Sunday, 27 January 2013

Gideon Klein

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. I want to mark it by posting a memorial to one of the composers killed in the Nazi concentration camps, the Czech-Jewish composer, Gideon Klein (1919-1945).

Many of you will know what went on at the Terezín concentration camp - a brutal work camp exclusively for Jews which the Nazis tried to hoax the world into believing was a humane and happy place. Culture certainly did go on at Terezín, but so did around 33,000 deaths from overwork, disease and so on. Some 88,000 people were later deported to extermination camps. Gideon Klein was forced to go there in 1941 and then deported to Auschwitz in late 1944, dying (in unclear circumstances) during the attempt by the Nazis to wipe out all the remaining prisoners at the Fürstengrube camp in early 1945. He was aged 25. The Orel Foundation provides a biography of Klein, showing his determination to keep culture and hope alive at Terezín during his three years there. 

Like the wonderful Pavel Haas, subject of another post of mine, Klein's music is far from being merely of historical importance. 

Two weeks before his deportation to Auschwitz, the young man finished his splendid String Trio, whose short, purposeful opening Allegro positively abounds in fresh ideas - one strongly folk-flavoured, another reflecting the composer's roots in his Moravian compatriot Janáček. The central Lento is a theme and variations on a sad Moravian folksong, where the depth of feeling is clear to hear. Klein is had a keen interest in modernist music (as we shall hear), with Berg as a particular influence. Hints of Berg (the earlyish Berg of the String Quartet Op.3) are heard in this Lento - though not too strongly. With the finale we enter another folk-dance-inspired movement, albeit one crafted with touches of counterpoint and with a harmonic and colouristic range which admirers of the music of Shostakovich will, perhaps, find familiar. 

The Bergian element is stronger in another piece composed at Terezín - the virtuoso Piano Sonata of 1943 (Klein was a pianist himself). Again it's earlyish Berg - his Piano Sonata, Op.1 - which mainly springs to (my) mind, though the opening of the central Adagio perhaps suggests an echo of the late Berg of the Violin Concerto. We are in the world of rich, almost Scriabinesque extended tonality shading towards atonality (but not getting there). The exciting third movement has some decidedly Scriabin-like flourishes. It's a full-on piece, flooding the piano with colour most beautifully. As you may have noticed, I'm a great admirer of both Berg and Scriabin so this is right up my street!

The soundworld of Berg's String Quartet, Op.3 is certainly present in Gideon Klein's expressive (and somewhat expressionistic) String Quartet No.2 of 1939-1941 (mvts. 2 and 3). You will find it a tougher listen than the two later works, but far from an unrewarding one. Its structure is quite unusual one with a lighter, shorter central fast movement framed by two more substantial, slower movements. The opening movement is dramatic in character, at times rather like an operatic scena complete with recitative-like passage. The central scherzo is a sort of danse macabre with a striking main theme, flourishes from the ghostly violinist, lots of pizzicato and and a folk-like secondary theme. The closing Andante cantabile is deeply lyrical and full of yearning, melancholy harmonies. If you enjoyed that then I'm sure you'll also appreciate the unfinished Duo for Violin and Cello (1941). 

His Op.1 from 1940 was a set of songs. The high-lying vocal writing will be recognisable to anyone who knows their Schoenberg and Webern, with the lyrical qualities of Berg again to the fore (including in the piano writing). This really does sound like Second Viennese School-style music. The first song, The Fountain, sets the 17th Century composer Johann Klaj. The second one, In the Midst of Life, sets Hölderlin). The third, Darkness Descending, sets Goethe. All three are lovely. That this high-lying vocal writing seems to have been about to become a feature of his individual style is suggested by the delightful (tonal) arrangement he made of a Lullaby by (I think) the Ukranian rabbi Sholom Charitonov. 

The delightful Divertimento for Eight Wind Instruments of 1940 shows him experimenting with Neo-Classicism (listen out for the fugue in the opening March), with added touches of Janáček (especially in the Adagio) and further symptoms of Schoenbergian influence.

If all of this is making Gideon Klein sound like a composer writing music derived from the composers who most influenced him (i.e. 'derivative'), well, firstly, that's not a problem if the composer can (as Klein does) write convincingly in those veins and, secondly, that's simply the inevitable consequence of the fact that Klein was a young man  and a young composer when he wrote all of these pieces. He was around the age of 20, for example, when he wrote his Second String Quartet. So what an achievement that piece is! It was only his Op.2. In comparison, Beethoven's Op.18 quartets (often betraying the influence of Haydn and Mozart) were only begun when he was 28 - and he had decades more to write greater, wholly individual pieces. Nearly all young composers show their influences in their youthful works - especially if, like Klein, they are largely self-taught - as they make their way towards a long maturity where their own individual voice is full achieved. It's just the way things are. What's remarkable about Gideon Klein is how mature his pieces sound at such a young age. He was, of course,  denied the opportunity Beethoven had to become an original. Like millions of others. Hence Holocaust Memorial Day. 

I'll end with a particularly beautiful piece that combines the two main strains in the composer's art. The First Sin, for tenor and male voice choir, comes from 1942 and shows the composer digging into his Czech roots, as he was to do again in his String Trio. Janáček is a presence. The manner, however, also shows touches of Schoenbergian influence. (If you know Schoenberg's choruses you will appreciate the truth of this more than if you don't!). If he had continued fusing Janáček with Schoenberg/Berg what beautiful and original works could have flowed. 

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