Paul von Klenau: String Quartet no. 1 in Em

performed by the Sjælland String Quartet

(cover image by Kawin Harasai)

Paul August von Klenau was born on February 11, 1883 in Copenhagen, and he there studied under Otto Malling, who himself studied under Niels Gade. (I wrote about Malling’s piano trio in A minor here.) He later spent his time in Germany and Austria, where he studied under such notable composers as Max Bruch, and had a successful premiere of his “Bruckner-influenced” symphony in Munich in 1908. Three more symphonies quickly followed that one.

Wikipedia sums his later career up in a few sentences thusly:

Later influences include French music, Richard Strauss, and Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. Klenau was among Arnold Schoenberg’s advocates during the 1920s, and Schoenberg attended a concert of his music conducted by Klenau in 1923 in Freiburg.[3] He also belonged to Alban Berg’s circle of friends.

He was never very renowned as a composer, at least in his home country, but had some degree of success as a conductor. That being said, he wrote a (surprising) total of nine symphonies (7 and 8 coming very late in his career and the ninth undiscovered for a half a century), seven-ish operas, and three string quartets, the second and third coming decades later than this one. Due to his interest in Schoenberg’s music, at least three of his operas are twelve-tone. His association, as mentioned above, with the likes of Schoenberg and Berg earns him a place in the roster this week.

Today’s quartet dates from 1911. It is in four movements, as below, and has a duration of about 24 minutes.

  1. Massig bewegt
  2. Adagio (mit tiefer ruhiger Empfindung)
  3. Allegretto (mehr Andante als Allegro)
  4. Allegro molto- lebhaft

(As a side note, the Sjælland String Quartet is/was comprised of four members from the Copenhagen Philharmonic, and are a relatively recent ensemble, having been established around 2004 or 2006.)

The piece is soulful from the get-go, beginning almost as if we’ve missed an introduction. There’s a pleasing richness to the music, but not in any kind of typical Russian, buttery fullness. It’s a little more like… foie? But only if paired with an excellent wine that’ll cut a bit of that fattiness and afford a sweet, tart contrast. If that makes any sense.

What I mean to say is that this little movement isn’t grand or epic in scope; it is in fact shorter than all but the third movement, but it has a fragrance and many layers to it, a maturity and whiff of melancholy. Also like a rich amuse bouche, it’s not overwhelming, but compact and yet very expressive. I haven’t said anything actually musical about this work yet.

There’s also something brilliantly crystal-clear about the writing, and that’s due in part to the superb recording quality and an exquisite performance, but I’m convinced Klenau really knew what he was doing with these four instruments, especially for a young 28-year-old composer. Is that still young?

What a wonderful start.

The second movement dwarfs the first, which is usually one of the more substantial movements. You’ll notice Klenau, a Danish composer, uses mostly Italian tempo markings (save with the first movement) and supplements these with German direction. The second movement’s ‘mit tiefer ruhiger Empfindung’ means ‘with a deep, calm sensation,’ and that could not be more accurate.

It’s such a simple, beautiful remark on what is a stunning movement, the longest of the work. There are of course some near-heartbreakingly poignant climaxes, but to the composer’s credit, as well as the performers, that deep calm comes through perfectly, at the very least as the ultimate goal, if not the pervasive mood throughout the work, but is thankfully never saccharine. It’s a love song, essentially, at times serenade-like, at times pleading, but exceptionally beautiful, captivating and lyrical to the point that I found myself thinking that if Klenau ever reaches any kind of celebrity status today, this would be the movement that’s plucked out of one of his works and orchestrated as a standalone piece for string orchestra, if it wouldn’t mean losing the magical, sensitive intimacy that gives this chapter so much of its charm. Remarkable.

The third movement is our scherzo, sort of. Klenau calls it an allegretto (clarified by saying in German that it’s ‘more Andante than Allegro’). It is correspondingly mild-mannered, and the trio sounds to me like Sibelius dropped in for a visit, and I also hear, here and there, in only a phrase or two, something of Holmboe’s second quartet, but that’s predated by this work. After the trio, I found myself thinking more of a similarity to Brahms than I had at the beginning.

And onto the finale, the liveliest music of the work so far, and suitable since ‘Lebhaft’ means exactly that. There’s a sudden sense of urgency to the opening, fitting for a finale, that sense of knowing we’re now practically galloping toward the end. Despite the energy and drive of this movement, still showing all the technical and stylistic prowess we heard in previous movements, the finale reaches a grandly satisfying climax before calming down and ending quietly.

Save a twinge of some (very) late Romantic, 20th century sound here, there’s really nothing that betrays any sense that Klenau aspired to write anything like his friends Berg or Schoenberg, at least not yet. Do a search online for Paul von Klenau, and what you’ll most likely come across is a Google suggestion for his ninth symphony, which was penned decades ago but only recently found, and recorded. It’s an absolutely massive (like, really Mahlerian, 90-minute) work in eight movements… It’s wonderful that it’s been found and recorded, but it seems a number of his symphonies haven’t had that honor, so I haven’t heard them.

I sometimes question the value of writing about music like this. Thankfully there’s a recording on Soundcloud that we can enjoy (also on Spotify but not iTunes). This set of string quartets from the Sjæelland Quartet was only released in 2008, and unless there are very old and/or out-of-print recordings out there, I bet they were premiere recordings, but I can’t confirm that.

So then what’s the purpose? Klenau himself is long-dead (1946). I hope but also doubt that the Sjæelland Quartet earned much from their album of the Klenau quartets that I’ve much enjoyed, or ditto for the Danish National Symphony Orchestra’s recording of the ninth, which I haven’t really enjoyed as much but am still glad we have.

Ultimately, it’s about enrichment, options, stimuli, having something new and exciting and even if only just the very slightest bit so, it’s different. And as a music lover, listener, consumer… isn’t that enough?

We’ll be back to far more familiar names for a while now, but keep Klenau on your radar, and go give this work a listen. Stay tuned for people you know, and thanks so much for reading.

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2 thoughts on “Paul von Klenau: String Quartet no. 1 in Em

  1. I’m delighted to learn about Klenau, whose work I don’t know at all. And with so many comparisons to food & wine, it’s hard to resist seeking it out! You’ve mentioned a vaguely Brahmsian quality that became clearer as you listened, which to me seems to anticipate Klenau’s turn to Schoenbergian methods of construction. But I take it that Klenau’s quartet doesn’t resemble, say, the first two Schoenberg quartets? Thanks for your entry!

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