Portrait of Prague Jewish composer, Hans Krasa. Courtesy of Ghetto Museum, Terezín.

Hans Krása

Hans Krása was born in Prague on November 30, 1899. His affluent family encouraged and generously sup­ported his musical studies, to the extent that his father hired instrumental ensembles in order for Hans to hear his composi­tions. Krása studied with Alexander Zemlinsky in Prague, and in 1921, even prior to the completion of his studies at the German Music Academy in that city, he began working as a vocal coach at the New German Opera. He spent considerable time in Paris, where he learned to admire, among others, the works of Igor Stravinsky. Krása had some performances in the United States and France in the 1920s and several of his compositions were published in Vienna and Paris. A close or even casual acquaintance with his works reveals a composer of exceptionally beautiful music, and he merits attention by performers, audiences and musicologists. The fact that Krása led a rather Bohemian life­style, thereby missing opportunities of writing more works, is countered by the quality of those pieces that have been pre­served. Indeed, had Krása died before the onset of the Second World War, his name would merit recognition as that of an artist who enriched the music of our era with a number of fresh, original, and significant compositions. Krása, however, did not die before the war. After spending several years in Terezin, where he was active in its musical life, he left for Auschwitz on October 16, 1944 (along with Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein), and perished immediately in a gas chamber.

Krása's works dating from the 1920s and 1930s include several song cycles, both orchestral and with piano, a symphony for small orchestra, a string quartet, a cantata, Die Erde ist des Herrn (The Earth is the Lord's), an opera, Verlobung in Traum (Betrothed in a Dream, to a story by Dostoevsky) and a chamber work for harpsichord and seven instruments.

Although there are few extant writings by the composer, a comment on his opera in the program booklet of its single performance in Prague applies equally to his music generally:

If I state that I was influenced by Schönberg, by that I wish to emphasise the fact that I am trying all the more to avoid the emptiness which is so favoured. I try to write in such a way that every bar, every recitative and every note is necessarily a solid part of the whole. This logic, without which every composition has no spirit, can, however, degenerate into mathematic-scientific music if the iron law of opera is not heeded, namely that the sense and aim of opera is the singing. I am sufficiently daring, as a modern composer, to write melodic music. This reflects my whole attitude to music, whether it is called modern or anything else. My music is strictly founded on the concept of accessible melodic character.

While this melodic quality is evident in all of Krasa's music, there was early on in his work a distinctive tenden­cy for the grotesque and for a kind of unclassifiable wit. This is reflected not only in his choice of texts in his orchestral songs (Opus 1, 1919) on poems by Christian Morgenstern, but in his quite unique gift of fascinating instrumentation, in which the sonorities, combinations, use of solo instruments and percussion, creates and enhances imaginative and colourful textures, complex polyrhythm, ostinati, and a host of other vivid and remarkable ideas and techniques which are combined in a highly personal manner. Some sense of how his early music was perceived can be seen in several reviews of his 1923 symphony, which received a number of partial performances in Europe and the United States.

Following the Boston Symphony Orchestra's performance, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, in 1926, Paul Rosenfeld, in the Boston Globe, characterized the composer as

a Czech musician, still in his 20's, of notable individuality and skill. . . Krasa's music is written in an unforced yet original and personal modern idiom. It is curious that so young a man should think and feel so utterly for himself.

The awareness of the uniqueness of Krasa's music is felt all the more so today, as his compositions have become known in recent years through increasing performances, recordings and publications of his scores.