In 1916, in the midst of World War I, Ernst Krenek began his career as a professional artist. The sixteen-year-old started studying with Franz Schreker at the music academy in Vienna and wrote his first truly ambitious chamber music works. In late November that same year the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph died, the last representative of a world irrevocably lost in the turmoil of the Great War. Krenek later recalled the general "shockwave" caused by the 86-year old emperorís death: "Even more clearly than at the outbreak of war people realized that an era had come to an end". At the same time, the arts also stood on the verge of a major transition. An uncertain search for traditions had begun, a search for traditions already lost. If the expressionistic music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern around 1910 hinted at the turn of the tide, the numerous musical trends of the 1920s (from Neoclassicism to Neue Sachlichkeit) displayed it in its full score. It was in this time of transition from the old to the new that Ernst Krenek began to explore his own artistic identity.
Schreker at first acquainted Krenek with the world of traditional music by giving him a solid knowledge of counterpoint. But when in 1920 Krenek followed his teacher from Vienna to the Academy of Music in Berlin, his desire for innovation exploded. His encounters with Ferruccio Busoni, Eduard Erdmann, and Artur Schnabel rapidly broadened his musical horizons. While his early works were in a late Romantic style that resembled Max Reger and Richard Strauss, he now turned to radical atonality. As a result of this development Krenek became more and more estranged from his teacher Schreker and eventually left the Academy without graduating. Even so, he soon became one of the most important young composers of the post-war era, enjoying a reputation as an enfant terrible of contemporary music after the premiere of his String Quartet No. 1 in 1921.
Probably the most important work of this period is the Second Symphony, which Krenek finished on May 22, 1922 after only eight weeks of composing. In it, Krenek continued his quest for an immediate link to tradition. His regard for the continuity of history hides behind the very decision to compose a symphony, an exalted genre if there was one.
At the same time that Igor Stravinsky subjected Baroque music to the cool and distancing techniques of alienation (Pulcinella), and Paul Hindemith wrote ironic ragtimes (Suite 1922), Krenek consciously invoked an artist who himself had already shouldered the full burden of tradition in his own oeuvre: Gustav Mahler. In Krenekís Second Symphony there is an almost tangible energy field built up by the confrontation between the young composer and his "mentor" Mahler. The fear of being influenced generally results from an awareness of a predecessorís strong presence in oneís own consciousness. It always threatens to paralyze creativity when a role model becomes too powerful. To use the terms of psychology, Mahler plays the role of "super-ego" to Krenek in this symphony. He represents a force from which the young composer has to wrest his own originality. A biographical detail underscores the latent Freudian conflict between father and son. Shortly before he wrote his symphony, he had met Mahlerís daughter Anna and married her not much later. He personally reported that the "rapid intensification" of his relationship with Anna Mahler inspired him to "start a new, large-scale symphonic work". Indeed, he completed the symphony in the house of Mahlerís widow in Breitenstein (not far from Vienna) and shortly afterwards undertook the task of editing Mahlerís sketches of the tenth symphony.
It almost seems as if Krenek had intentionally sought the proximity of Mahlerís surroundings, even though they were also an aesthetic burden to him. It is no coincidence that Krenek later described the symphony with phrases like "a giant raging in a cage" or his own efforts as "dreadful exertions to break through the bars". But he also spoke of "sad resignation", of "enduring the close space the giant is locked up in" and his "wild jumping around in the cage in a sort of desperate dance, thereby making a virtue of necessity". Repeatedly, Krenek also mentioned the "symbolic meaning of captivity and longing for freedom". For him, the end of the symphony is not a resolution of conflict, but "sounds like a racing charge aiming at the acceptance of the contradictions as an ordainment of higher powers" and "allowing the conflicting elements" to coexist side by side.
Mainly gestural elements like fanfares, nature sounds, choral-like passages, marching-band rythms, and long melodic lines are reminiscent of Mahlerís vocabulary. Even though the work is atonal, ghosts of the past tonal idiom waft through it. Krenek himself described the experience of the work as one of "melancholy nostalgia", as when "visiting ruins". The last movement in particular recalls, in its broad arch of tension, the tradition of Mahlerís great symphonic Adagios, especially in the ninth and tenth symphonies. Mahlerís music itself laid bare the dissolution of an era, looked back upon a dying musical world. The farewell gesture in his late Adagio movements is occasionally so harsh and bold that it anticipates the most advanced music of our times. Krenekís Symphony openly reveals the abysses beneath surface beauty of Mahlerís music, which itself had lay bare a tradition run dry. Krenek exaggerates Mahlerís dissolution of tonality, fragmented forms, and unrelentingly strict inner structures with an intensity that is almost apocalyptic. Krenek thereby aggressively pushes his anxiety of influence to the forefront. He himself observed that he "waged his war against the existing order on its own ground". Thus, rather than attempting to provide supposed solutions or to suppress the conflict, Krenek makes conflict itself the focus of the work. This is the secret of the shocking impact of Krenekís dark, catastrophic apotheosis of Mahler.