He was born as the third of five children in a well-situated family of Prague barrister Karel Krása and Amalia Krásová, born Steiner. It was probably his mother, who first inspired his love for music and poetry. On the other hand, his father earned enough to take care of the practical side of things, allowing Krása to freely devote almost his entire life to his passion for music. Already as a child, he took piano lessons from Theresa Wallersteiner (there was not one but two grand pianos in Krása family!), adding to that violin lessons under the guidance of the New German Theatre’s concertmaster, Josef Frankenbusch. He started composing as a child. When he was 11 years old, his father arranged for one of his compositions to be performed by a spa orchestra in Salzburg during a family vacation. A similar scene played out in St. Moritz in 1913. In spite of his extraordinary musical talent, Krása received a classical education at the German State Gymnasium in Prague. But as a young admirer of the music of Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) and Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), he caught the eye of Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942), who served as the rector of the German Music Academy in Prague (Deutsche Akademie für Musik und darstellende Kunst) and the artistic director of the New German Theatre. Under Zemlinsky’s guidance, the young composer not only completed his first opus – Four Orchestral Songs based on poems by Christian Morgenstern (1871–1914) from his Gallows Songs – but also presented them to the public as a part of philharmonic concert series organized by the New German Theatre in May 1921. Encouraged by Max Brod’s (1884–1968) positive review, Krása started composing his String Quartet, Op. 2. This piece attracted the attention as far as Paris, where Krása was staying from 1922 to complete his composition studies under Albert Roussel (1869–1937). Even though Krása only spent a few months in the city on the Seine, it was a time of many new friendships, including the members of Les Six. Still in Paris, Krása started composing his Symphony for Small Orchestra premiered at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1923. Three years later, the same work was chosen to represent Czechoslovakia at the International Society for Contemporary Music festival in Zurich. The symphony was also performed by Sergei Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Alexander Zemlinsky conducted its Czech premiere performed by the Czech Philharmonic in March 1927. On all the mentioned occasions, only two orchestral parts were performed, even though the Symphony for Small Orchestra was published by Universal Edition in Vienna including its sung movement in 1926, together with a newly composed Five Songs, Op. 4. In both cases, Max Brod helped to translate the texts into German. It was also Brod, who recommended Hans Krása to Universal Edition in the first place.
Having returned from Paris, Krása lived truly rich years of a bohemian surrounded by Prague intellectual elite of that time. He slept late, visited his friends working for the Prager Tagblatt and let himself be enveloped in Prague’s nightlife. He met important writers at the Slavia Café but spent even more time at the legendary Café Arco, where he met several friends including Franz Kafka or Milena Jesenská, the muse inspiring so many local artists. One can even read about Krása in Kafka’s Letters to Milena.
A fatal mistake?
In 1927, Krása moved to Berlin, probably following Alexander Zemlinsky, who recently got a conducting job at the Kroll Opera House. He was also offered conducting jobs in Paris and Chicago. We can only speculate now, whether Krása’s fate would have been happier, had he remained abroad focusing entirely on his international career. But he chose to return to Prague, enjoying his pleasant way of life, playing chess and partaking in intellectual disputes. In 1928, he started working on his opera Betrothal in a Dream (Verlobung im Traum) based upon a short story Uncle’s Dream by Dostoyevsky. His librettists were Rudolf Thomas (1895–1938), the editor-in-chief of Prager Tagblatt, and the poet Rudolf Fuchs (1890–1942). The opera was finished in 1930 but it took three more years to actually see it on stage. The premiere took place at the New German Theatre in Prague on 18 May 1933, conducted by George Szell (1897–1970) and directed by Renato Mordo (1894–1955). In the same year, the opera earned Krása the Czechoslovak State Award and a live broadcast by the Czech Radio. Unfortunately, it was too late to perform the piece in Germany – there was no chance of a work composed by a Jewish author being performed after Adolf Hitler came to power.
In 1935, Emil František Burian’s (1904–1959) D 35 Theatre presented Youth in Play by Adolf Hoffmeister (1902–1973) accompanied by music by Krása. The piece was also performed at the Small Scene (Kleine Bühne) of the New German Theatre translated by Friedrich Torberg (1908–1979) in the same year. Three years later, Krása continued his collaboration with Hoffmeister with the children’s opera Brundibár (Bumble Bee). Anna’s Song from the Youth in Play became a hit for some time and Krása did not shy from reusing it in his Theme and Variations for string quartet and Kammermusik for harpsichord and seven instruments. The latter was also performed as a part of a special evening organized by the Mánes Association of Fine Artists alongside works by Pavel Bořkovec, František Bartoš, Iša Krejčí and Jaroslav Ježek. Even as an author with strong ties to German culture and language, Krása felt to be one of the local Czech artists, as demonstrated by his membership in the Mánes Association. In the second half of the 30s, Krása even refused to compose music based upon German texts as a sign of protest against the Nazi terror against Jewish population.
Brundibár (Bumble Bee)
Brundibár, a children’s opera based upon a libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, was composed in 1938 for a competition organized by the Ministry of Education and National Awareness in that same year. No prize was ever awarded, however, as Czechoslovakia was occupied in 1939. In July 1941, rehearsals of the work started at the Prague Jewish orphanage in Belgická Street in Hagibor, conducted by the composer, pianist and conductor Rafael Schächter (1905–1945), one of the artists to actively partake in the cultural life of the Terezín ghetto together with Krása and others. He died during a death march from Auschwitz in 1945. The idea to perform an opera was first conceived during the 50th birthday party of Otto Freudenfeld (1891–1944), then director of the orphanage. His son Rudolf (he changed his name to Rudolf Franěk after the war) smuggled a piano reduction of Brundibár to the Terezín ghetto in 1943. Remembering the Hagibor production of Brundibár, Rudolf Franěk (1921–1983) said : “Rafík [Rafael Schächter] had to make a quick decision: Do you know that Hans [Krása] wrote a children’s opera with Hoffmeister, one that has not been performed yet? We will perform it with our children. And that is how it began. Schächter would come once a week, rehearsing with great effort. He would always order me, what to practice with the children through the week and how scenes should be done. Quickly, I became his pupil myself. When he felt like it, he even taught me harmony. We worked hard and began seeing results fast. The children loved the opera from the first hearing. Both music and the text. It was composed with children in mind, the music is modern and melodic, just like an opera should be. But we never really finished the job. The first transports came. Rafík went and the children went. Krása went and the children went. The children went on the transports. It was impossible to get over. But such was the time. We learned to enjoy every single minute quite intensively to make us forget that we were practically just waiting for the worst. There was more culture at the orphanage than even before. Visitors stayed overnight and we would read poems and dramas in the evening. Concerts took place at home. When the word came that teaching Jewish children was prohibited, we found work for them in the so-called shelters. In one such shelter at Hagibor, we started rehearsing Brundibár, just for the fun of it at first. Mr. Zelenka, an architect, took care of directing and he even designed a wonderful stage for the piece. He took some planks and built a fence with three posters showing caricatures of a sparrow, a cat and a dog […]. We had no score and there was no orchestra anyway. We just had the piano reduction and three musicians – Löffelholz, Berkovič and Kaufmann were playing the piano, violin and drums. I conducted the performance from a corner by the orchestra. The capacity of the small hall was only 150 people and those people had to come and go individually to prevent drawing attention of any of the soldiers. We had two performances. Both were a huge success.”
Those performances took place at some point between 1942 and 1943. But Krása never got to actually see it. He was deported to Terezín already on 10 August 1942. There, he used the smuggled piano reduction to create a new score for the opera, using only the instruments at his disposal. That is why there are two versions of the opera – Prague version and Terezín version. Rudolf Franěk conducted also on this occasion. The Terezín premiere took place at the Magdeburg Barracks on 23 September 1943. Available records show that the work was performed for fifty-five more times. In 1944, the Terezín ghetto was chosen by the Nazis for a carefully staged inspection of a model “Jewish settlement” by representatives of the International Red Cross. The inspection aimed to address growing concerns on the part of global public regarding the treatment of Jews in the occupied countries. On that occasion, the stage designer František Zelenka was given material to create actual scenery and costumes and the opportunity to move the production to the Sokol gymnasium outside the ghetto. The final scene was filmed for a Nazi propaganda film Theresienstadt, today better known as Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Gives a City to the Jews). Quite aptly, this is the scene of Brundibár’s defeat. The film was never actually screened in German cinemas during the war. “We chose to replace the suffering of everyday life with a dream of a free life on the other side of the barbed wire, where people had enough to eat. Brundibár, a children’s opera became a glimmer of hope, a light in the darkness of captivity,” said Paul Sandfort, who played the trumpet in the Terezín production of Brundibár, thirteen years old at that time.
While in Terezín, Hans Krása became a leading personality of the so-called Freizeitgestaltung (free-time activities) that the Nazis permitted to promote cultural life in the “showcase” concentration camp. The omnipresent uncertainty and constant need of distraction resulted in an enormous explosion of creativity, resulting in one of the most interesting and vivid musical movements in the occupied Europe. Terezín artists included remarkable personalities, such as the composer, pianist and music journalist Karel Reiner (1910–1979), the conductor Karel Ančerl (1908–1973), the singer Karel Berman (1919–1995) or composers Pavel Haas (1899–1944), Viktor Ullmann (1898–1944) and Gideon Klein (1919–1945), who was also an outstanding pianist, giving secret concerts in the ghetto at night. For a while, Klein was also Krása’s brother-in-law after Krása married Klein’s sister Eliška at some point between August 1943 and April 1944. This was a fake marriage concluded with the hope of getting at least some benefits in the ghetto. During his twenty-six months in the ghetto, Krása composed Three Songs for baritone, clarinet, viola and cello (1943) based on texts by Arthur Rimbaud translated by Vítězslav Nezval, Dance for string trio (1943–1944), Overture for small orchestra (1943–1944) and his testament – Passacaglia and Fugue for string trio (1944), one of the treasures of Czech chamber music. Shortly after its completion, Krása was, alongside Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein and other Terezín artists, put on the so-called “artists’ transport”. The destination was Auschwitz and Krása’s life ended in a gas chamber there only two days later.
“Hans Krása was a gentle person, a bit decadent, yet pleasant when talked to, albeit quite shy at the same time,” the pianist Václav Holzknecht said remembering the composer in the late 60s. According to people that knew him personally, Krása never understood composing as a job to make a living. He only composed when he felt the creative urge. This can be clearly heard in his music, which is always original and deeply reflective of his belief as an artist, his intelligence and his profound humanism.