March 5 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
March 7 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.
March 8 – Sunday at 3:00 p.m.
Static and Ecstatic, Opus 214
(ten movements for chamber orchestra)
Ernst Křenek (1900-1991)
At a Glance
Křenek wrote Statisch und Ekstatisch [Static and Ecstatic] between October 1971 and May 1972 on a commission from Paul Sacher. The composer led the world premiere performance on March 23, 1973, with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. The first performance in the United States took place on January 26, 1975, in Palm Springs.
This work runs nearly 20 minutes in performance. Křenek scored it for a chamber orchestra of flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano, and strings, with a large collection of percussion (snare drum, bass drum, bongos, wood block, tambourine, maracas, claves, cow bell, gong, triangle, guiro, cymbals, xylophone, vibraphone, glockenspiel).
The Cleveland Orchestra is presenting this work for the first time with this weekend’s concerts.
About the Music
Ernst Křenek hit the jackpot in 1927 with his opera Jonny spielt auf [Johnny Plays], first performed in Leipzig and almost immediately thereafter in a hundred other cities. The work’s combination of swooning melodies, a scandalous story, and American jazz was irresistible to the febrile public mood of Germany’s Weimar Republic. Yet its music was atypical for its composer.
Surviving almost the length of the 20th century, Křenek took onboard almost every musical trend the century had to offer. And he wrote an enormous amount of music, not to mention several books and dozens of essays. (He wrote the librettos of most of his operas too.)
The opus number attached to Statisch und Ekstatisch [Static and Ecstatic] — 214 in his numbered works — is indication enough of the unstoppable flow of works from this constantly active and absorbing mind.
If any style could be described as typical of Křenek’s music, serial music — too often derided as “atonal” — is what must be listed. The style originated in Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, was tweaked by Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and later adopted by almost all serious classical composers in the United States in the 1950s.
Křenek was a part of this American flowering, having fled his native Vienna in 1938 and spending the rest of his life in the United States and Canada. He held many teaching posts, at, among other institutions, Vassar College, Hamline College (St, Paul, Minnesota), and Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. He died in Palm Springs in 1991.
Static and Ecstatic was commissioned in 1971 by Paul Sacher, who nobly steered some of the wealth of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche (creator and makers of valium) into supporting contemporary music. As conductor of the Paul Sacher Orchestra in Basel, Sacher commissioned works from almost every leading composer of the 20th century, and quite often led the first performances himself. He also established a foundation in Basel, which houses a remarkably complete collection of those composers’ papers, letters, and manuscripts.
Static and Ecstatic is divided into ten short sections or movements, and was written for a small orchestra with a large array of percussion. Some sections are easily discernible and simply described as “static.” Which parts are “ecstatic,” however, must be left to the listener’s own response.
The static sections have sustained sound, with little movement, while the strongest contrast is with those sections where the instrumental entries sound entirely random and isolated. The notes are not, in fact, random, but are largely determined by patterns of numbers and notes. Křenek was an admirer of Webern’s pointillistic style, where single notes are heard from different instruments, at different registers (high, middle, or low), without melding into anything resembling a melody. At other times, the instruments are entrusted with sequences of notes, with the overall timbre (or orchestration) changing little.
In the fourth section, for example, the piano opens with a series of mysterious clustered chords, and a cello solo is featured. The seventh section is devised like a Bach chorale, the lines of a hymn being interrupted by brief conversations in the percussion or in the strings. The ninth section is broadly static, while the tenth and last section, announced by a snare drum roll, is full of different combinations of speed and sound, including a strong buildup of the full orchestra and passages that might be described as “fairy music,” with two surprising unison notes on the strings and some crash chords on the piano. These may, in fact, be the kind of busy, eventful music that Křenek himself would surely have regarded as “ecstatic.”
—Hugh Macdonald © 2020
Hugh Macdonald is Avis H. Blewett Professor Emeritus of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has written books on Beethoven, Berlioz, Bizet, and Scriabin.