Part 2: The Minstrel Roots of Ernst Krenek’s 1927 opera, Jonny Spielt Auf

The original cover to Jonny spielt auf, 1927.

Ernst Krenek’s Jonny Spielt Auf premiered in 1927 and was a runaway success. Jonny Spielt Auf kicks off a period of operas from the Weimar Republic that are called Zeitoper. Zeitoper translates into “opera of the times” and the elements of Zeitoper reflected the technological advances of the 1920s. Trains, cars, telephones, and film became the props and are used to advance the story line. The characters themselves were regular people: maids, musicians, and small time crooks. And the music that makes up the Zeitoper represents popular music of the time, the foxtrot, tango, and other dance music heard in Berlin Cabarets. But the ties to Expressionist composition are still present and the music combines the serious art music with popular dance music.

When Ernst Krenek sat down to write an opera centered on an African American jazz musician, he had a minor problem. He was unfamiliar with jazz music. His style of composition fit within the Expressionist period, where German composers were experimenting with atonality. How did Krenek incorporate jazz elements into an opera when he had never written jazz music? The jazz elements in the score sound a little like watered down Gershwin. The melody’s use of the minor 3rd at the end of the phrases bring in that blue note. The quasi-syncopated rhythms sound a little closer to ragtime than jazz, but the roots in black music is still there. The use of saxophones and brass evoke the sound of dance music. The enthusiastic flex-a-tone brings a modern element that the audience probably never heard before in opera. Here’s a better recording that highlights the flex-a-tone in the finale since it’s difficult to hear in this production. Warning, before you click on the below video, Jonny is performed in blackface.

But what ties this opera to America and to minstrelsy, is the use of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home,” also known as “Swannee River.” Stephen Foster wrote “Old Folks at Home” for the Christy’s Minstrels in 1851. Minstrelsy was American’s popular entertainment at this time. Christy’s Minstrels was formed by Edwin Pearce Christy in Buffalo, New York in 1843. Stephen Foster wrote a handful of songs for this minstrel troupe, and the themes parodied slave music and plantation life in the antebellum period. Minstrelsy was so popular that the practice continued well into the 20th century. To understand how American’s viewed the Minstrel show, here is a clip of Al Jolson singing “Old Folks at Home” in the 1935 movie Swanee River, a biopic on Stephen Foster’s life. This clip is Al Jolson playing Edwin Pearce Christy at a minstrel show. As horrifying as this clip is to a modern audience, the director highlights how the audience sees this as a romantic and idolized period, something that reflects a nostalgic past rather than a painful, brutal, and racist history.

If you’re a fan of TCM and old movies, seeing this clip may surprise you. Blackface, like in the clip above, was common in early movies. Al Jolson, seen here was one of the biggest stars of early sound pictures. Movie studios were more likely to put white actors in blackface than hire actual black actors. Most of these movies have been taken out of circulation because in context with the Jim Crow laws, lynching, and terrorism by KKK, these movies are relics of a painful tradition than dehumanizes Black Americans and gives cover to racist ideas and practices. These Minstrel roots act like weeds, difficult to kill and easily spread when ignored.

When Krenek, unfamiliar with jazz music, needed an American sound, he turned to Stephen Foster. Here is Jonny quoting “Swannee River” in the opera.

This entire performance is directly influenced by the Minstrel Show. The black shoe polish makeup with white lips, the tuxedo, top hat and tails, the white gloves, all of it is a direct descendant of minstrelsy. And this performance is from 2006. More recent performances that use blackface are from 2019, so the message of how the use of blackface is wrong is not getting out to opera companies.

But there’s more to this story. Part 3 is going to cover how Nazi’s reacted to Jonny Spielt Auf and how Krenek subverted Nazi ideology.

Published by Mary Huntimer

Saxophonist, teacher, opera and silent movie enthusiast. All opinions are my own.

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