About Paul von Klenau

The Danish composer Paul von Klenau (1883-1946) was born in Copenhagen, as a child of a very wealthy family. His mother was born Berggreen and was the descendant of the composer A.P. Berggreen.

Klenau began his education at the Conservatory of Copenhagen, with Otto Malling as his teacher in music theory among others, but travelled in 1902 to Berlin. His plan was to study violin with Joseph Joachim, but Klenau did not pass the entrance examination. But instead, on the basis of his compositions, he was admitted as “master student” with Max Bruch. This was the starting point for a great career as composer and conductor in Germany and Austria, which continued until 1939. However, he kept having a permanent residence in Frederiksberg and stayed in Denmark every summer. Klenau’s works, especially his operas, were performed on prominent theatres in Germany and Austria, and were performed by personalities such as Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwängler. He was published on the – then like now – major international publishing company Universal Edition. He became the director of Wiener Konzerthausgesellschaft in 1924, and in Vienna he had contact with both Arnold Schönberg and Alban Berg. The latter became a close friend , as can be seen by their extensive correspondence. In these years, Klenau also developed his own form of twelve-tone technique.

Alongside his career in Germany and Austria, he was active in Danish music life as initiator of the “Danish Philharmonic Society”, which in a number of concerts from 1920-26 put prominent modern composers on the programmes. A highlight was a guest concert in 1923, where Arnold Schönberg conducted his own works.

Like all artists in the 1930s in Germany, Klenau had to relate to Nazism. Initially, due to his modern tone language, he was frowned upon by the Nazi system, but at some point, he made a couple of – with modern eyes unfortunate – statements, which created a form of ceasefire with the regime, so that he could continue working until 1939. (In a magazine article, he wrote among other things, that his composing technique would fit the “National Socialist world” of the future and argued in a letter to an influential Nazi critic, that the twelfth-tone technique was not invented by the Jew Arnold Schönberg). Here we probably have the primary reason why he was ignored in the post-war period and why his works were virtually not performed for 50 years.

But there was no evidence to say that Klenau was a Nazi artist. He answered letters signed by its sender with “Heil Hitler” with a courteous “Sincerely.”[1] The Danish music researcher and critic Jens Brincker writes about Klenau:

“Paul von Klenau’s attitude towards the Nazi regime was first and foremost dictated by his situation as a creative artist in Germany and deeply associated with German art and culture. You can easily find both politically naive and opportunistic features in it, which the leading forces in the German government undoubtedly have also done. They were familiar with the kind of inquiries from artists who tried to avoid a “Berufsverbot” in Germany and the occupied countries during the war. Heroism is not necessarily a part of an artistic talent. But, with German eyes, Paul von Klenau was not a Nazi. He was too modern.”[2]

(Note: The fact that Nazism is still haunting our part of the world, I experienced on my own during the application procedure for the FormingPerforming project. I was granted the project, but under the clear prerequisite from the assessment committee, that I made my position unequivocally clear towards Klenau’s relationship with the Nazism. I thought – and still think – that this question had no relevance to my investigation and that the inquiry was an expression of an outdated view of the relationship between Art and Society. But I dutifully wrote the required answer – and it struck my mind whether I was doing the same kind of thing, that Klenau did Germany of the 30’es: To formulate what one’s sponsors would most like to hear.)

From 1939, Klenau moved back to Denmark, where he lived until his death in 1946. During this period he wrote a number of works which came to the public’s awareness in the 21st century, when a number of surviving scores appeared. They had been in the family’s custody until then, but in 2005, the Royal Library of Denmark managed to acquire the collection, which also contained the piano concerto. Even a piano sonata in f-minor was among the newly discovered works, and it has an extensive relationship with the piano concert.

After 1920 Klenau’s musical style is of a twelve-tone technical character, i.e. that he – in a deal with himself and the musical piece – binds himself to use the twelve tones of the chromatic scale in a specific order. Although the technique (which was actually invented by Arnold Schönberg) originally was incredibly avant-garde, Klenau’s use of the technique became very tradition-seeking over the years. He is largely finding tonal chords and well-known harmonics, and in one way his style is an extreme version of the “humanistic” movement in the twelve-tone music that Alban Berg was responsible for. There is a clear relationship between the two composers, who were also friends privately. In long passages Klenau’s music sounds like pure late romantic music both in sound texture and in the progress of the harmonies. He often adds an extra tone to a traditional triad (e.g., a large seventh), so that the twelve-tone method “goes up”. It produces a flickering tonal image, which at the same time seems familiar.

His piano concerto is in three movements and dates from 1944. The movements are

1st movement Allegro.

2nd movement Andante.

3rd movement Lebhaft, mit humor.

The playing time is approximately 35 minutes.

The orchestral size is a traditional romantic orchestra, with double wood winds, 4 horns, trumpets, bassoons, tuba and strings.

The work is a large-scale romantic piano concerto with regards to instrumentation and pianistic display. It has piano configurations which resembles in equal parts Rachmaninov and Brahms with the addition of some unfamiliar twists and turns, uniquely sounding like Klenau. There is a very high energy level in the fast movements. On the other hand, there are places of incredible tranquility in between, for example in most of the 2nd movement, and the work is thus expressively balanced, weighing to the dramatically high-tensioned side.

There is no doubt that Klenau’s ambition was to write a large-scale work with a clear thematic inner structure and consistency. In this way, the piano concerto is more reminiscent of Brahms than of Rachmaninov, as well as reflecting the historical development of the music in the twentieth-century and the legacy of Schönberg and Berg

[1] Michael Fjeldsøe: Paul von Klenau, Alban Berg og den ‘toneartsbestemte’ tolvtonemusik i Musik og Forskning vol. 29 udgivet af Københavns Universitet, 2004

[2] Jens Brincker: Artikel om Paul von Klenau på “Komponistbasen” på Dansk Komponist Forbunds hjemmeside

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