When you listen to a piece, or watch a movie, or go to a play or opera, shouldnít you think about it afterward, if itís to have some significance for you? For instance, the other night I watched the movie Stage Beauty, about an actor who played womenís roles right during the English Restoration when all of a sudden Charles II decreed that women could perform on stage. No more work for him. In spite of a rather formulaic plot, lots of interesting dialogue was bantered around about ìthe artistî and gender roles. Iíve been thinking about the film since, and repeating some of the bon mots (ìWhenever weíre about to do something truly horrible, we say that the French have been doing it for a long timeî). Memory and repetition.
Now, if a piece of music can be said to make an impact on you, beyond just thinking about it, shouldnít you also be humming snatches? Or at least approximating a ìla la laî when youíre telling a neighbor why you liked it? For millennia music was passed along orally. Homerís tales went from storyteller to storyteller. Plays were passed from actor to actor. If people couldnít tell their neighbor a couple of the best lines in something theyíd just heard or seen, then the Joneses surely must have wondered if it was really all that hot. Memory and repetition.
Twentieth-century classical vocal music, on the other hand, doesnít tend to be very hummable. Not like something by Rodgers or Kern or Berlin or Sondheim (well, generally hummable). How many college freshmen run in and tell their roommate, ìI just heard this great piece! Pierrot lunaire!î ìCan you hum a few bars?î It may make an impact, but if we canít reproduce any of it, how significant is it to us? We canít all sing ìDi quella pira,î but most of us can la la la la-la-la-la-la the opening line. Do we have to be able to hum a few bars for a piece to be significant? Perhaps this decline and fall of hummability is one reason for the current abyss between the public and classical music. Memory but not repetition.
Ravel is hummable. And Poulenc. Is hummability in modern music one of those truly horrible characteristics of French composers? Britten is hummable only some of the time: ìO beauty, o handsomeness, goodness …î Still thinking about the gender roles, apparently. Berg: we donít usually think of him as a hummable composer, but his early setting of ìSchliesse mir die Augen beideî sticks in my resonators for some reason. Othmar Schoeck, the very under-appreciated Swiss composer of many beautiful songs: I can hum almost all of his Hesse setting ìIm Nebel.î Maybe because the words mean something to me, in addition to my liking their musical setting. Thereís another setting of the same poem by the Austrian Gottfried von Einem, but I canít hum that one; itís tonal, but it just isnít as significant to me.
So now to Krenek. I can hum one snippet of Krenek, from his jazz opera Jonny spielt auf. But Krenek moved on from his jazz style to a more expressionist style, heard in the two cycles in this recording, to serialism, then to an individualistic post-serialist style. Passages of these songs are very Romantic, in the style of, say, Berg, but Krenek puts his study of Schoenberg to good use; the vocal lines tend to be angular, and triads are the new dissonances.
The other issue with these songs, and with all songs, is the text. The first set are based on poems by Karl Kraus, the voice of early-twentieth-century Vienna through his editorship of the journal Die Fackel. Kraus was very influential on other literary and artistic types at the time and for a decade or two following, but he seems awfully dated nowadays, more so than Wilhelm Muellerís poems when we hear them sung to Schubertís music. Krenek wrote his own poems for the second set: ìthe artistî again, the dark night of the soul, etc., etc. Iím not going to argue that it helps in remembering and repeating a song if itís happy (ìIm Nebelî gives the lie to that argument), but, God, so many twentieth-century songs are so dreary! Lorenz Hart may have been a cynic, but then we are ìBewitched.î And itís always a danger when a composer thinks he or she should write both words and music (Richard Rodgers didnít have much luck with this). It encourages them to say in 45 minutes what they should have said in 15.
So, taking this admonition about prolixity to heart, I will urge devotees of the twentieth-century lied to add this disc to their collections, even though you probably wonít be able to hum the best bits later. If you know Krenekís operas of the twenties, these songs show how he made his way to his later important works like the opera Karl V, the ravishing choral work Lamentation Jeremiae Prophetae, or the later piano sonatas, championed by Glenn Gould. The performances are first rate by all concerned; soprano Hanna DÛra SturludÛttir brings a particularly beautiful voice to the first set of songs. I may not be able to hum my favorite passage, but I certainly would be inclined to listen to her performance again. Maybe in this post-oral-transmission age, thatís the best we can hope for nowadays from memory and repetition.
David E. Anderson
image_description=Ernst Krenek: Lieder
product_title=Ernst Krenek: Lieder
product_by=Liat Himmelheber (mezzo soprano), Hanna DÛra SturludÛttir (soprano), Axel Bauni (piano), Isabel Fernholz (piano)
product_id=Orfeo C 123 041 A [CD]