Monday, February 19, 2007
Multicultural, multimedia, and banned
In 1925 New York bandleader Sam Wooding's all-black jazz revue Chocolate Kiddies toured to Berlin (photo above). Among the audience were composers Ernst Krenek and Kurt Weill. Krenek had studied in Vienna under Frank Schreker, and was married Gustav Mahler's daughter Anna for a short while. His compositions include an opera written to a libretto by the expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka.
Chocolate Kiddies inspired Ernst Krenek (photo below) to write his jazz influenced opera Jonny Spielt Auf (Johnny Strikes Up) which was premiered in Leipzig in January 1927, and opened at the City Opera in Berlin ten months later. Jazz was anathema to the ascendant Nazi party due to its African-American origins, but despite this Jonny Spielt Auf achieved major success with audiences across Europe, and was translated into twelve languages. The Center for Jazz Arts describes the opera as having "jazz-infused harmonies, syncopations, and story-lines; an African-American jazz-artist hero (Jonny); interracial romantic story elements; innovative Expressionist and Bauhaus influenced stage sets; and an unconventional incorporation of modern technology into classical opera, such as telephones, radios, and automobiles."
When Jonny Spielt Auf was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1928 the plot was altered so that the promiscuous black jazz band leader who gives the opera its title could be played by a white. But then in a bizarre twist the title role was actually sung by a 'blacked-up' white singer. This prompted the early civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson to say: 'We have in this country colored singers who could masterfully sing that role. I need only name Jules Bledsoe and Paul Robeson.'
Ernst Krenek's name was put on the Nazis' blacklist in 1933. He was based in Vienna until 1938 but was expelled after the Anschluss. He lived in the US until his death in 1991, although in the last decade of his life he spent summers at the Arnold Schönberg House in Mödling, near Vienna. The year after his death in Palm Springs Krenek's remains were transferred to an honorary grave in Vienna.
* The 1993 Decca recording of Jonny Spielt Auf, with Lothar Zagrosek conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, is available through Amazon Germany. There are some brief audio extracts via this link. The slightly more idiomatic Vanguard recording (left) with the Wiener Staatsopernorchester and Lucia Popp is deleted, but is still available from Amazon resellers. Visit the Ernst Krenek Institute website via this link.
Now read more about contemporary music under the Third Reich in Furtwängler and the forgotten new music
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