Op. 12, Esquisses Hebraiques by Aleksandr Krein, 1928. Aleksandr Krein, Op. 12, Esquisses Hebraiques pour 2 Violons, Alto, Violoncelle et Clarinette in B; Partition (Moscow, 1928). RG 112, Music Collection, F88. (YIVO)

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Krein, Aleksandr Abramovich

(1883–1951), composer and cellist. Aleksandr Krein was born in the Russian city of Nizhnii Novgorod into a family of musicians. His father, Avraham (1838–1921), was a klezmer violinist and amateur folk-song collector. Seven of his ten children became professional musicians, notably David (1869–1926), the concertmaster of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater orchestra, and Grigorii (1879–1955), also a composer. After a childhood spent performing in his father’s klezmer band, Krein entered the Moscow Conservatory at age 13 as a cello student. He went on to study music theory and composition with composers Sergei Taneyev and Boleslav Yavorsky.

While still a student, Krein began to compose song settings for Russian and French symbolist poetry. Upon graduation in 1908, he developed a highly original style of Jewish concert music, one that combined the new harmonic language of modern composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel and, in particular, Scriabin with the lyrical melodies and distinctive modes of Jewish folk music. Krein’s first efforts in this direction, two sets of Evreiskie eskizi (Jewish Sketches) for clarinet and string quartet (1909 and 1910), based on melodies from his own father’s klezmer repertoire, earned him immediate critical acclaim, establishing him as a major new voice in both Russian and Jewish music.

"Frumeleh" (also known as "Hober un Korn"). Words: Traditional. Music: Aleksandr Krein. Performed by Sidor Belarsky with Lazar Weiner, piano. Musicraft 274 mx. RS-1151, New York, 1940s. (YIVO)

Krein went on to play a major role in the emerging school of Jewish national music, both as a composer and as an 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). From 1912 to 1917, he taught cello at the People’s Conservatory of Moscow, and 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. 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. 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, Krein was awarded the title of Honored Artist of the Soviet Union. As late as 1941, he composed music for productions of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater along with his Second Symphony (1945), a meditation on the historic sufferings of the Jewish people from ancient times through the Holocaust.

Suggested Reading

Joachim Braun, Jews and Jewish Elements in Soviet Music (Tel Aviv, 1978); Alexander Krein, Songs from the Ghetto (London, 2003), sound recording with program notes by Jonathan Powell; Jonathan Powell, “After Scriabin: Six Composers and the Development of Russian Music” (D.Phil. diss., Univ. of Cambridge, 1999).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 112, Music, Collection, 1846-1973; RG 711, Lazar Weiner, Papers, 1908-1974.