For late composer Ernst Krenek, trains were much more than a way of getting from one place to another.
To him, they represented both hope and fear in his life. They were a source of excitement – like when he took his first train ride as a child growing up in Austria – and also anguish, leading him into the unknown after fleeing Nazi Germany for the United States.
This lifetime of feelings is captured in his piece, “The Ballad of the Railroads,” which Cal Poly faculty will perform and explain Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Davidson Music Center, room 218.
The 20-minute ode, which Krenek wrote in 1944, visits everything from his childhood memories of playing with his Santa Fe Train Set to his experience exploring America’s vast rail system.
“It’s about a lot of different journeys,” said music instructor Katherine Arthur, who will sing the piece at the lecture-recital. “You learn a lot about him and his fears, hopes and dreams.”
Arthur, who currently sings with several professional opera groups, actually performed “The Ballad of the Railroads” for Krenek himself while she was a student at UC Santa Barbara. One of her instructors knew the composer personally and invited her to sing the ballad at his house in Palm Springs.
“It was wonderful,” Arthur said. “It was like meeting Mozart. It was unbelievable.”
Arthur remains close with Krenek’s widow. In 1999, she recorded an album of Krenek’s work.
“It happens with very few composers, but Krenek is one that every time I hear his music, it’s better,” she said. “I see more and hear more and love it more. He’s one of the greatest composers in my opinion.”
In 1938, Krenek was forced to flee Nazi Germany after Adolf Hitler labeled him a degenerate artist for having a black musician in one of his jazz operas. He immigrated to the United States, traveling the country as a visiting music professor before settling at Hamline University in Minnesota. He moved to Hollywood in 1950. Krenek died in Palm Springs in 1991.
“The Ballad of the Railroads” is a collection of 10 of Krenek’s poems that are set to music and played without breaks. The piece employs the 12-tone technique, a nontraditional style of music Krenek helped pioneer designed to keep the listener off balance. In addition, the piece is incidental, meaning more emphasis is placed on the words than the music of the piece.
Music professor Alyson McLamore will give a pre-concert lecture about these techniques. She will also provide the audience with historical context about Krenek and his work.
McLamore, a program annotator for several organizations, said Krenek doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his work.
“Krenek was a pioneer, but we’ve paid more attention to some other pioneers,” she said. “He merits more attention than what he’s gotten in the past.”
Music instructor Susan Azaret Davies will play piano for the piece. She has performed with the New York Philharmonic and has played at Carnegie Hall.
Tickets for the lecture-recital are $3 for students and $5 for adults and may be purchased at the door.