Gideon Klein was born in Prerov, Moravia, on 6 December 1919. His family, rooted in Jewish tradition, was also modern in outlook and supportive of culture and art. At age six, Gideon's precocious musicality became evident and he began to study piano with the head of the local conservatory. When he was eleven he travelled once a month to Prague for lessons with the wife of the noted piano pedagogue Professor Vilem Kurz, and the following year he moved to Prague to live with his sister, Eliska Kleinova. In the fall of 1938 he was admitted to Professor Kurz's Master School of the Prague Conservatory, registering at the same time at Charles University for courses in philosophy and musicology, and for the latter department writing an impressive and detailed study of voice-leading in Mozart's string quartets in his first semester.
He graduated from the Master School in one year, but, when the Nazis closed all institutions of higher learning following their occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, he could not continue at the university. During this period Klein began to perform widely, to general acknowledgement of his technical polish, the unusual maturity of his musical conceptions, his intelligence, understanding and emotional involvement. In 1940 he was offered a scholarship for study at the Royal Academy of Music in London, but by that time Nazi race and emigration laws prevented his leaving the country. Jewish musicians could also no longer perform in public. Gideon circumvented this for a time by appearing under the name of Karel Vranek, and when even this was too dangerous his venue became private homes of those who wished to hear him play.
Until recently, it was assumed that except for a few sketches and juvenilia, Klein had written little music until blossoming as a composer in Terezín. Unexpectedly, however, in June 1990, the Dr Eduard Herzog family in Prague, friends of the Kleins from before the war, found in their possession a locked suitcase that had been forgotten for over fifty years. It contained a treasure of Gideon's manuscripts, evidently placed for safekeeping with the Herzogs before Klein was sent to Terezín. This music completely altered the impression that he had suddenly begun to compose seriously only in the ghetto, for it revealed works, dating from 1939 and 1940, of astonishing craftsmanship and maturity for one then so young: songs for soprano and piano, an octet for winds, large-scale pieces for string quartet and several string duos, including one in quarter tones.
On 1 December 1941, Gideon Klein, along with thousands of other Prague Jews, was deported to Terezín. He immediately became active in the camp’s cultural life, undertaking whatever was necessary to assist in the creation and maintenance of musical activities for the benefit of both musicians and their audiences. He continued playing chamber music with his colleagues from Prague, assisted in the preparation and accompanied performances of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, Verdi’s Requiem and other works, and accompanied singers.
Klein's longest and most intense musical training was as a pianist. His solo repertoire in Terezín consisted largely of works that had won him praise in Prague, including Mozart's Adagio, Beethoven’s Sonata op. 110, Schumann’s Fantasy op. 17, Brahms' Intermezzi, Josef Suk's Life and Dreams, Janacek's l.X. 1905 as well as pieces by Schoenberg and Scriabin and Busoni’s transcription of a Bach toccata and fugue. As with so many of the Terezín concerts, popular demand dictated repeat performances, and Gideon’s solo and chamber music programmes were given up to eleven times. Some measure of Klein's virtuosity may be sensed from one of Viktor Ullman's reviews of his second recital. ‘Gideon Klein,’ he wrote,
is, without doubt, a very remarkable talent. His is the cool, matter-of-fact style of the new youth; one has to marvel at his strangely early stylistic maturity.
Klein’s compositions in Terezín include chamber music for strings, choral works, madrigals to poetry of Holderlin and Villon, a piano sonata, incidental music for the theatre and a song cycle for alto and piano: settings of Die Peststadt (The Plague City), poetry by Petr Kien, an immensely gifted young poet and artist who also came to Terezín from Prague.
Eliska Kleinova, his older sister, had already been deported to Auschwitz when Gideon and fellow composer Hans Krasa decided to make a plan to save the music they had written in Terezín. When their own departure was inevitable, they entrusted their manuscripts to Irma Semtzka, Gideon's last girlfriend in the ghetto, instructing her to give them to Eliska should she survive the war and they meet again.
Nine days after completing his string trio, fated to be his last composition, Gideon Klein was sent to Auschwitz on 1 October 1944, and from there to Fürstengrube, a coal-mining labour camp for men, near Katowitz in Poland. It is not known whether he was killed there by the remaining Nazis as the liberating Red Army approached or whether he died on a forced march with those Jews made to accompany the fleeing SS. He certainly received no consideration for his musical gifts, but paid the ultimate price on 27 January 1945, less than two months after his twenty-fifth birthday. Remaining in the camp until its liberation, Irma Semtzka met Eliska again in Prague after the war and gave the precious manuscripts to her, together with an oil portrait of Gideon which to this day hangs over the piano in the same apartment where Professor Klevnova lived with her brother in their last years in Prague. Eliska worked tirelessly on behalf of Gideon’s music and, ‘without enough money to buy a handkerchief’, arranged the first complete concert of his music on 6 June 1946 in the small hall of the Rudolfinium. Conductor Karel Ancerl, himself a major contributor to Terezín's musical life, wrote some comments for the programme of this concert, concluding as follows:
Where there was a valuable cultural performance, there for sure Gideon Klein was the initiator. Towards the end, before the [final] transports to Auschwitz, Gideon started to conduct. He had all the gifts, including an accurate ear, for this art. It is difficult to say how and to what dimensions Gideon Klein would have grown under normal circumstances. One can say with certainty that he could have been among the best, achieving the utmost perfection in the pianist in art, in composing and conducting.
Although he attended lectures by the quarter-tone composer Alois Haba at the Prague Academy of Music, Klein was mostly self-taught in composition, and his considerable technical expertise was enhanced by the constant study of musical scores, which his sister recalls he would read in bed, as absorbed in the intricacies of Bach and Mozart (‘his special god and teacher’) as if in the developing complexities of a novel.
Gideon Klein’s Terezín works are a natural continuation and development from his earlier music, and two general tendencies can be perceived, one reflecting his Czech origins, the other revealing an affinity for the Second Viennese School. These two trends are not at all mutually exclusive, for the presence and influence of Schoenberg's teaching and example were especially felt in Prague during the 1920s and 30s by a group of Schoenberg's German speaking pupils, among them Heinrich Jalowetz, Josef Trauneck, Viktor Ullman and others. Schoenberg's own music had been frequently performed in Prague from 1904, and Anton Webern's as late as 1935. Klein himself, having moved to Prague in 1931 at the age of eleven, was no doubt exposed to this music relatively early, and his performances between 1939 and 1941 included not only Janacek's works, but also Schoenberg's Three Piano Pieces, op. 11. These two influences are noteworthy, for example, in his Divertimento (1939) for eight winds and Three Songs, op. 1 (1940), and a similar dichotomy exists between the two largest works from Terezin, the Sonata (1943) and String Trio (1944).
By David Bloch