Gideon Klein’s Songs Op. 1 for High Voice and Piano
Gideon Klein composed his Songs Opus 1 in May and June 1940, shortly after he was expelled abruptly from Prague Conservatory spring 1940, and months before his deportation to the Terezín concentration camp. The extremely difficult personal circumstances forced upon him undoubtedly motivated the evolution of these songs and, even though they are among his lesser known, illuminate a crucial facet of Klein's life and work that ended tragically and prematurely.
Gideon Klein’s time spent living in Prague (1931-1941) was filled with both personal and professional explorations. Having followed his older sister, pianist Eliška Kleinová, from their hometown Přerov to Prague, he immersed himself in general studies, as well as in piano and composition studies, while also studying musical scores on his own. He made new friendships in the literary and the musical worlds. He later enrolled in higher studies at the Prague Conservatory and Charles University, and by 1938-1939, was giving regular piano performances. Unfortunately, this successful period was short-lived. The Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and the enforcement of the Nuremberg Laws there, forced him to leave the University by spring 1940. Klein was also banned from traveling outside of Prague, and was thus unable to accept an invitation to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London; he was also allowed to engage only in limited musical activities.
It was in these difficult circumstances, forced upon him in the midst of his youthful exploration of life and music, that he composed in the spring of 1940 a song cycle consisting of settings of three different German poets. He titled the cycle simply Tři písně pro vyšší hlas a klavír (Three songs for high voice and piano), opus 1. Emil Adolf Saudek (1876-1941), a friend of the Klein family and literary influence on Gideon Klein, translated Johann Klaj’s Springbrunnen (Fountain) and Hölderlin’s Hälfte des Lebens (The Middle of Life) from German Czech. Jan Dostal translated Goethe’s Dämmrung Senkte Sich von Oben (Dusk Has Fallen from on High) from German to Czech.
Vodotrysk (25 May 1940)
German: Springbrunnen, English: Fountain.
Klein composed this song to a text by the German Baroque poet and author Johann Klaj (1616-1656). This was a striking choice for the young Klein, a Jewish musician who under the harsh circumstances of Nazi occupation and racial laws chose to set music particularly to the poems of Klaj, who was a devoted German and even more devout Christian. The poem begins with a happy scene of water fountains in springtime. The rich piano solo introduction presents a fast, whole-tone scale opening followed by shifts of atonal and polytonal chords. A rhythmic pulse dominates the energy throughout the song, and the constant appearance of rapid melodic figurations throughout the piano registers resembles the flow of water fountains. As the text shifts to a description of the solitude and melancholy of winter, the piano accompaniment changes its texture to match it, creating a cold, desolate atmosphere. Occasionally the vocal and piano parts seem estranged. The musical setting created by Klein presents the singer with a challenge. Instead of relying on a supportive piano accompaniment, the singer must sing the correct pitches through the complex vocal arrangement, which increases the sense of uncertainty as the song progresses. By the end of this song, the text, filled with uncertainty and melancholy, mutes the previously cheerful atmosphere, while the piano part concludes with low registers fading away note by note.
Polovina Zivota (May 6th, 1940)
German: Hälfte des Lebens, English: The Middle of Life.
This song is based on a poem written by the Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin. Klein once again emphasises melancholy, following Hölderlin’s dark text that reflects the solitude the poet experienced throughout his life. While the text is divided into two distinct sections, the through-composed musical setting unfolds an array of expressions to reflect an unstable state of mind, endlessly searching for peace. While the piano part is well thought-out, Klein places a demanding vocal part in very high pitch range that would challenge any soprano. The first stanza of the poem describes a landscape of lakes full of roses and pears and swans in love. Klein’s musical setting, however, does not quite match this rich portrait. Instead, his minimalist piano part seems almost meditative. The second stanza’s dark and pessimistic atmosphere spreads melancholy through the voice of the speaker who mourns his own solitude during the wintertime and the spread of the cold season. Klein carries the meditative sensual character of the text into musical setting that expresses grief and loneliness. The musical design evokes slow walking steps through combination of chromaticism, triadic and quartal progressions in combination of whole-tone language resembling an introverted voyage toward an uncertain destination.
Soumrak Shury Sesouvá Se (June 30, 1940)
German: Dämmrung Senkte Sich von Oben, English: Dusk Has Fallen from on High.
In the longest, most intense, and vibrant of the three songs, based on a poem by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Klein sets a musical illustration of the dusk progressing and the atmosphere of calmness and serenity it creates. Here, too, Klein projects an uncertain mood filled with the dark, meditative sonorities of the piano while designing once again a very high pitch-range for the vocal part thus creating fragile, fickle melodies that enhance the uncertainty of the text. The poem is set in three distinct sections that vary musically. In the first stanza, the text quite ambivalently describes the dusk's arrival:“… All that was near now is distant; but there the evening star appears shining with its lovely light!…” Klein designs melodic counterpoint imitations between the voice and the piano to enhance these ambivalent qualities. Similarly, in the second stanza, Klein continues following the text with contrapuntal writing while the previously peaceful atmosphere transforms into an ambiguous mood. Darkness spreads further in the third stanza and the speaker appears for the first time in the poem describing the moon’s glow, the willows frolic and the coolness that creeps into the heart slowly through the night. It is toward this very descriptive ending of the song, that one may question whether the speaker reflecting on the effects that dusk brings to his mind and soul describes a soothing or perhaps, a frightening sentiment.
From a song cycle perspective, beyond the technically challenging piano parts that sometime subdue the voice parts, they also share similar moods. Each song ends with a solo piano, increasingly rent with musical rests, reflecting the uncertainty and unease discernible in the songs’ texts. It is unfortunate that Klein's songs opus 1 are less familiar than his later works composed in Terezín. The cycle has hardly ever been performed and has been recorded only a few times. Even though it can be demonstrated that these songs unfold Klein's great compositional potential, some may nevertheless dismiss their value. Indeed, there is occasionally a disparity within these songs between the well thought-out polished piano parts and less refined voice parts. Their significance reflects itself in the way Klein embraced dissonant atonal style, and empowered it by the choice of such particular texts. Although these texts are by authors of different backgrounds, what unites these texts is their descriptions of personal loneliness and grief, as if Klein referred to their words to express his own voice.
The Songs Opus 1 should be properly recognized and performed more frequently. These songs provide a remarkable musical perspective that fosters our understanding, evaluation, and appreciation of Gideon Klein's artistic contribution: a bold, powerful, and rich testimony to his troubled circumstances in the months that preceded his ill-fated deportation to Terezín concentration camp in 1941. Galit Gertsenzon
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