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Lustmord or Liebestod? Death in Ernst Krenek and Oskar Kokoschka's Orpheus und Eurydike

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In 1923, Ernst Krenek composed an operatic setting of Orpheus und Eurydike, a drama by painter and occasional playwright Oskar Kokoschka. Because musicologists and opera houses alike have overlooked this work, credit afforded to Krenek for his role in Weimar modernity is often confined to the Zeitoper vein of 1920s European culture: the cosmopolitan, jazz-inspired, contemporary aesthetic of Krenek’s 1927 Jonny Spielt Auf. This article, the first English-language study devoted to Orpheus und Eurydike, explores Krenek’s contribution to another crucial facet of Weimar culture: the Austro-German identity crisis provoked by defeat in World War I and social upheaval.

After tracing the opera’s rich genealogy and situating it in the lives of its creators (Alma and Gustav Mahler, among others, influenced Kokoschka's original play), this paper focuses on the drama’s multiple death scenes. Drawing on scholar Maria Tatar’s study of the Weimar obsession with sexually-tinged female death, I argue through score and libretto analysis that Krenek and Kokoschka synthesize aspects of the contemporary Lustmord (sexual murder) trope with elements of the Wagnerian Liebestod (love death) archetype. Rather than reconcile them with their artistic predecessors, however, this synthesis fleshes out the Lustmord latent in any Liebestod. With its first performance in 1926, this opera joined the ranks of “progressive” works by male artists who used aesthetic violence against women to navigate the Weimar identity crisis—in many ways, a crisis of masculinity. Paying Orpheus und Eurydike the attention it deserves underscores Krenek’s seminal but underappreciated role in both the glittering and dark sides of Weimar culture, and reveals just how interrelated those two sides are. Though it retells a well-worn classical myth, this Orpheus is as much an “opera of its time” as Jonny.


Krenek, Kokoschka, Orpheus, Lustmord, Weimar

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