Krien was searching for a uniquely Jewish ethos that would define the emerging Jewish national style.
His compositions reveal the confluence of several strands of musical history: his Russian background, the transition from late Romanticism to early modernism – where the influence of Skryabin is readily audible – and, particularly in the works on this album, the Jewish folk-heritage, with its emotionally powerful blend of high spirits and melancholy. Krein utilized melodic improvisations and recitative rhythms found in Eastern European liturgical music to imbue his compositions with a uniquely Jewish character. Krein embraced both Jewish folk and liturgical melodies as part of his search for a distinctive, non-European Jewish sound.
Alexander Krein was born in the Russian city of Nizhni Novgorod in 1883 into a family of traditional Jewish folk musicians. His father, Abraham (1838–1921), was a well-known Klezmer musician and folk poet. He moved from Lithuania to Russia in 1870 and was a well-known violinist. Seven of his ten children due to their music surroundings whilst growing up became professional musicians, notably Gregory (1879–1975), also a composer, and David (1869–1926), a violinist who became the concertmaster of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater orchestra. The deeply elegiac Krein's Aria (1927) for violin and piano was dedicated to David’s memory, who committed suicide under pressure from anti-semitism.
Alexander learned Jewish folk music as a child first hand. Abraham played the violin at Jewish weddings and his children had to accompany him on zymbales. Of the three Krein family composers, Alexander, his brother Grigori, and Grigori's son Julian, it is Alexander who composed the most music and thus to whom the most attention has been paid. After a childhood spent performing klezmer music in his father’s band, Krein at age thirteen in 1908 entered the prestigious Moscow conservatory as a cello student with Alexander von Glehn. At the age of 14, Krein went on to study composition with Sergei Taneyev, music theory Boleslav Yavorsky.
While still a student, he began to compose song settings for Russian and French symbolist poetry. Krein’s early work was deeply influenced by the music of Scriabin and Greig, as well as French impressionists Ravel and Debussy. Krien also composed a large collection of romances and songs set to the texts of famous Russian and European poets such as Balmont, Bialik, Efros and others. By the time he graduated Krein had developed a highly original style, one which combined the new harmonic language of modern composers such as Debussy, Ravel, and in particular, Scriabin, with the lyrical melodies and distinctive modes of Jewish folk music. Shortly after finishing his degree in 1908, Krein was appointed a professor of music there. From 1912 to 1917, he taught cello at the People’s Conservatory of Moscow became a prominent figure in the school of modern Russian composition.
He also played a major role in the emerging school of Jewish national music as a composer and active member of the Society for Jewish Folk Music’s Moscow Branch (1913–1919) and its successor organization, the Society for Jewish Music (1923–1929). Like the other members of the Folk Music Society, Krien was searching for a uniquely Jewish ethos that would define the emerging Jewish national style. Krein utilized melodic improvisations and recitative rhythms found in Eastern European liturgical music to imbue his compositions with a uniquely Jewish character. Krein’s style continually developed in response to new influences and trends in the Russian Jewish school. Jewish Sketches, #2 represents one of his first efforts in this direction, and forms part of a two-set series of Evreiskie eskizi (Jewish Sketches) for clarinet and string quartet (1909 and 1910) based on melodies from his own father’s klezmer repertoire. It was written at the behest of composer Joel Engel, who encouraged Krein to explore his own Jewish musical heritage. Published by the Moscow-based Russian music publisher Jurgenson, the piece earned immediate acclaim, establishing Krein as a major new voice in both Russian and Jewish music. Critics were particularly struck by the use of the classical string quartet with a clarinet line that evoked the idiosyncratic melos and intonation of klezmer music, a sound sometimes said to mimic the emotive character of Jewish prayer chant, the soulful inflections once described as “laughter through tears.”
After 1917 served in a variety of roles in the music section of the Soviet Ministry of Education (1918–1927) and on the editorial board of the State Music Publishing House (1922–1951). Beginning in 1917, Krein composed extensively for the theater, including Moscow’s Hebrew-language Habimah Theater and the Moscow, Kiev, and Minsk State Yiddish theaters. During the 1920s, he wrote several important works, including the symphonic cantata Kaddish (1921–1922), the First Piano Sonata (1922), and the First Symphony (1922–1925). In these compositions, Krein embraced both Jewish folk and liturgical melodies as part of his search for a distinctive, non-European Jewish sound. He celebrated his biggest successes in the 1920s as a composer of stage music. In this way the performance of the play The night in the old market (after Izchak Leib Peretz) at the Jewish state theatre in Moscow (GOSET) became a triumph for the theatre as well as the composer. Even in Western Europe, where the theatre gave guest performances in 1927, the play was greeted with great enthusiasm.
As the Communist regime grew more and more ideologically restrictive in the late 1920s and 1930s, Krein struggled to reconcile his art with the increasing political pressures. His ballet Laurentsia, in which Krein used Spanish folklore, later achieved great popularity. This ballet has remained in the repertoire of many Russian theatres to this day. In spite of obvious compromises in the form of works such as the cantata Funeral Ode in Memory of Lenin (1925–1926) and the symphonic oratorio The U.S.S.R.—Shock Brigade of the World Proletariat (1932), Krein continued to explore Jewish musical and literary themes in his work well into the 1940s. His opera Zagmuk (1929) concerned the Jewish uprising in ancient Babylon and was staged as the first Soviet opera at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow (1930). In 1934 he was awarded the title of Honored Artist of the Soviet Union. As late as 1941 Krein composed music for the productions of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater and his Second Symphony (1945), a meditation on the historic sufferings of the Jewish people from ancient times through the Holocaust.
In comparison his most important work, the cantata Kaddish, could not be performed at all. For decades Kreins score was considered as missing. Only a couple of years ago it was discovered that the score had been saved. The work was then performed in Russia. In the West this great music is still unknown. His compositions reveal the confluence of several strands of musical history: his Russian background, the transition from late Romanticism to early modernism – where the influence of Skryabin is readily audible – and, particularly in the works on this album, the Jewish folk-heritage, with its emotionally powerful blend of high spirits and melancholy.