Ernst Krenek’s Suite for Violoncello Solo, Op.84

Brian Patrick Bromberg
13 October, 2021

Ernst Krenek wrote a fantastic piece for solo cello that is totally ignored by cellists playing the modern repertoire.  Suite For Violoncello Solo, Op. 84 was written in the USA in 1939 just after Krenek fled his home in Austria to avoid the growing political strife.  The suite is a wonderful, succinct, and fun piece in five movements, lasting just under ten minutes in length.  

At this time in Krenek’s compositional style, he was just beginning to explore the possibilities of serial composition set forth by Arnold Schoenberg.  Overall, the piece is a lot less confrontational and abrasive than the Hindemith sonata (Sonata For Solo Cello, Op. 25 No. 3), which was written in the same era.  Additionally, the piece is slightly less technically demanding, relying more on character development, tone colour and expressive gestures than showy virtuosity. 

Another interesting aspect of the piece is that in all of the five movements the tempo marking never actually reaches a proper Allegro, the fastest metronome marking being crochet equals 108.  Although Krenek uses slow tempos throughout the piece, he still manages to create excitement and the feeling of energy by varying metric and agogic accents and by rapidly switching between melodic passages and more rhythmic ones.

The opening Andante begins with a tender, heartfelt melody that explores the rich lower range of the cello.  This movement and the last movement, which both very clearly expose the tone row upon which the piece is constructed, are also very improvisatory and lyrical in nature.  I particularly like the rhythmic variety and the way this melody seems to chase the tempo.

Movement two, marked Adagio ♩= 60 presents a warm cantabile style that shows Krenek’s ability to write beautiful polyphonic lines reminiscent of Bach’s chorales.  At first glance this movement might seem to be quite challenging because of the abundant usage of double stops, but don’t worry, these are all very idiomatically written.  The real challenge comes in capturing the delicate pianissimo harmonic progression.  When I play this movement, I favour playing close to the fingerboard and use varying bow speed to bring out the hairpin dynamics.

The middle movement is a playful melody that sounds like it would fit perfectly in a John Phillip Sousa march.  This melody is occasionally interrupted by short polyrhythmic gestures that recall the syncopation of jazz music that was just becoming popular at that time.  If you stay very steady with your tempo, and are careful not to compress or expand the groupings of three notes, the polyrhythms will have a great effect.

For a colour change, the fourth movement is written to be played muted.  The tempo marking for this movement is Andantino scherzando and is written in 6/4.  This choice of time signature implies that the composer wants the piece to be felt with the dotted minim as the main beat and not the minim or crochet.  To bring this out, I like to emphasise the pizzicatos any chance I can and use left hand vibrato accents to keep this internal larger two beat structure intact.

The final movement is a return to more lyrical playing.  This movement explores the full range of the cello and gives a real feeling of having come full circle from where we started.  To effectively keep the melody to the forefront in this movement, it is important to over exaggerate the dynamic markings when there are interruptions to the melody. 

Krenek’s Suite For Violoncello Solo is a satisfying piece to play.  If you enjoy playing music that lets you tap into emotions beyond the typical realm and you like to explore music outside of the typical repertoire, this piece is for you!  In regards to difficulty, I find this piece to be somewhat technically easier than the Hindemith and Crumb sonatas but slightly more challenging when it comes to interpretation, gesture, and musicality.  Krenek doesn’t rely on an overabundance of extended techniques or superfluous tone colours and still manages to sound fresh even after 80 years.

Scores available from G. Schirmer HL.50481767