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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions
Richard Taruskin

The Zeitoper, where all of these Weimarish notions intersected and reached their peak, was ushered in, on 10 February 1927, by Jonny spielt auf (“Johnny goes to town”). The hit of the decade, if not the century, it made its composer, Ernst Krenek (1900–91), a precocious Czech-born citizen of Austria who had already written four operas, a European celebrity at twenty-six, and financially independent for the rest of his long life. During the next season, 1927–28, Jonny had forty-five productions and 421 performances as far west as Antwerp and as far east as Lemberg (now L’viv in Ukraine). By 1929 it had been performed on three continents, and its libretto had been translated into fourteen languages. “Now-opera” deserved its name: it had a prominence in the cultural life of its time matched only by the French and Italian grand operas of the nineteenth century and never equaled since, for opera soon lost its status as mass entertainment. (Krenek went on to write sixteen more operas, of which only one had more than a single production.)

The title character, a Negro jazz musician who wins the girl from a dreamy postromantic German composer and steals a magic life-giving violin from a glamorous virtuoso who perishes under the wheels of a boat-train headed for America, was an obvious allegory of the New World’s triumph over the old in the wake of the exhausting war. Its “Americanism” was essentially a call to “lighten up” and live in the present. Many European conservatives were more sensitive to its implied endorsement of racial miscegenation, taking the opera as yet another symptom of what the pessimistic historian Oswald Spengler, in the title of his 1922 best-seller, called Der Untergang des Abendlandes (“The decline of the west”). Its lean, mean textures and speedy, angular music, alert and twitching with new-world rhythms, were a threat to all traditional Germanic values of “inwardness” and “depth.” Its emblematic sound is that of mechanically reproduced music (an American invention): onstage record players and radios blaring the “American” dance music associated with the title character. One of the opera’s main leitmotifs is a shimmy (Krenek wrongly labeled it a “Blues”) called Leb’ wohl, mein Schatz—roughly, “Bye-bye, baby”—played in breakneck fashion by the orchestra at what Krenek calls a schnelles Grammophon-Tempo (quick record-player tempo), leaving absolutely no time for subjective reflection (Ex. 9-15).

“Americanism” and Media Technology“Americanism” and Media Technology

ex. 9-15 Ernst Krenek, Jonny spielt auf, “Leb’ wohl, mein Schatz”

An even more ironic clash between the “classical” form of a Zeitoper and its ephemeral content pervades Hindemith’s Neues vom Tage of 1929. The title, literally “News of the Day,” is what newsboys shouted on German city streets; the English equivalent would be “Read all about it!” or “Extra! Extra!” Its subject, however, is not the news of any particular day, but the idea of contemporary celebrity, sensation-mongering, publicity, and instant comment—an idea that has only grown more timely as the news media have grown ever quicker and more ubiquitous. A divorcing couple, Eduard and Laura, attract the attention of the press, which follows them everywhere, even into the bathroom. (Act II begins with the presumably naked Laura in an onstage bathtub, singing an aria about the modern miracle of indoor plumbing.) Laura and Eduard hire publicity managers and restage their quarrel nightly for the benefit of a gawking public. In the process they fall in love again, but the public insists on its own satisfaction and they must divorce as promised. The coloratura bathtub aria (Ex. 9-16) is a good example of Hindemith’s brand of musical satire, in which traditional operatic forms are held up in a kind of mutually ridiculing tandem with the shallow stuff that passes for contemporary news in an age of burgeoning media.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 28 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 28 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009007.xml