Jonny spielt auf was an immense success at its premiere in Leipzig in February 1927. Yet, within the decade, Krenek was forced to flee from central Europe, his work banned by the Nazis.
After studies in Vienna with Franz Schreker, Krenek followed his teacher to Berlin in 1920 where he continued to work with him at the Academy of Music. In Berlin, Krenek became friendly with a number of musicians and composers of progressive leanings and, in doing so, gradually distanced himself from the lush, post-Romanticism of Schreker. From 1925 to 1927, Krenek served theaters in Kassel and Wiesbaden as conductor and composer. While his first opera Der Sprung über den Schatten employed jazz effects amidst an atonal score, he next turned to a more tonal context for Jonny spielt auf, perhaps to fashion a more congenial and accessible vessel for the jazz-flavored atmosphere of the libretto. This was the "jazz age" on the continent as well as in America and the public was eager to hear works which employed the new idioms.
For all its success in Germany and Austria, however, Jonny did not appeal to audiences in either Paris or at the Metropolitan Opera in 1929. The need to employ a white singer in black face for the title role was at least partly to blame. In Paris and at the Met, audiences were somewhat more sophisticated about authentic jazz and were less accepting of a score that offered only the trappings, but not the substance of real jazz.
The notion of a black musician as protagonist was not met with favor by the National Socialists either, and the enormous response given the work initially dwindled in the face of demonstrations, first erupting in Vienna in the winter of 1927-1928. Nazi supporters protested the "introduction of Jewish-Nigger filth" to the operatic repertory and, subsequently, other venues were subject to outbreaks of violence. In 1938, Krenek's was declared entartete Musik (forbidden music), due in no small part to this score. That same year, the composer left for America where he taught (from necessity) and composed (largely for his own satisfaction), acquired citizenship in 1945, settling finally in California in 1947.
Although without doubt a period piece, Jonny has been the subject of renewed interest as the result of performance and recording projects exploring the vast amount of music suppressed by the Nazis. Dated in its use of jazz elements, the score nonetheless remains striking, its characters interesting, as well as quirky. The struggle of the real hero, the composer Max, to overcome his indecision, to integrate love of nature with a drive toward new expression in music, provides a viable text. Krenek's score fleshes out the story, providing for a satisfyingly provocative theatrical experience. Max finally departs for America with his beloved Anita, as Jonny once more strikes up on his jazz fiddle. A new time has arrived.