“Don’t Forget About Me” – The Short Life of Gideon Klein, Composer and Pianist -a new biography by David Fligg

The title of this book, published by Toccata Press, comes from Gideon Klein’s last letter, written to his sister Edith’s mother-in-law, Marie Doláková. The letter was smuggled out from the Auschwitz subcamp Fürstengrube, a coalmine owned by IG Farbenindustrie AG and a camp few survived.  In the letter, which managed to escape the camp censor, Gideon Klein asked three times “not to be forgotten”. How Klein died remains a mystery: either he was shot as the camp was evacuated with the approach of the Soviet troops, or more horrifyingly, he was burned to death when the Nazis set fire to the camp buildings regardless of those too ill or too weak to leave.

Until now, I was under the impression that Gideon Klein (1919-1945) was that rare individual blessed by the gods with intelligence, talent, grace and beauty. I recalled a conversation with the conductor Vilém Tauský who also lived in the small Czech town of Přerov, telling me about his young neighbour who came home from the library with entire encyclopaedia and mountains of books that he not only read, but appeared to have absorbed. His musical genius was also beyond dispute, though as a child, nobody could have known where this immensely gifted child would go. He seemed to have it all: good looks, an endlessly inquisitive mind, musical talent, academic achievement, athleticism and the promise of potential greatness. 

Klein aged 9 (on the right) with his cousin Arnošt Kulka in 1928

Anyway, this is what I believed until I read David Fligg’s richly illustrated biography. In fact, nothing in my original assumption of Klein has changed, but Fligg added so much more that he no longer seemed the Nietzschean Übermensch, but a vulnerable young man with too many gifts, the development of which he was still attempting to prioritise. And yes, he had flaws as well. In short, Fligg takes the myth of Gideon Klein and returns him to the human race, while not detracting in the slightest from the tragedy of his early murder, and our collective great loss.

Klein relaxing in Yugoslavia in 1937

It would be difficult to have much to write about a young man murdered at what was the start of a career. Until now, English readers had Milan Slavický’s biography Gideon Klein, A Fragment of Life and Work, and a collection of articles and memories of Klein published by Bockel-Verlag in German, under the title of Gideon Klein Materialien.  More recently, Berlin’s Musica Reanimata published lectures held at a symposium marking Klein’s 100th birthday, called Torso eines Lebens – Der Komponist und Pianist Gideon Klein (1919-1945). (edited by Albrecht Dümling).With the exception of Torso eine Lebens, which comes in at 260 pages, the other volumes have been understandably slim, barely crossing the 100 page mark. Fligg gives us a proper 300-page biography, extracts from letters, transcriptions of memories, a rich assortment of photos and interviews along with an additional twenty-two pages of  time-line, worklist and index. For all readers interested in Klein, Fligg offers the advantage of time and distance allowing him to write objectively and less emotionally. He has avoided the obvious danger of writing a hagiographic account, an easy option when writing about someone supremely gifted and murdered so young.

Written in 1940 the first of his “Three Songs for High Voice” Op. 1

Piano Sonata, completed 1943

His piano sonata may suggest clear Alban Berg influences, and his string trio offers echoes of Janáček but in these and other works composed in the Ghetto of Terezín, Klein’s own voice is dominant. As Fligg points out, the trio is now standard repertoire and performed in concerts that do not take the Holocaust or Terezín as its subject. There is painfully little that remains, but what remains is more than just the promise of a young talent cut short.

Klein’s Trio – his last work completed 7 October 1944, (Israeli Chamber Project)

Fligg puts things into proportion. It is with some relief that I note Klein playing the same Mozart sonata and Mendelssohn Songs without Words that I learned at the same age. The fact that he then moved on to more challenging works does not alter the fact that despite his talent, he was not a prodigy. Being precocious rather than a Wunderkind probably had to do with the fact that Klein was equally gifted academically.

Perhaps his teacher, Růžena Kurzová, was cautious and these were merely the paces even the most talented young musicians were put through in Prague. He was nineteen when he finally performed with an orchestra, first Janáček’s Concertino, then his graduation performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. It was no doubt sublime, but again, it was not an exceptional level for a nineteen-year-old completing a performance degree. Klein was not one of central Europe’s many pianistic prodigies performing Beethoven concertos at the age of six and Rachmaninov, Liszt, Grieg and Tchaikovsky at the age of twelve. Maybe he was capable of learning and playing one of the “warhorse” concertos, but he and his teachers kept to the repertoire to a relatively conventional graduation level. There are accounts of how entranced listeners were at his Beethoven performance. That he went for the transcendental G-major Concerto rather than the showier C-minor or E-flat major concertos makes him all the more intriguing and suggests a maturity beyond his years.  

Klein String Quartet Op. 2 from 1941 performed by the Hawthorne Quartet
Klein with one of his longer relationships, Frantiská Edelsteinová in 1941 – walking across the Legion Bridge in Prague

Nearly all the contemporary accounts of encounters with Klein mention his exceptional good looks: “Like a movie star” was just one quote that stood out. Every female or young girl who had dealings with him mention his physical beauty before anything else. Yet, he seems to have been similar to the young Glenn Gould in his apparent sexual ambivalence.  Though one girl friend makes an oblique reference to a sexual relationship, there is a certain distance in his dealings with the opposite sex. Various female friends accuse him of being so lost in his inner world as to be incapable of developing deeper relationships with women. Though clearly a “child of his time”, he still saw the opposite sex as something surprising and often referred to strong, capable women along the lines of “as good as twenty men”. Probably, for the age and environment in which he lived, it was close as any male could get in acknowledging the fundamental equality of the sexes.

Klein in 1941
Duo for Violin and Cello, 1940? 1941?

Fligg’s Klein biography offers a strong balance between historic timeline, contextualisation and an un-tarnished appraisal of Klein’s output. We have an opening section on Klein’s family and position in Přerov from 1919-1931. It would be too simplistic to describe his upbringing as provincial. His family was educated and their home in the town of Přerov was large and comfortable. As Vilém Tauský indicated, his inquisitiveness was the subject of speculation and gossip.

By the time Klein was twelve, it was obvious he needed broader horizons and wider opportunities and he joined his sister Lisa Kleinová in Prague where she was studying piano with Klement Slavický. She was able to place her younger brother with Růžena Kurzová, who with Theresa Goldschmidtová (née Wallerstein and teacher of the eleven year-olds, Hans Krása and  Hanuš (Hans) Winterberg), was highly regarded as a piano teacher for gifted children.

Perhaps one of the surprising things about Klein was his relative sparseness as a composer.  He had already composed a now lost Suite Lyrique for piano at the age of ten, but was not moved to compose again until 1933, with a Little Suite consisting of two very short movements showing the obvious jazzy influences of Darius Milhaud. A few jazzy sketches and even a work called Three Small Ideas for flute and piano follow.  Other smallish works were also composed during these early years: songs with a Schoenbergian influence, some incomplete works for harp and his most significant composition, a melodrama called Topol (The Poplar Tree). Fligg points out that the text for Topol was by the Czech poet Vilém Závada, and taken from his cycle called Krajina (Landscapes). It suggests that in these uncertain days of threats from Nazi Germany, Klein was developing an identity as a Czech musician and composer.   

Klein at the piano

There follows a short chapter on Klein travelling through Italy after finishing high school and before continuing his studies at the Conservatory with Vilém Kurz with various academic classes at the University.  The section on Italy is fascinating, despite it covering only a month in his short life. It’s only the second time he leaves the country, and we see a side of a precociously intellectual adolescent taking notes in art museums, enjoying the climate and at the same time, torn on the one hand to continue his cultural tour, while on the other, missing his family. It is a very human young man we encounter, likeable and though mature for his age, still deeply tied to his family.  It is perhaps the most revealing chapter of Klein the person and a lesser biographer would have summarised this holiday in a paragraph rather than a chapter. After spending a month away, he wrote in huge letters in his diary PRAGUE! HOME!

The young Klein about to embark on his trip to Italy following graduation from high school

This is wonderful biography, but perhaps the most startling revelation is the effect Terezín had on a young talented individual. Anyone who has been accepted by a music college, especially one in Central Europa, will be aware of bright young things who seem supremely gifted in multiple disciplines. Speaking from experience, having studied in Vienna’s Conservatory and Academy, I can say that the extraordinary talents I encountered, those who were gifted both musically and  academically, would rarely go on to make notable careers in music.  Perhaps they were too talented in too many things. Some entered the parallel vocation of medicine and some went on to study something entirely different.  Others, who seemed to possess exceptional technical gifts as instrumental soloists, appear to have vanished altogether or made local, rather than international careers.  This may seem heresy, but I would suggest that Klein may well have been just such an individual had he not been interned in Terezín. In addition to his good grades and his high musical achievements, he was interested in Zionism and Marxism. Had he survived, he would most likely have welcomed the Communist coup in February 1948. In other words, as a gifted and talented young man, blessed with all the gods could bestow, there was not enough to guarantee Klein becoming a significant composer.  The magic ingredient that lifted talent to genius was his time in the Terezín Ghetto.

1940, still living in Prague and following orders to clear snow by the Nazis

Inevitably, we have a lengthy discourse of life in Terezín, but I was surprised at how positive, indeed naïve Klein was initially about his life in what mendaciously appeared to be, genuinely, a town where Jews were to be accommodated. He threw himself into cultural life and surrounded by other significant musical figures such as Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas, Hans Krása (his momentary brother-in-law during a marriage of convenience in Terezín) along with numerous pianists and other musicians, Klein’s full potential as a composer blossomed.

Viktor Ullmann’s new music initiative at Terezín including Klein’s songs with texts written by Peter Kien.

The promising compositions of a gifted youngster prior to internment only hinted at his ultimate potential. It begs questions asked since Shostakovich about every composer, artist, writer or poet who survived (or died) under Stalin. Yet in contrast to the older, more experienced composers in Terezín, Klein’s transition from mere promise to greatness is both visible and quantifiable. Indeed, it was barely a “transition”, but more like an abrupt catapult into genius. To quote an extract from Viktor Ullmann’s essay Goethe und Ghetto:

Theresienstadt was and continues to be for me the school of form. In earlier days, when the magic of civilisation suppressed the weight and fury of material life, it was a simple matter to create beauty in form. “Our true master-class in form, however, is to be found within our present situation, where we require form to dominate everything that makes up the material of our daily life, and any inspiration the muses may offer stands in the starkest contrast to our surroundings.[. . .] It’s only worth emphasising how much my work as a musician has gained by being in Theresienstadt: in no manner did we just sit on the banks of the rivers of Babylon and weep that our cultural needs were not able to keep pace with our will to live.

Arrangement of “Sh’chav B’ni (‘Sleep my Son’) on the melody ‘Ukolébavka’ (‘Lullaby’) by Shalom Charitonov, Hebrew words by Emmanuel Harussi, completed 6. February 1943