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Gideon Klein

Partita for String Orchestra

Gideon Klein was born into a Jewish family in Moravia, part of the modern Czech Republic. After studying in Prague, he was preparing to attend London’s Royal Academy of Music, where he had been offered a scholarship. Instead, just shy of his 22nd birthday, the Nazi authorities deported him and other Jews in Prague to the newly opened Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Theresienstadt held a nefarious double function in the Nazi scheme, serving to funnel Jews toward the labor and death camps further east while also providing a source of propaganda to mislead the rest of the world. Besides Klein, many other talented musicians ended up in Theresienstadt, including fellow composers Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullman. They were allowed to put on concerts, and an impressive body of music was composed during the camp’s three-and-a-half year span.

In October 1944, just days after Klein finished a trio for violin, viola and cello, he was among those transferred to Auschwitz. He is believed to have died in January 1945, possibly in the final death march precipitated by the oncoming Russian army. Klein had just delivered a stack of scores to his girlfriend for safekeeping, and so at least a portion of the compositions he made in captivity survived.

The Partita heard here is a 1990 arrangement of Klein’s String Trio by Vojtěch Saudek (1951-2003).The fast outer movements are filled with lively, burly themes redolent of folk music; the longer middle movement weaves slow variations on a Moravian folk song.

Aaron Grad ©2016

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Béla Bartók

Divertimento for Strings

Upheaval engulfed Béla Bartók in 1939. The Nazis had taken over his publisher, Universal, jeopardizing his intellectual property and his income, and his ailing mother tied him to his native Hungary, despite the looming threat of war. The conductor Paul Sacher provided some welcome consolation when he commissioned Bartók to write a new work for the Basel Chamber Orchestra. Sacher even offered Bartók the use of his home in Saanen, Switzerland, over the summer. Bartók accepted the commission and the vacation, and after fifteen days of composing (and avoiding newspapers) that August, he completed his Divertimento for Strings.

Bartók had written a previous work for Sacher, the stern Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936). For this new commission, and perhaps owing to the surroundings in which it was composed, Bartók adopted a more carefree approach. In titling the work “Divertimento,” he made reference to a Classical form of light-hearted amusement fit for parties and other celebrations. The score’s lean ensemble and dancing rhythms reflect the divertimento tradition of Mozart and his contemporaries, while the textures owe more to Corelli, Handel, Bach and all the other Baroque masters of the concerto grosso style. As in those early concertos, this work calls out individual voices from the larger string orchestra to create contrasting colors and densities of sound.

The Divertimento’s Allegro non troppo first movement makes a study of three-note fragments drawn from a range of musical modes, many redolent of the Hungarian folksongs that Bartók studied so exhaustively. The first three melodic notes descend F – E – D, and then the next scurry down the segment E-flat – D – C. The bluesy conflict between E and E-flat and other such collisions kick off the movement’s playful manipulations of its approachable themes.

In a marked shift of mood, the Molto adagio middle movement circulates from smooth, pacing lines into a swirling cloud of trills before dissipating for a quiet conclusion. The Allegro assai finale clears any lingering angst with a playful tussle through call-and-response melodies, sudden interruptions, a pensive cadenza for solo violin, sarcastic pizzicati (plucking) and glissandi (sliding between notes), and a manic conclusion.

Aaron Grad ©2013

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Dmitri Shostakovich

Chamber Symphony in F for Strings and Winds

The Third String Quartet of Shostakovich shares the neo-Classical bent of his Ninth Symphony, composed a year earlier. The balanced, Mozartean phrases of their opening movements sound as odd as can be for music emerging from the ruins of World War II, when Soviet artists of the era were on the steps of another round of bureaucratic abuse. The string quartet shares a few other traits with the symphony, including a doleful movement and another cast as an unhinged dance. They both have five movements, which Shostakovich’s son Maxim claimed was reserved for his “greatest and most serious compositions.”

Shostakovich completed the string quartet in August 1946, at his state-supplied dacha in Komarova, a small town that was a popular spot for summer vacations. It starts with a carefree, jaunty theme, which gives way to a darker melody that wanders seemingly aimlessly before being sliced off midstream. The quartet largely keeps with Classical-era formality, ending with a properly strong cadence. The second movement opens up new territory with a motorically rising accompaniment, providing support for a jagged melody. Shostakovich’s tone is stern and angry, but the sort of anger that keeps its actions in check.

The third movement boils over with slashing chords at the outset, followed by one of Shostakovich’s macabre minor-key dances. The fourth is a series of mournful passages, each with its own melancholy sound. Mystery pervades the final movement, as the searching melodies pass around each other slowly. The mystery isn’t dispelled by the end, as a high violin drifts away, far above a placid accompaniment. According to the violist who gave the quartet’s premiere, the Beethoven Quartet’s Fyodor Druzhinin, this quartet led to one of Shostakovich’s rare public displays of emotion for his own music: “When we finished playing, he sat quite still in silence like a wounded bird, tears streaming down his face.”

Rudolf Barshai has been a lifelong proponent of Shostakovich’s music, first as his composition student; later as a violist in the Borodin Quartet, which premiered several of Shostakovich’s string quartets; and then as a conductor. Barshai led the first performance of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony in 1960 and recorded all of Shostakovich’s symphonies with the Cologne Radio Orchestra. He’s orchestrated several of Shostakovich’s quartets, and the winds, harp and timpani he added to the Third are fully in keeping with the composer’s intent. The lonely flute heard prominently in the middle of the second movement was a favorite Shostakovichian sound and the bassoon at the end of the fourth movement echoes a similar bassoon solo from the Ninth Symphony, heard just one year before. Sadly, political machinations in 1948 would cause much of Shostakovich’s music to be pulled from circulation.

Marc Geelhoed ©2010

About This Program

Approximate length 2:00

This program explores music born out of the horrors of war. Gideon Klein was a promising young composer and pianist when the Nazi regime imprisoned him in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, along with many other artists and musicians forced into slavery, and his original Partita for Strings, scored for violin, viola and cello, was performed in the concentration camp and later arranged for string orchestra. Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra was written in 1939 while the threat of World War II loomed over his native Hungary. Closing the program is Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, an arrangement of his Third String Quartet, a powerful statement on war written under the intense scrutiny of Communist censorship.