Performance sheds new light on life and work of Gideon Klein

Terezín, photo: Denisa Tomanová

Gideon Klein has been known mainly as a Czech Jewish composer who was interned in Terezín and later died in Auschwitz. A new international performance, which has its Czech premiere at the Prague Conservatory on Tuesday evening, wants to present Klein in a new perspective: as a fascinating young individual who was very much part of the pre-war vibrant Prague music scene.

David Fligg,  photo: David Vaughan
The project called Gideon Klein, Portrait of a Composer, is part of a festival called Out of the Shadows. I met with its author, the British musicologist David Fligg, just a few days ahead of the premiere, and I first asked him to tell me more about the festival itself:

“The festival is one of five international festivals. All of them are called Out of the Shadows. The first one was in Madison, Wisconsin. We have had one in the UK, in Leeds and York. This is our third. So in many ways it is our flagship festival. And then next year, we are going to be in South Africa, Cape Town and in Sydney, Australia.

“In all of the festivals, the main aim is to re-animate and perform music and theatre which was once lost and which has recently been discovered, and its’s almost inevitable that focus of that will be lost works which were hidden because of the Holocaust.

“And that is part of a big international research project called performing the Jewish Archive based at the school of music in Leeds, but we have got a number of international partners.”

And you are actually one of the co-founders of this project…

“I am one of the co-founders of the project and the project’s consultants and we have a number of scholars in the UK and beyond who are involved. And it has been generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Council in the UK.”

One of the main topics focuses of this year’s Out of the Shadows festival is Gideon Klein, a Czech musicians who was interned in Terezín and was later murdered in Auschwitz. Why have you decided to focus on Gideon Klein?

“My specific research area is on Gideon Klein. I am writing a critical biography on him. I have done a lot of research and a lot of it has been based here in the Czech Republic, in particular in the Jewish Museum archives here in Prague.

“Gideon Klein has been almost totally referenced by his imprisonment in Terezín and by his murder in Auschwitz. But it is important to realise that Klein was also part of a very exciting, modernist, avant-garde cultural scene, which was very much based in Prague before WWII.

“One of the things that I have been doing is to try and win Klein back first and foremost as a Jewish musician but as a Czech musician as well. One of the things I have been doing is to research how he was engaging with the Czech avant-garde immediately before the War but also close to the outbreak of war, so that we don’t reference him as a victim but as a very fine young musician.”

“One of the things that I have been doing is to try and win Klein back first and foremost as a Jewish musician but as a Czech musician as well.”

This is I guess the image you want to present in the programme called Gideon Klein: Portrait of a Composer, which is part of the Out of the Shadows festival. Can you tell me more about it?

“This presentation was premiered in Madison, Wisconsin, and it’s been performed in the UK, so this is its third performance, but in many ways, this is the most important one, because we are bringing Gideon back to Prague, a city he adored for obvious reasons. It was and still is such an important cultural centre.

“So I have put together a narrative: personal reminiscences and testimonies from his family and friends to create this portrait of a very active and exciting and fascinating musician and individual, who was very much part of Prague music scene at that time.

“And we will have actors performing the roles of Gideon and his sister, and members of his family and friends and associates. We’ll have a string quartered performing music by Gideon and music which he would have been familiar with, which helped to shape him as a musician.

“Significantly it is being performed at the Prague Conservatory, where for a while Gideon was a student, so also we are taking Gideon back to his conservatory and I think it is tremendously important and a very powerful thing to do.”

How long have you actually spet researching his life?

“That is really a leading question, because, as I mentioned before, he has been referenced by Terezín and to a certain extent by Auschwitz. But when I started to evaluate the archive in the Jewish Museum here in Prague where his estate is, I found there was so much information which really haven’t been looked at at all – correspondence, photographs, music which hasn’t yet been performed.

“One of the surprises for me was that although he was very young – he was born in 1919, so he was 20 at the outbreak of war, yet even in his teens he was so involved in music-making in this city.

It was quite remarkable, the sort of people he was coming into contact with. And even in his teens he was part of the vibrant café society. And all of these things have been forming and feeding him as an artist. I have to say that that is the most exciting thing that I have discovered about him. And to a large extent, because I have been researching him so intimately, in a sense he became part of our family as well.”

Terezín,  photo: Denisa Tomanová
Have you actually met any witnesses, any people who knew him?

“Most definitely and that’s a real challenge nowadays, of course. But there are people still alive who remember him. And that type of personal testimony is hugely important because in some cases they have spoken about or written about their encounters with Gideon before.

“But it has been very interesting meeting these people and asking: what was he like? Who were his friends? Who did he mix with and so forth? Almost exclusively these people remember him from Terezín but nonetheless there is a certain amount of testimony from people who remember him here in Prague.”

Gideon Klein died when he was of 25. How big is the volume of work he managed to produce by this age?

“Well, his output is fairly small, he left many incomplete compositions. He was a wonderful starter but he wasn’t all that good at finishing, I think the reason being that because he had so many fantastic ideas he wanted to get them down on paper and quite often for one piece of music there are a number of iterations of it and it has been quite a challenge untangling all of that; finding out what is the definitive score.

“Almost exclusively all his compositions are chamber works, so we are talking about small ensembles for strings or winds, for solo piano, vocal pieces, there are some sketches of orchestral works. Some of the works are increasingly being performed, for instance the String Trio, which is being performed in our festival, that’s now part of the standard repertoire to a large extent, his Piano Sonata also to a certain extent.

“The interesting thing of course is to see this incremental maturing of his style from his mid-teens to his final years written under captivity. It should also be pointed out that he heard hardly any of his music performed, very little of it.”

What were among the biggest influences on his music?

“Across one of his scores he wrote in large writing: long live Janáček and long live Schoenberg, so that sort of gives the game away. And I think if you were to listen to his music then quite clearly He feels himself part of this 20th century Czech tradition and of course inevitably that is Janáček because he is such a towering and overwhelming figure in that respect.

“But also his looking at European modernism, Schoenberg, and I suspect he came into contact with Stravinsky and Bartok as well, so he was very much influenced in that modernist style. The music he composed in Terezín was in style perhaps a little more conservative, because he was at the mercy of perhaps amateur performers. He wanted to make his music accessible. So his Terezín works are different again.”

The festival Out of the Shadow is also hosting a world premiere of one of Gideon Klein’s compositions…

“One of the surprises for me was that although he was very young – he was born in 1919, he was so involved in music making in this city.”

“This is very interesting. It is called Topol, or The Poplar Tree. There is a copy of the manuscript in the archives of the Jewish Museum here in Prague. The piece is complete, it is a melodrama for narrator and piano, so the voice part is spoken rather than sung. We don’t know who the words are by but I suspect the words are by Gideon Klein himself.

It is very interesting pieces and very dark as well. It is surprising that it was never published, it has never been recorded and that gets performed in Pilsen as a world premiere. There will also be the Czech premiere of a little harp piece he wrote when he was 15, and that was actually performed in the US in June.”

Going back to the programme Gideon Klein, Portrait of a Composer, that has already been performed in the US and in Great Britain. What was the reaction of the public?

“The reaction was astounding, because many people in the audience knew either nothing or next to nothing about Klein. What they found was that here was a composer who we have taken out of the shadows, in a sense.

“If we define Gideon’s shadow as imprisonment and incarceration, we are sort of winning him back as a musician who wasn’t under imprisonment. And certainly people found it very moving as well, because it is a tragic story but at times it is also touching and humorous as well.

“So we are trying to give voice to this individual who was loved by all, and one of the reasons he was loved is because he was a bit quirky as well and I think people liked that. And people have told me that that really comes out in the performance.”

Have you been in touch with the director and the actors who have been preparing the Prague performance?

“Yes, I met with the director, Kateřina Iváková, for the first time last month here in Prague. We have been emailing and skyping furiously, as you can imagine. And she is bringing to the performance something which is very interesting.

“I wanted her to be as experimental as she wanted, but it is not just experimentation for the sake of it. She has done it in a very creative and a very moving way. And without giving the game away it is going to be a very interesting performance and I am so excited.”