PAUL VON KLENAU AND HIS NINTH SYMPHONY
by Niels Krabbe
In all essentials, Paul von Klenau’s Ninth Symphony was composed in 1945 in Copenhagen as his last major work, and concluded six months before his death in the summer of 1946. Klenau’s autograph manuscript then lay unknown outside his close family circle for more than fifty years until it appeared in 2001 in connection with the discovery of a large collection of Klenau manuscripts at the home of his grandchild in Vienna.1 Subsequently the collection was bought by the Royal Library in Copenhagen and after music-philological editing and publication of the symphony by the Danish Centre for Music Editing at the Royal Library, it was given its first performance at a DR Thursday Concert in March 2014 under the baton of Michael Schønwandt. With its eight movements for symphony orchestra, choir and four soloists and a duration of 90 minutes it is presumably the biggest symphony written by a Danish composer. It takes the form of an unusual fusion of a requiem in four movements to a Latin text (taken, with a few exceptions from the liturgy of the Catholic Requiem Mass) and a traditional four-movement symphony. Throughout its tonal language, with its German roots and its mixture of tonal and atonal (sometimes twelve-tone) passages, the work is very far from the style that predominated in Danish music in the 1940s which was marked, on the one hand, by the music of Carl Nielsen and on the other hand by features from folk music and Neoclassicism.
In 1944-45, when Klenau was composing his major work, it is unlikely that he anticipated having it performed in the immediate future. For one thing the political circumstances in the country did not favour a performance that required such extensive resources; for another – and perhaps primarily – Klenau was at this time an outsider because of his tonal language and his many years in Germany. As a very young man he had left Denmark for Germany as a kind of protest against the Danish musical establishment, which he considered provincial and anaemic. In Germany he got his musical training and established himself in time as a well known name in German musical life both as a composer and as a conductor. He was a familiar figure in the influential circles of musicians, poets and philosophers, and had his operas and symphonies performed in many places in Germany. Apart from a few years in Denmark in connection with the establishment of the Danish Philharmonic Society in the 1920s it was in Germany and Austria that Klenau left his musical mark, and it was not until 1939 that he left Germany for private and political reasons to return with his Austrian wife to Copenhagen, where he stayed until his death in 1946. With him on his journey to Denmark he brought a somewhat chequered reputation as someone who had tried to navigate the currents of Nazi cultural policy a little too long, and who had literally turned his back on his native country.
Both in Klenau’s final years in Denmark and afterwards, people had difficulty reconciling themselves with his relationship with Nazism in the thirties and during the war. His connection with Nazi cultural life up to the war and his continued contacts with German and Austrian friends during and after the war contributed greatly to the tainted reputation that Klenau acquired – and still has to a not insignificant extent. Around the first performance of the Ninth Symphony on 20 March 2014 in Copenhagen discussions flared up anew about his political stance. After the emergence in connection with the above-mentioned discovery in Vienna in 2001 of the extensive new source material covering Klenau’s life and work, it can probably be claimed with considerable certainty that Klenau was at no time a Nazi, although like many other cultural personalities in Denmark he entertained a certain admiration for the clarity and order that prevailed behind the Nazi ideology. He had a passion for the great bourgeois German cultural tradition and thus came to adopt a number of ideals and visions that were later taken over by Nazi cultural policy. This is particularly evident from a 100-page manuscript that he left after his death under the title A Musician’s Experience of European Culture 1900-1939, in which he describes his more than thirty years in Germany and speaks of his many relations with German cultural figures in the first three decades of the twentieth century. These memoirs, supplemented by the many, partly newly-discovered letters, lectures and articles by Klenau, give us a far more nuanced picture of his personality and views than has been the norm in the Danish tradition so far. 2
Klenau wrote a total of nine symphonies (to which we can add an unfinished ‘first’ symphony in D minor written three years before the ‘first’ symphony acknowledged by Klenau himself from 1907), and he is thus one of the most productive Danish symphonists of the first half of the twentieth century, exceeded only by Rued Langgaard. It should be stressed, however, that the second, third and fourth symphonies are not available in complete versions, and in particular the transmission of the Fourth Symphony, which is perhaps identical to the so-called Dante Symphony, is unclear. The last five symphonies were all written in the period 1940-1946 after his return to Denmark, and only the Fifth (Triptych) and the Seventh Symphony (Storm Symphony) were printed in Klenau’s lifetime. The Fifth, Sixth (Nordic Symphony) and Seventh Symphony were performed in Denmark during the war in DR Thursday Concerts to somewhat mixed receptions in the press, while the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies were unknown until the Klenau collection appeared in 2001; these two works in particular demonstrate the range of Klenau’s production: the Eighth Symphony, with its score of just 39 pages for traditional symphony orchestra with the by-name Im alten Stil, and the Ninth Symphony in eight movements, with more than 225 score pages for orchestra, choir and four soloists. It is interesting to note that while for the first three of the five symphonies from the last period in Denmark we have a number of statements from Klenau’s pen on the content and technique of the works, no such information is preserved on the genesis of the Eighth and Ninth symphonies – not in letters, in lectures or in other notes. The works – in Klenau’s autograph ink fair copy – were apparently hidden away “for better times”, and after Klenau’s death in 1946 were taken to Vienna by his wife, Margarethe Klimt, where as mentioned they remained in private ownership until 2001.
Disregarding a large number of handwritten sketch sheets, Klenau’s autograph score in the Royal Library is the only source for the Ninth Symphony (see illustration). The composer must have originally been uncertain about which number he should give the work, inasmuch as both some of the sketches and the third movement bear the inscription Symphonie VIII, irrespective of the fact that at this time there already was an Eighth Symphony – that is, the previously mentioned symphony, Im alten Stil. A handwritten note in the manuscript by Klenau’s widow suggests that Klenau, “in veneration of Beethoven”, was loth to use the figure “9” of his new work! The dating of the individual movements, and the notes in the sketches, show that the composer long remained in doubt about the order of the eight movements, and that the work at one point had the working title Tragische Ouverture. The datings show among other things that the two purely instrumental movements (the fifth and the sixth) were composed after the large-scale eighth movement, as is evident from the following overview, which shows Klenau’s datings:
First movement: December 1944, January 1945
Second movement: 8 February 1945
Third movement: 20 February 1945
Fourth movement: no date (but dated “11/2/45” in Klenau’s textual appendix)
Fifth movement: 20 November 1945
Sixth movement: 5 November 1945
Seventh movement: no date (continues attacca in eighth movement)
Eighth movement (“Last section”): 22 April 1945.
Precisely the chronological position of the eighth movement may provide a hint to the proper understanding of the symphony: it is evident (“last section”), that it was on the one hand intended as the large-scale final movement of the symphony (one thinks of Beethoven’s ‘breakthrough gesture’), while at the same time it was composed in the very last years of the war before a couple of the other movements. The text is a composite of extracts from the Requiem Mass’s Sanctus and Agnus Dei, but supplemented with the sentence “In nobis lex aeterna; supra nos legiones stellarum” (“Within us is the eternal law, above us the hosts of stars”), which recalls Immanuel Kant’s often-quoted finals words in his Kritik der praktischen Vernunft: “Two things fill the mind with ever greater admiration and awe, the more often and more enduringly one thinks of them: the starry sky above me and the moral law within me”.
The bulk of the text for the vocal movements is taken, as indicated, from the liturgy of the Catholic Requiem Mass with certain changes to the authorized Catholic liturgy. The text for the fourth movement, on the other hand, differs radically by virtue of its unknown origin, but was probably written by Klenau himself. Its juxtaposition of war and heroism on the one hand and the longing for peace on the other of course first and foremost brings to mind the political situation then prevailing in Denmark and Germany, but at the same time evokes associations with the Old Testament text from Ecclesiastes, saying that “to everything there is a season and a time ... a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to break down and a time to build up”.
Klenau’s detailed work with these texts for the four vocal movements is clear from a number of handwritten and typed textual appendices to the score in Danish, German and Latin:
At the first performance of the symphony in March 2014 the reviewers noted the highly eclectic character of the work with its combination of dodecaphonic passages and traditional major/minor tonal passages side by side. This is especially clear from the third, fourth and fifth movements, where extended passages in the first two are based on 12-tone rows in various permutations, while the fifth movement with its recurring march-like theme almost seems like a kind of parody in the grand symphonic and quasi-liturgical context. Not least Klenau’s attitude to dodecaphony has given rise to discussions of his musical and especially his political stance. In the 1920s Klenau was associated with the circle around Schoenberg and his pupils, and was thus preoccupied with dodecaphony, which he thought was the logical consequence of the development of the musical material since Wagner, and thus not a rupture with tonality resulting in pure anarchy. In a number of his operas from the time in Germany, but also in two of the major symphonies that he wrote after coming back to Denmark in 1939 (the Seventh Symphony from 1941 and the present Ninth Symphony from 1944-45) he worked with the twelve-tone techniques, and in a number of printed and unprinted writings he defended his attitude to dodecaphony, not least in the face of the accusation of being entartet (degenerate) that was directed at a number of the composers of the ‘Schoenberg School’. He tried to keep to the straight and narrow path by marketing an – apparently self-contradictory – concept that he called “key-determined twelve-tone music” and on the other hand by claiming that he was indebted, not to the Jewish Schoenberg, but to Matthias Hauer and later Alban Berg and Webern, “who were all Aryans”, as he put it. It is among other things this rather opportunistic defence of his own music as ‘house-trained’, also in the thirties, that has made posterity question his disposition in relation to the Nazi ideology.
As indicated, one can discuss how one should view Klenau’s Ninth Symphony in terms of genre, not least in the interpretation of the vocal movements. One can hardly speak of a sacred Requiem in the traditional sense in line with works by Mozart, Verdi, Fauré and many others. Without further comparisons the work can recall Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem – that is, as an evocation of the horror of war. None of these approaches is entirely appropriate, but one may achieve a hint of understanding by placing the work in the grand – and sometimes confusing and by the criteria of the time ‘un-Danish’ – system of thought revealed by the whole production of music, letters and writings left to us by Klenau.
© Niels Krabbe, Research Professor Emeritus
1 Besides the Ninth Symphony the collection comprised many other hitherto unknown works, including two symphonies (no. 4 and no. 8), a violin concerto, a piano concerto, songs and many other works.
2 The memoirs, which were written in Danish, are being published in an annotated edition by Eva Hvidt.