Don’t forget about me
Gideon Klein Toccata Press

Don’t forget about me
The Short Life of Gideon Klein Composer and Pianist
by David Fligg
322pp. Hardback
Published 2022
ISBN: 9780907689225
Toccata Press

It was back in 2010 that David Fligg undertook some research in the archives of the Jewish Museum in Prague and at the Terezín Memorial. These locations house Gideon Klein’s Estate. It was Fligg’s final day in the Prague archive when he was handed, by the archivist there Radana Rutová, Klein’s final handwritten letter. It was penned in the Fürstengrube slave camp, a sub-camp of the notorious Auschwitz, then smuggled out. Described as “his heartfelt plea for help”, three times he entreats the reader “Don’t forget about me”. This phrase, Fligg claims, was the catalyst for his biography and, indeed, was adopted for the title.

Gideon Klein was born on 6 December 1919 in Přerov, Moravia, in the east of Czechoslovakia. It was a country of great artistic wealth. Before the German occupation in 1939, the Jews were prosperous, well-educated and many were affluent. Against this backdrop, Gideon began piano lessons at the age of six and made rapid progress. He had the advantage of possessing perfect pitch and a retentive mind. In 1929, aged just nine, he wrote his first composition, a Suite lyrique for solo piano. In five short movements, it was an ambitious undertaking for one so young. In 1930 he began making monthly visits to Prague for piano lessons with Růžena Kurzová. A year later he moved there with his sister Lisa in order to study at the Conservatoire.

The book paints a portrait of Prague as a great cultural centre at the time, where the arts flourished. Klein immersed himself fully into the city’s artistic life and cafe society. Musicologist Edward Dent’s description of Prague as “that most musical of all European cities” fully bears this out. Both Gideon and his sister Lisa attended many concerts. Famous artists were drawn there, names such as Rachmaninoff, who performed Schumann and Chopin at the Lucerne Café, Rudolf Serkin, Sergei Prokofiev, who played his own music, and Vladimir Horowitz. The conductor Karel Ančerl, a friend of Lisa’s and who was to work later with Klein in Terezín, conducted many concerts and introduced the young siblings to the music of Bartók, Berg, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and several twentieth century Czech composers.

When Klein graduated in 1938 he had the world at his feet, but all that changed under German occupation a year later. Yet that summer, before all of this, he made a trip to Italy with some travelling companions. Fligg documents the tour in detail. Not only was it to provide Klein with a much need rest after an arduous year of study, but it would also give him the opportunity to “experience iconic art and architecture first hand”. All was documented in a diary he kept.

With Prague under German occupation, Hana Žantovská, Czech translator and writer, left an account of Klein’s graduation concert in June 1939. Fligg aptly comments that the concert “was the prelude to dark times, rather than an overture to something wonderful”. Klein performed the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Beethoven. It was a moving performance and a poignant occasion by all accounts. The author goes on to describe the effects of the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws, where Jewish property had to be registered. Jewish musicians were no longer allowed to perform in public. At one point Klein had to perform under a false name. This led him to increasingly focus his attention on composing. Around this time he sought tuition from composer Alois Hába. More and more restrictions came in. There were 8pm curfews imposed for Jews, and they were forbidden from owing radios or pets. The list goes on and on.

The last part of the book deals with Klein’s deportation to Terezín concentration camp in December 1941. He joined the likes of Pavel Haas, Hans Krása and Viktor Ullmann as one of the major composers there. Concerts were given in secret at the start, but gradually the Nazis started to permit such activities. Klein played a major part in the artistic life of the camp, performing several solo piano recitals there. He’d helped smuggle in a dilapidated piano.

Klein was a marvellous pianist, and a measure of his accomplishments can be gleaned from some of works he performed in Terezín, such pieces as Janáček’s Piano Sonata 1.X.1905, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in C major (arr. Busoni), the Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue and Schumann’s Fantasie in C major, Op. 17. No matter whether the audience consisted of one person or a substantial gathering , he performed with the same commitment and high standard as he did when he was in Prague.

His compositions from this time include a string quartet, a piano sonata and some vocal works. Fligg devotes an entire chapter to the composer’s final work, the String Trio. It’s Klein’s best-known, best-loved and most performed work. In fact, it was my introduction to his music. Nine days after its completion, in October 1944, he was deported to Auschwitz, and from there on to Fürstengrube, a coal-mining labour camp. The circumstances surrounding his death there on 27 January 1945 remain a mystery to this day. He’d had the foresight to entrust his manuscripts to Irma Semecká, his Theresienstadt girlfriend. These were eventually returned to his sister Lisa, who later supervised the publication of his scores before her death in 1999.

Dr. David Fligg has produced a fascinating and first class study of the life of Gideon Klein and, I have to say, this is one of the finest composer biographies I’ve ever read. It’s immediately approachable, insightful, non-technical and beautifully balanced. Fligg approaches his task with enthusiasm and clearly has a great love for his subject.

There are footnotes at the bottom of each page rather than them being numbered and then listed at the end of the book, which is another plus. There are useful appendices. The first is a list of the composer’s works, and the second is a chronology of “Significant events and dates connected to the life of Gideon Klein”. I found the extensive bibliography especially useful. The book is packed with photographs and facsimiles of scores and documents. All told, this is a highly recommended publication, a real page turner and certainly well-worth tracking down.

Stephen Greenbank

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