Sunday, 22 April 2012

Scherzo triste - The Music of Pavel Haas

Though also born in Brno and Jewish, Pavel Haas's life followed a tragically different trajectory from that of Erich Korngold's. It's distressing to tell of it, but Haas (b1899) was one of those composers imprisoned by the Nazis in the Terezin concentration camp before being sent in 1944 to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he was murdered. Haas was a well-known Czech composer living his life and writing his music before the Nazis invaded his life. He composed in Terezin and some of the scores written there survived or were reconstructed. It raises a gulp in the throat when you begin listening to these pieces, but listen you should - partly to preserve his memory, but even more so because his works are absolutely superb and will enrich your life. We are not talking about a minor composer here, as I'm sure you'll soon agree if you take a listen to the following survey of the works of the great Pavel Haas. His works must enter the mainstream.

Pavel Haas was a pupil of Leoš Janáček and something of his influence stayed with Haas throughout his life. You can certainly hear the Janáček of Taras Bulba - and even the still-being-composed Cunning Little Vixen - in the several sections of the Scherzo triste, Op.5 of 1921. If you love Janáček's music (and I certainly do) then you will treasure this delightful, skilfully-scored orchestral piece. There's no reason why a work of such colour, melodic attractiveness and (ultimately) deep beauty shouldn't become a much-loved classic.

If you were impressed by that then wait until you try Haas's String Quartet No. 2, 'From the Monkey Mountains', Op.7 of 1925, where the undoubted traces of Janáček's two great string quartets (The Kreutzer Sonata and Intimate Letters) don't in any way detract from a remarkable achievement. There are four movements, of which the first, Landscape, is closest throughout to the teacher's idiom. The second, Coach, Coachman And Horse, however, has a remarkably original main section that will surely get you pricking up your ears! The slow movement, The Moon And I..., is certainly mysterious - and very beautiful. As for the final movement, Wild Night, well that holds a surprise which I won't divulge. (It's a musical first too, historically-speaking). I'll just say that if you were in any doubt about the Chinese inspiration behind the piece, you won't be after hearing this part of it! Yes, Haas certainly had a sense of humour. (There's more evidence for that in the rather inebriated-sounding second movement of the Wind Quintet, Op.10 of 1929). This superb work should be in the repertory of most quartets, though I suspect I can guess why it probably won't be (as I'm sure you can too).

By the time of the delightfully quirky Radio Overture, Op.11 (1931, written in praise of radio and Marconi!), Haas's musical language had  clearly fully taken on board the neo-Classical spirit of the age. Anyone familiar with Stravinsky's works of the late 1920s and early 1930s will recognise a kinship here (especially when the voices enter) and the use of Stravinskyan motor rhythms, a small orchestra with piano and jazz elements also reminds me of Haas's countryman, Bohuslav Martinů. However, the folk-elements derived from Janáček can still be heard and so can elements of Jewish traditional music - especially as the piece proceeds. All these influences cohere into a single, individual style that is highly winning. The piece is good-natured, elegant and full of memorable ideas. (For a further taste of Pavel Haas writing in this neo-Classical style, there's also his Suite for Piano, 0p.13 (1935)).

In the years just prior to Nazi Germany's invasion of his country, Haas hit the big time with his 1936 tragicomic opera, The Charlatan, Op.14. The appeal of this music can be heard from the six-movement orchestral suite devised in advance to draw in the punters. The music again integrates Janáček-style repetition and re-orientation of short folk-like phrases with Stravinsky-style neo-Classical cool - a winning combination that is unique to the music of Pavel Haas. The score abounds in sharply-defined, clearly-scored ideas. My favourite movements of the suite are the Con moto third movement and the Gaiamente fourth movement, where folk-melodies are repeated against a changing background (continuing the line of descent from our old friend, Glinka!), and the mysterious nocturne that is the Andante con moto fifth movement. The Gaiamente movement is also wonderful for conjuring up all the fun of the fair. I can see no reason why this suite shouldn't become popular with enough exposure.

In the year the Nazis completed their takeover of Czechoslovakia, Pavel Haas completed his masterly Suite for oboe and piano, Op.17. The high jinx of of the finale of the Second String Quartet, the Radio Overture and the opera suite have vanished, understandably. The three movements are marked Furioso, Con fuoco and Moderato. The first two markings might suggest a protesting spirit though the Furioso, in particular, is not what you would expect from such a marking, instead striking a dignified tone of sadness. The melodic material seems to draw strongly on the composer's Czech Jewish roots. The elegance, beauty and deep feeling of such writing is moving. The Con fuoco movement is just as exceptional, with its sudden and dramatic shifts of mood, its fine melodies for the oboe and its richly imagined piano writing. The closing Moderato sounds deeply sad for all the grace of its expression. It is very beautiful. Though direct in its emotional effect, this is subtle music that repays close listening. It's hard though not to associate the anguish and sorrow with how the composer must have felt at the turn of events at the time. This work should be a regular item in chamber recitals.

In 1940 Haas began writing a symphony. He didn't, however, manage to complete it as he was seized by the Nazis in 1941. The Czech musicologist Zdeněk Zouhar made a realisation of the Symphony  in the 1970s from what seems to have been a largely complete first movement, a sketch of the second movement and a fragment of the third. Had he lived, this supreme craftsman would have made added what only a true composer can add, but Zouhar's realisation is a fine attempt and reveals what a powerful piece the Symphony was about to be. It is hardly surprising that the gripping first movement - a sombre meditation on the fate of his nation - makes considerable use of Czech chorales and synagogue chants. The second movement is a dark scherzo which draws on that side of Haas's music that was formerly humorous and parodic and turns it into bitter satire. The Nazi Horst Wessel Song and (for mysterious reasons) Chopin's Funeral March are distorted sarcastically. The third movement begins heavy with foreboding and sadness as a chant-like melody unfolds against a mysterious, twinkling background before building towards a cry of which point it breaks off...

Haas was taken to the Nazi concentration camp of Terezin. When the Nazis made their notorious propaganda film to try and fool the world about conditions in the camp, one of the scenes showed prisoners performing a piece that Pavel Haas had composed there. He wrote several pieces in Terezin, some of which have been lost, others rescued. The man's ability to continue to write great music whilst living in one of the circles of Hell is remarkable - and the two pieces I'm about to introduce are certainly great pieces. One of them is that very piece from the propaganda film: Study for String Orchestra (1943). This piece begins full of the dancing rhythms of Czech symphonic music and shows a fresh command of the art of counterpoint. Suddenly though the vigour stops...a painful moment...and music full of poignant harmonies wanders in, as if lost in grief. It is a deeply haunting passage and Haas builds on it impressively as he cleverly begins the dance again, initially still troubled by the experiences of the preceding passage. The dance gradually regains the life-affirming energy of its former self but refuses to end on a major-key chord. Haas must have still had hope in is heart, which makes his ultimate fate all the more painful. Still, this Study lives on and if is life-affirming and it is Pavel Haas.

The other piece is the Four Songs on Chinese Poetry, composed in 1944 - the year of Haas's death in the gas chamber. The songs are I Heard the Wild Geese, In the Bamboo Grove, The Moon Is Far from Home and A Sleepless Night. Here the composer goes back to his roots in Janáček - with the style of vocal writing (for baritone) and the use of ostinatos in the piano part strongly recalling his teacher. These are among the greatest of Czech songs, very inward-looking and full of poignant yearning for home. You may spot the discreet use of ones of the Czech chorales also used in the Symphony.

The growth of interest in the music of Pavel Haas is sure to continue as more and more people grasp the power of his work.

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