Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Gideon Klein (19l9-1945)

String Trio (1944)


The program notes for these concerts have been aimed at presenting information on the composer’s life, or the circumstances surrounding the particular work’s genesis. (Descriptive, and in my view, meaningless verbiage about work you will presently hear, serves no purpose other than providing a writer with something to write, verbal variations on a piece of music.) The circumstances surrounding Klein’s String Trio are probably the most extreme we will have encountered in all the programs thus far presented.

The work you will presently hear was composed in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt.

When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, the former garrison town of Terezin, a short distance north of Prague, was converted into a concentration camp. Theresienstadt differed from the other death factories in that its function was to deceive the Jews under German occupation, the international community (which, I suggest was all too willing to believe) and the International Red Cross into believing that this camp was a typical concentration camp. The Nazis went as far as producing a propaganda film entitled "The Fuhrer Presents the Jews with a City." For this film, the inmates were forced to perform and the camp fitted out with fake building facades, ala Disneyland to portray Theresienstadt as a paradise ghetto. This farce took place in 1944. However, when the camp opened in 1941, instruments were smuggled into the camp, and performances were given in secret. The Nazis found that by permitting cultural activities, though strictly censored, they could better control the population. To this end, the "Administration for Free Time Activities" was set up by the SS command and run by the prisoners, many of whom were gifted musicians, artists and writers. The other function of Theresienstadt was as a way station to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Prisoners were routinely shipped off at a moment’s notice, as was Gideon Klein.

Gideon Klein was born in 1919 in Prerov, Czechoslovakia, a Moravian Jew. He studied composition with Alois Haba at the Prague Conservatory and musicology at Charles University in Prague. He was forced to discontinue his studies in 1940 because of the Nuremberg Laws. Since compositions and performances by Jewish musicians were banned, his own works could not be played, though he continued in his career as concert pianist by assuming several pseudonyms. Klein was sent to Theresienstadt a month after it opened in 1941. He was very active in all aspects of the musical life in the camp. He formed chamber ensembles, organized solo concerts and performed the works of Bach, Mozart, Brahms, and his countryman, Janacek, as well as his own compositions and those of other composers living in the camp.

The String Trio was Gideon Klein’s last composition, completed on October 9, 1944, nine days before he was shipped off to Auschwitz. It is a tribute to Klein and the human spirit that such a wonderful life-affirming work could be written under such circumstances. The first and third movements of this three movement work are filled with allusions to the folk music of his native region, and indeed the second movement is a set of variations on a Moravian folk song. It is work which compares favorably with that of Janacek, Kodaly, and Szymanowski. Klein died in the Furstengrubbe concentration camp January 1945 at the age of 25. We must not forget how he died, but we must remember Gideon Klein for the music he gave us.

Fifty years later, and genocide continues in this region of Europe. This time it is Bosnian Muslims (another group of people never very welcome in Europe) and it is in no one’s "strategic interest" to assist them or allow them the means to help themselves. Perhaps this century’s musical prophet, Gustav Mahler (a Bohemian Jew) had it right in his sardonic setting of the folk poem St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes whose last line runs: Die Predigt hat g’fallen, sie bleiben wie Allen. ("They liked the sermon, they remain as they were.")

A special thank you is due Charlie Prager, for diligently tracking down the score of this music, and obtaining it for the Sierra Chamber Society, so that you might hear it today.

More music by Gideon Klein and Victor Ullman can be heard on the CD, Chamber Music from Teresienstadt, by the Terezin Chamber Music Foundation, on Channel Classics (CCS 1691).

1993-94 Season, Program III, Sunday February 6, 1994

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