees, dragonflies, bats, frogs, and squirrels all chastise him for his cruelty and, in the confusion, a squirrel is accidently injured; the child ties a ribbon around the wound indicating the return of his goodness. The animals help the child toward the house; and he cries out "Mama!" as the curtain falls.

 

Krenek and Jonny Spielt Auf

Premiered in Leipzig on February 11, 1927, this opera hurled Krenek into worldwide recognition and sent many opera patrons scurrying to purchase tickets for its many performances.

Having written his own libretto, Krenek begins the opera with Max, a composer, gazing at an immense Swiss glacier when Anita, an opera diva, enters the scene. They become lovers but must be quickly separated, for she is to create a role in Max's new opera in Paris. Before she leaves she becomes involved with Daniello, a famous violin virtuoso, also residing in the hotel. It is this instrument which Jonny, a black jazz band leader and lover of Yvonne, the chambermaid, craves for his own. As a result of intricate relationships among the characters, Jonny manages to appropriate the violin. When Anita breaks off their relationship, Daniello revenges himself by giving her ring to the maid to give to Max.

The second act opens with Max awaiting the return of Anita. The delivery of the ring and the theft of the violin coalesce, with Max landing in jail and a heartbroken Anita leaving for America. Jonny, embodying the freedom and spontaneity of the contemporary jazz spirit, solves all the problems: he rescues Max from jail, restores his reputation, and becomes the rightful owner of the symbolic violin after scheming Daniello's death under the wheels of a locomotive. Before the final curtain, the train station clock is transformed into a giant globe upon which Jonny jubilantly plays his violin while the rest of the world dances hypnotically at his feet.

 

Structure

Ravel's intention was to create a composition in the style of an American operetta such as Vincent Youmans' Tea for Two. The total opera is broken up into twelve encapsulating scenes, with each isolated episode complete as a unit in its musical style (which it frequently parodies) and literary content. The opera is problematical to stage because of the abrupt shifting of action and the difficulties required to produce a singing and dancing table and chair, a vocal grandfather clock, a strutting teapot and cup, a magically appearing princess, a chorus of mathematical digits and a host of other illusions including lamenting trees and personified animals.

The Krenek opera has eleven terse scenes followed by a twelfth called the Apotheosis. Here also, the staging presents a major difficulty. Brusque scene changes accompany this adventuresome work shifting from a Swiss hotel overlooking the glaciers, to a Paris hotel complete with a cabaret, restaurant and lobby, to a train station and finally to a mythical country called America.

The abrupt and rapid pacing of these two operas reflects the technique of the fast cut as it was developing during this time in the newly blossoming art of the cinema.

 

Bruitisme1 as a Metaphor for Technology

Ravel's talent for orchestration enables him to use the standard orchestral instruments for producing unusual timbres needed for the special effects; but despite his resourcefulness with traditional orchestration, he felt the need to incorporate a wind machine, a slide flute and a cheese grater into his expressive repertoire.

Krenek's score becomes more extreme because it contains the standard orchestral instruments used in conjunction with the composer, Max, and the singer, Anita, but he uses a jazz band and its instruments, such as the banjo and saxophone, to "characterize the professional sphere of the protagonist, Jonny."2 He displays even more intrepidity by introducing a loudspeaker, motor car and railroad train complete with sound effect recordings. This represents an attempt to "incorporate technological reality into the form of . . . art and, thus, transform it into a thing of beauty."3

Utilization of mechanical objects and technological devices to subsidize the orchestra expresses the extent to which the world at that time had become dependent upon things: this integration of inanimate forms into the pace of life becomes a distinct part of the thematic expression of both Ravel and Krenek.4

 

The Descending Fourth

The descending fourth interval is particularly characteristic of L'Enfant et les Sortilèges,5 where Ravel uses this interval to embody the child's oppositional tendencies. It appears at the beginning in the orchestra immediately before the mother's entrance where she is about to scold the child (p. 3, mm. 7-8); and repeatedly in the child's part on the word "bad" during his destructive rampage (p. 6, mm. 3-8). In the garden scene, when the child utters "Mama!" on the descending fourth interval, the animals attack him (p. 86, meas. 15); afterwards, when the animals decide his goodness has returned, the orchestra plays a succession of descending fourths (p. 97, mm. 9-11 and p. 98, meas. 1); the opera ends with the child and the orchestra together intoning this interval (p. 101, mm. 7-8).

The overture to Jonny Spielt Auf 6 begins with the sound of a descending fourth interval (p. 3, mm. 1-2). This sound becomes the motivic force behind the character and theme of Jonny who is at first the opposition, but who finally becomes the liberating spirit of this opera. It appears dominantly in the voices of Jonny and Yvonne in their duet in scene three in a pseudo-blues style (p. 44, mm. 942-994); at the closing of Act I (p. 83, mm. 1762-1778); instrumentally in the Apotheosis (p. 200, mm. 2182-2207); in the chorus (p. 201, mm. 2223-2252). Finally, it is played at the end by Jonny on the solo violin atop the revolving globe (p. 210, mm. 2401-2436).

 

Yearning for a Fantasy World: "America" and American Jazz Effects

Ravel's introduction to jazz came partly from his habitual visits to the fashionable "Le Boeuf sur le toit" (a night spot whose atmosphere featured American jazz musicians), and partly from what he learned about jazz indirectly from the sheet music brought back by many musicians returning from America. As a result, in a letter to Colette, the librettist of L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, dated February, 1919, Ravel indicated a desire to change the original Auvergne teapot and cup into "old black Wedgewood singing a ragtime." He continued:

I must confess the idea of making two negroes sing a ragtime in our "National Academy of Music" fills me with joy. . . . Perhaps you will object that you are not conversant with American-negro slang! I don't know a word of English, but I will do as you do and manage it somehow.7

Colette agreed and so there is a delightfully peculiar scene where a teapot and cup use a polyglot of French, English and quasi-Chinese while doing a soft shoe to a ragtime/foxtrot tempo accompanied by a xylophone, woodblock, slide trombone and cheese grater (p. 18, meas. 11 through p. 24). There is also an American-style waltz danced and sung by dragonflies lamenting the loss of a loved one (p. 69 through p. 73, meas. 2).

Krenek has written that at the time when he composed the opera he knew "next to nothing about English or American."8 It was Artur Schnabel who introduced Krenek to jazz by bringing back records and music from his American tours. This vicarious introduction to Americanisms did not stifle Krenek's creativity, but like Ravel he "managed it somehow" and, along with some French phrases to emphasize the exotic romances, the results were incorporated into the opera (p. 29, mm. 690-695; p. 39, mm. 847-849; p. 85, mm. 1784-1785; p. 169, meas. 1776). The alternation between a major third and a minor third is the dominant characteristic in the vocal parts, which lends itself to the belief that Krenek incorporated "blues notes" into his melodic lines. In the jazz band melody and accompaniment (p. 26, mm. 580-600), he alternates between the C-natural and C-sharp. Other examples include Yvonne, when she first sees Jonny (p. 29, mm. 680-681); the duet between Jonny and Yvonne (p. 45, mm. 964-965); the chorus (p. 46, mm. 983-984); Max, alternating between a B-natural and B-flat (p. 136, mm. 1097-1098); Anita's line (p. 173, mm. 1854-1867) when she alternates between an A-natural and A-flat, and later an E-natural and E-flat; Yvonne repeats the same melody a step higher (p. 175, mm. 1890-1903); the chorus again (p. 203, mm. 2250-2251); the instrumental section (p. 207, mm. 2373-2375).

Another jazz technique Krenek uses is syncopation, by placing accents over the notes to be stressed or by using tied notes. Examples occur on p. 150, mm. 1411-1444 and p. 201, mm. 2207-2222. By using the terms "Blues" (p. 44) and "Nigger Lied" (p. 58) he more precisely describes what he wants the music to sound like. Thus in one work indirectly and in the other more explicitly America appears as an idealized fantasy world.

 

Neo-Classicism

Ravel never overcame his consanguinity for the classical genres. This is apparent in the opera where he wrote a short but difficult canon (p. 13, mm. 1-3), and during the passage where the fairy princess sings her line to the contrapuntal accompaniment of a flute (p. 41, meas. 9 through p. 43). In the final scene he displays more of his skill in contrapuntal writing during the chorus of the animals. The obbligato melody played by the oboes in the overture is superimposed on the contrapuntal lines already sung by the chorus (pp. 98 through 101).

Having exhausted his atonal radicalism, Krenek leans toward the Parisian-style neo-classicism from 1925 through 1929 which he regards as a farce and not to be taken seriously.9 He also uses a canonic device on p. 30, mm. 699-706 and p. 32, mm. 740-747. Jonny's spiritual is more in the style of a chorale (p. 128). Contrapuntal passages are found on pp. 179 through 181; p. 205; and p. 208.

 

The Self in Music

Ravel's devotion to his mother led to continued romanticization about her after her death in 1917.

The unwonted vein of sentiment, bordering on sentimentality, running through this score could no doubt be attributed, in the light of what we know about Ravel's exclusive and dominating affection for his mother, to a "mother fixation," combined perhaps with subconscious recollections of his own childhood.10

"Le Belvédère," Ravel's house in the village of Mont-fort-l'Amaury, which he designed after his mother's death, was set in a small garden which contained an assortment of rare Japanese plants. The inside was furnished with Ravel's collection of "bibelots" consisting of crystal and china ornaments, eighteenth-century pseudo-Chinese decor, music boxes, ingenious toys and soon to be added, two Siamese cats, Mouni and Minon. This house itself could have served as the scenery for the opera with its occupants as the characters. The opera's house and garden with their components animated by the forces of fantasy and wish-fulfillment, the idyllic environment combining actual decor and dream, the larger-than-life image of the benevolent mother: all of these facets indicate that L'Enfant et les Sortilèges incorporates Ravel's sentimental attachment to his mother and the house he fashioned to continue that attachment. Even though following Colette's text in the composition of this opera, he was transforming his personal life experiences into artistic form at the same time.

Krenek's opera as well contains elements of his personal life transformed into art; the process of transformation for Krenek is a more conscious and deliberate one than for Ravel. While discussing personal freedom in his operas, Krenek reveals how closely he resembles Max, the composer:

It had been all very well for an inhibited European composer to envy and then to emulate a joyously free and instinctual jazz violinist in Jonny Spielt Auf, for the composer was responsible only for himself and had to find what life he could in his own way.11

This description corresponds to the circumstances in Krenek's life when he left his native Austria to find artistic freedom in Paris. Krenek indeed admits his identification with Max; Max was "an introvert, a problem-ridden composer, and what happened to him was not without autobiographical implication."12

The composers incorporate their autobiographical materials in similar ways. Ravel constructs a polarity between function and dysfunction in the world of nature and obedient and disobedient behavior in the world of man; the child is located in the middle. Krenek, reflecting his Germanic Hegelian philosophical background, constructs a more formal dialectical opposition between the glacier-like morbidity of old Europe and the hot, passionate jazz freedom of the new world; again, the autobiographical figure (Max) is centrally located between the two extremes.

 

Modernism

A persistent. feature of modernism is the use of the quest for meaning, insight or memory. James Joyce's Ulysses, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Ezra Pound's Cantos all contain versions of the classical heroic quest. The characters and the work itself seek to discover the rationale behind their existence, and often the discovery is of an innocence or wisdom which transcends national and cultural boundaries. What matters is human creativity and the unity of human beings. In this respect, both Jonny and L'Enfant are products of the modern age. The child's interior journey toward the higher compassion which he attains at the end marks him as a human "child of the times" (the child is wise), and not the self-centered being he was to begin with. Similarly, Jonny moves freely and exuberantly through the problem-ridden plot of the opera. His exuberance and "jazz spirit" reflect a "wise" approach to life that focuses on human harmony and ignores the strife and disharmony of conflicting nations and personal interests.

Another aspect of modernism is the creator's ironic concealment of his identity behind a variety of stylistic masks. In both Ravel and Krenek this is the case. Many features—neo-classical derivations, jazz influences, oriental motives, Latin derivations, technological effects—are the stylistic masks by which Krenek and Ravel camouflage their creative roles. It is only at the end of both works that the composers remove their disguises and emerge in their stylistic individuality. Ravel reveals his musical self as the orchestra and chorus swell to the discovery of the child's humanity. Krenek, as well, transcends the plot and fashions a symbolic testament to the power of music and himself as its shadowy creator. It is as if part of the point is for the audience to realize that what we have heard was a vast musical game not unlike life itself.

 

Conclusion

"If we define history as the sum total of things past, we have to realize that it exists only to the extent of our knowledge of it."13 So wrote Krenek in 1974. The structural similarities and thematic resemblances between Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilèges and Krenek's Jonny Spielt Auf are significant, not so much in terms of one artist's influence upon the other, but rather, because both Krenek and Ravel were alive and creating during the same historical period. "An idea is not detachable from the soul of the man who begot or received the idea, from the spiritual climate which nourished it. . . . Important ideas are from the start a passionate response to problems which agitate their period."14 What they shared as composers during our modern age—a common historical perspective, a parallel artistic culture, a fascination with new technology, a post-World War I yearning for peace and artistic freedom—underscores the idea that they were both products of their historical contexts just as resolutely as their compositions are products of their individual creative sensibilities. History shapes men, men produce art, art influences history . . . perhaps this concept would appeal to both Krenek and Ravel.15


1The use of noise-making instruments. Donald J. Grout, A History of Western Music (New York: Norton and Co. Inc., 1973), p. 660.

2Ernst Krenek, Horizons Circled (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974), p. 26.

3Geoffrey Green, Literary Criticism and the Structures of History: Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), p. 129.

4A more expansive development of this theme is contained in Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations, ed. H. Arendt, trans. H. Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969). Benjamin had been affiliated with the noted Frankfurt School before the war. Krenek became acquainted with some of its emigré members (Adorno, Marcuse) when he established residence in Southern California.

5Maurice Ravel, L'Enfant et les Sortilèges (Philadelphia: Elkan-Vogel Co., 1932). All quotations refer to this edition, and are incorporated in the body of the text.

6Ernst Krenek, Jonny Spielt Auf (Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1926). All quotations refer to this edition and are incorporated in the body of the text.

7Rollo H. Myers, Ravel: Life and Works (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1960), pp. 58-59.

8Krenek, Horizons, p. 38.

9Will Ogdon, "A Master Composer and a Foremost Musician of Our Time," in Horizons Circled, p. 13.

10Myers, Ravel, p. 209.

11Krenek, Horizons, p. 115.

12Ibid., p. 38.

13Ibid., p. 18.

14Leo Spitzer, cited in Geoffrey Green, Literary Criticism, pp. 111-112.

15The author indicated that Ernst Krenek had read the manuscript for this article and had expressed his approval. Ed.

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