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Suite dansée, Op. 44, (1928), First Five Pieces

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Alexander Abramovich Krein
Program note originally written for the following performance:
The Kennedy Center and Pro Musica Hebraica Present: An Evening of Jewish Music and Poetry: Evgeny Kissin Mon., Feb. 24, 2014, 7:30 PM
© James Loeffler

Alexander Krein rose from a childhood spent in his father's klezmer band to an important role in the early Soviet avant-garde. Along the way, he forged a unique style that fused European modernism, especially the intense chromaticism of his mentor Scriabin, with the lyrical melodies and distinctive modes of klezmer music and Hebrew liturgical chant. At its best, Krein's work succeeded much like Bartók's did: using folkloric elements to inject a striking new sonic energy into the heart of modern music.

Krein began his formal music studies at the Moscow Conservatory in 1896 as a cello student. On the side, he worked as a music critic and played an active role in the city's chamber music scene. By the time of his graduation in 1908, he was considered one of the leading lights of the Silver Age generation of Russian composers. Under the tutelage of critic and composer Joel Engel, the Moscow-based "father of modern Jewish music," Krein soon began to explore his Jewish heritage. By 1917 he had become a passionate Jewish nationalist, though not a Zionist. Instead, Krein believed that the socialist revolution would open up new vistas for Jewish national art. He accepted the Bolshevik offer of a Jewish national culture supported by the state yet subject to close ideological control.

Already in the 1920s, Soviet music had become a treacherous political zone. Self-appointed defenders of proletarian music loudly denounced composers who held onto Romantic styles imbued with "bourgeois nationalism." An antisemitic undertone often fueled these critiques. Just the same, these Bolshevik ideologues attacked other composers for excessive tonal abstraction that would not appeal to the working masses. Despite these challenges, Krein survived and thrived. One reason was Krein's evident political skills. In 1917 he was appointed an official in the Music Section of the People's Commissariat for Education, where he worked until 1927. Under the leadership of Anatoly Lunacharsky, this state agency initially encouraged and defended the Soviet avant-garde. But this arrangement ended with the ascent of Stalin to power at the decade's end.

In that brief window of the 1920s, Krein produced some of his most important works. These include his Kaddish, a symphonic cantata (1921), his First Symphony (1922-25), his First piano sonata (1925), and tonight's piece, the 1928 "Dance Suite." Comprised of six movements, five of which are heard tonight, it showcases Krein's unique style: refined lyricism blended with ripe dissonance, attractively lush harmonies interlaced with propulsive dance rhythms. The suite subjects traditional klezmer folk dance melodies to a delicate introspective treatment. Neo-impressionist colors á la Debussy alternate with chromatic flights that manage to evoke both the avant-garde language of Scriabin and the features of traditional klezmer music. The dance suite form, especially with French title, suggests an allusion to an archaic Baroque form. Yet the dance suite was just as much a feature of klezmer repertoire performed at Jewish weddings in Eastern Europe. And the characteristic Jewish melodic ornaments mark different passages as derived from a Jewish folk musical language. Hence the overall effect is of witnessing a jagged wedding dance refracted through a splintered Western musical mirror.

Much of Krein's music is only now reaching the West, a half-century after he died. Some major works still remain completely unknown, such as his Second Symphony (1945), reportedly written in response to the Holocaust. Manuscripts of this and other pieces remain languishing in Russian archives, still awaiting their revival.