Krenek wrote: “My attention was aroused not only by the unique intensity with which Mr Niles performed this song, which he had discovered in North Carolina, but also by the unique modal pattern of the simple and moving tune. Sometime later, Mr Mitropoulos let me know that he was interested in my recent work in composition, and this fact prompted me to use the folk song, which had impressed me so deeply, as a symphonic piece. Mr Niles and the publishing house G. Schirmer were good enough to grant their permission for doing so. The composition was finished on July 1, 1942, in Madison, Wisconsin. It is a set of seven variations arranged to follow in broad lines the structure of a first movement of a symphony (exposition, development, etc.). I have attempted to infold the feelings of tragic loneliness and passionate devotion by which the solitary wanderer ‘under the sky’ of the old song is animated.”
Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960) was a Greek conductor, pianist, and composer. Between 1937 to 1949 he served as the principal conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra).
The Variations on a North Carolina Folk Song opens with a statement of the theme played on the solo trumpet: there is some rhythmic flexibility. This seems to match the opening of the melody, which hints at a bugle call. It is followed by a strange muttering sound on the timpani, which is heard again in slightly varied form at the close of the composition.
There is considerable stylistic diversity, ranging from the modal theme to a 12 tone enhancement of this melody, hints of impressionism and even a touch of jazz. Yet, the overall impression is of a softly atonal work that does not challenge the listener to any great extent.
The large orchestra required includes two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contra-bassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, harp, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, xylophone, triangle, glockenspiel, wood block, chimes, a small and a large gong, and strings.
Much of the score was begun at Poughkeepsie, NY on 6 June 1942, before being completed (as noted above) at Madison, WI. The premiere performance was given on 11 December 1942 at the Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. Eight days later, it received its New York debut by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with the same conductor.
Viennese composer Ernst Krenek was born in the city on 23 August 1900. He studied in Vienna and Berlin, before becoming assistant director at opera houses in Kassel and Wiesbaden. His major work during the 1920s was the jazz-infused opera Johnny spleit auf, which gained him considerable success, but also aroused the disapproval of the nascent Nazi administration. In 1938 Krenek moved to the United States where he became a university lecturer. Stylistically, he was initially influenced by Mahler (whose daughter Anna he was married to for a year), but later adapted his music to what he deemed the best of contemporary styles, including twelve-tone procedures, jazz and even electronics and aleatoric techniques. Ernst Krenek died at Palm Springs, California, on 22 December 1991, aged 91 years.
A recording of the Variations on a North Carolina Folk Song, op.94 has been uploaded to YouTube. It is played by the Swiss Radio-Orchester Beromünster with the composer conducting. The recording dates from 7 September 1954, at the Radiostudio Zürich.
A detailed analysis of Variations on a North Carolina Folk Song is given in Masterworks of the Orchestral Repertoire A Guide for Listeners by Donald Nivison Ferguson (1968, p.307f)