"Hier berührt sich das Zeitkunstwerk mit dem »Ewigkeitswerk«". To what extent was the Zeitoper truly "of its time"?

Bachelor Thesis, 2008

37 Pages, Grade: 1


‘Hier berührt sich das Zeitkunstwerk mit dem »Ewigkeitswerk«’:

To what extent was the Zeitoper truly ‘of its time’?

Although it remains unclear how, when, or where the term was first used, the fitness of the description Zeitoper – ‘opera of the times’ or ‘topical opera’ – seems clear.[1] In its supposed negation of the past, obsession with technology, reliance on jazz idioms, or concern for a new audience, the Zeitoper has been painted as a phenomenon obsessed with modern life in every way. Matei Calinescu was referring to the concept of modernity itself when he wrote of ‘aesthetics of transitoriness and immanence, … change and novelty’,[2] but he may as well, it seems, have been describing attributes of the Zeitoper.

The notion that a particular group of composers positioned one or several of their stage works as somehow suddenly ‘updated’ is misleading, however, and obscures the manifold links between these ‘operas of their time’ and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music history.[3] As shall be seen, many Zeitopern stimulated comparison to a variety of operatic predecessors, from Mozartean opera buffa to Puccini, on first performance; in addition, ties to verismo, Wagner , grand opéra and the thriving neo-classical movement are all strong.

In short, the Zeitoper, ‘with all its disdain for Wagnerian pathos, constitutes much less of a radical break with the past than its up-to-date appeal might have lead one, and has lead many, to assume’.[4] Few have explored the true context of these works from the wider perspective of music theatre and cultural endeavours in the Weimar Republic and abroad, or thought critically about the way they sound in performance rather than their appearance in a score. A thorough demythologisation and broad recontextualisation of the Zeitoper is, therefore, the aim of this dissertation; in an effort for a more authentic evaluation, judicious reference to contemporary music and documentation shall be made throughout.

Susan C. Cook’s now-outdated study on the Zeitoper, doubtless groundbreaking on publication in 1988, has remained an indispensable introduction to the topic. As the first investigation to segregate a small selection of works and re-classify them (no longer operas but the continuation of a jazz tradition, or an offshoot of Kabarett), its argument is narrow, however, and heavily flawed. The author often seems blind to any sense of history or contemporary circumstance: an unwelcome side effect of her attempts to portray the Zeitoper as entirely novel, radical and revolutionary is a veritable distortion of history. The very title of her study – ‘Opera for a New Republic’ – betrays her aim.

Indeed, it is scarcely inconceivable that the absence of subsequent published literature on the Zeitoper – and scholars’ ensuing reliance on Cook’s volume – is culpable for the continued and communal musicological misunderstanding of these operas. Like any generic term, the description is a buzzword implying a distinct phenomenon; in fact, Zeitopern have proved particularly resistant to explicit classification. Cook nevertheless attempts a generic definition: worth quoting as a habitually referred-to source, its overuse of ‘modern’ synonyms is striking:

Zeitopern were obvious expressions, even celebrations, of modern life. Composers tried to incorporate as many attributes of contemporary life into all facets of the operatic production as possible. The libretti were set in the present; characters were typically everyday people or were presented as modern recognisable stereotypes. The action takes place in locales considered either modern or everyday: office buildings, elevators, train stations, cabarets, and private family dining rooms. Along with the modern setting, composers also relied on theatrical properties of the age: characters talk on the phone, play gramophones, take pictures, and shoot movies. The staging relied on up-to-date theatrical and cinematic techniques as composers tried to depict modern life on the stage.[5]

The extent to which this definition has saturated scholarship might be perceived in a 2004 description by Peter Franklin, who, like Cook, makes reference only to urban and mechanical elements, eschewing any mention of musical features.[6] As the aim of this dissertation is to demolish the artificial walls erected by categorisation, no replacement shall be proffered; in any case, most preconceptions of the Zeitoper are ill-founded, thus destabilising any hasty effort to shunt them into a class of their own.

Entire chapters of the book are dedicated to the history of jazz (‘the sound of the new world’[7] ) in France and Central and Eastern Europe; analyses serve principally to outline elements of the music noteworthy for their peculiarity or topicality; though it is clear that the 1920s proved a particularly fruitful period for operatic composition, the only significant reference to other musicians is made, ineffectively and somewhat nonsensically, in the conclusion. The reasoning of Cook’s choice of Paul Hindemith, Ernst Krenek and Kurt Weill (whose apparently archetypical Der Zar lässt sich photographieren is surely immediately invalidated as a Zeitoper by its royal protagonist) as ‘the’ triumvirate of Zeitoper composers remains unexplained, and has further skewed academic coverage of these works. In her efforts to depict these pieces as entirely novel, Cook does them a huge injustice: the past was not only the foundation for the Zeitoper ’s very existence; it also proved an incredibly fertile source of inspiration. As ‘an excavation of … contextual layers’,[8] Cook’s burrowing is evidently lacking in depth.

Claire Taylor-Jay’s survey of the ‘artist-operas’ of Krenek, Hindemith and Hans Pfitzner focuses on the early twentieth century’s prevalent concerns with the relationship between art, the artist, and their place in society. Her account is more successfully contextual than Cook’s, if dubiously so: can Hindemith’s 1937 treatise Unterweisung im Tonsatz, for example, truly be seen as an ‘attempt to integrate himself into a cultural heritage’?[9] Is that how he himself viewed it? Does his music otherwise fall outside tradition? Though the three works on which Taylor-Jay concentrates are spread across a much broader period of history (1917 – 1938), her separate treatment of each of them is ultimately segregatory.

In the book, Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf (1927) is put into the context of the writings of Paul Bekker, a ‘champion of all “new” music’[10] to whom Krenek was general assistant at the Kassel Staatsoper. Bekker was a prolific writer on opera who both published on many contrasting nineteenth-century figures and championed a number of important twentieth-century composers. Though his musicological work has fallen into neglect, Bekker’s programming in Wiesbaden and Kassel (‘works by Schoenberg, Delius, Schreker, Stephan and Busoni in the repertory in addition to operas by Weber, Verdi and Berlioz’[11] ) and outlook (he felt that opera ‘has always and everywhere adapted itself to the prevailing social order’,[12] thus rejecting the notion that Zeitoper were more topical than other works) had an important influence on musical activity in the first decades of the century.

Taylor-Jay, then, demonstrates a broader viewpoint and greater understanding than Cook, but her stance is rather different. The sixteenth-century subjects of both Palestrina (in Pfitzner’s work of the same name) and Matthias Grünewald (in Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler), after all, are ostensibly beyond the exclusively au courant domain of these ‘operas of their time’. Or are they? Perhaps, one might hazard, freshness of subject matter is simply a myth of the Zeitoper ?


The comment cited in the title of this dissertation is taken from A. Einstein, ‘Neues vom Tage’, Berliner Tageblatt (10th June 1929).

[1] Neither Ernst Krenek nor the critic and musicologist H. H. Stuckenschmidt could place the word’s origin in 1988: see S. C. Cook, Opera for a New Republic: The Zeitopern of Krenek, Weill, and Hindemith (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1988), 221.

[2] M. Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1987), 3.

[3] Aspects of the Zeitoper also derive from earlier traditions. Kurt Weill thought of the comic nature of his Der Zar lässt sich photographieren as akin to that of the commedia dell’arte, a sixteenth-century institution, for example, and Ernst Krenek exploited Lutheran chorale in Jonny spielt auf when the protagonist celebrates his successful theft of Daniello’s violin. These are much less tangible than the numerous eighteenth- and nineteenth century insinuations, however, and have not been covered in this dissertation.

[4] A. Rehding, ‘Magic Boxes and Volksempfänger: Music on the Radio in Weimar Germany’, Music, Theatre and Politics in Germany: 1848 to the Third Reich, ed. N. Bacht (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2006), 265.

[5] S. C. Cook, Opera for a New Republic: The Zeitopern of Krenek, Weill, and Hindemith (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1988), 4. Emphasis added.

[6] ‘[O]peras dealing with modern urban life and replacing the swords and spears of Wagnerian mythology with automobiles, steam trains, and telephones’: see P. Franklin, ‘Between the Wars: Traditions, Modernisms, and the “Little People from the Suburbs”’, The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 194.

[7] Cook, Opera for a New Republic (1988), 41.

[8] Ibid., 7.

[9] C. Taylor-Jay, The artist-operas of Pfitzner, Krenek and Hindemith: politics and the ideology of the artist (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2004), 157.

[10] A. Einstein, ‘Gay German Opera’, The New York Times (22nd April 1928).

[11] E. Levi, ‘Bekker, Paul’, Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy. Accessed 13th January 2008.

[12] P. Bekker, ‘The Opera Walks New Paths’, trans. A. Mendel, Musical Quarterly, 21:3 (1935), 268.

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"Hier berührt sich das Zeitkunstwerk mit dem »Ewigkeitswerk«". To what extent was the Zeitoper truly "of its time"?
King`s College London
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zeitoper, kurt weill, paul hindemith, ernst krenek, oper, krolloper, neues vom tage, jonny spielt auf, zeitopern, music, musik, musical theatre, musiktheater, germany, berlin, weimar republic, twenties, 1920s, musicology, musikwissenschaft, opera, operatic, interwar
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Christopher McNulty (Author), 2008, "Hier berührt sich das Zeitkunstwerk mit dem »Ewigkeitswerk«". To what extent was the Zeitoper truly "of its time"?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/272931


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