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LOTHAR KLEIN (b. Jan. 27, 1932 - d. Jan. 3, 2004)

Lothar Klein was a composer obsessed with music history. Since the 60’s, modern music has been a polemical battle between avant-garde and conservative positions with musical worth defined by historical “newness”. Lothar Klein’s style cannot be pinned down to either position for he often played both sides of the equation placing himself as a composer of the radical center.  This centrist allegiance enabled him to produce a body of work of great variety revealing a composer of sophisticated versatility wherein musical history itself becomes style.  An Ars Combinatoria only made possible by a restless and creative mind.

The resulting eclecticism as chronicled by his diverse and prodigious body of work, strives for Classical ideals and brilliant contemporary instrumental writing of a particularly grateful nature for the performer.

This total body of work offers a rich field of investigation for scholar and musician alike.  Primarily a composer of orchestral music, Lothar Klein’s wide-ranging repertoire includes symphonies, all manner of concerti, secular and sacred vocal works using ancient languages with an ear acutely attuned to historical nuance and instrumental color. 

His work has been accorded attention by major international orchestras and conductors in both symphonic and light music venues. One doubts if Lothar Klein could be pinned down to any one stylistic thrust and therein lies his strength.


Lothar Klein was born in Hannover, Germany in 1932, raised in England and the United States, and immigrated to Canada in 1968.  By age 12, he was already an excellent pianist. From the time he was a young boy he was attracted to symphonic music.  He received a diversified education, which included studies in philosophy and literature and piano with Olga Samaroff-Stokowski.

From early in his creative career, Lothar was writing works for some two dozen stage and for film productions, earning the Golden Reel Award from the American Academy of Film Sciences in 1956. Other awards include Rockefeller New Music Prizes (1965 and 1967) and the Greenwood Choral Prize (1968, for Three Chinese Laments), and the Floyd S. Chalmers Performing Arts Creation Award in 1982.

His compositional efforts were encouraged by Dimitri Mitropoulos, Antal Dorati and Goffretto Petrassi. He also studied with leading exponents of the avant-garde in Berlin. He studied composition with Paul Fetler at the University of Minnesota, orchestration privately with Antal Dorati (1956-8), and composition in 1956 with Goffredo Petrassi at Tanglewood and on a Fulbright Fellowship (1958-60) with Josef Rufer and Boris Blacher in Berlin, and Luigi Nono in Darmstadt. In 1961, he received a Ph.D. in Musicology and Composition from the University of Minnesota. 

Lothar first taught at the Hochschule für Musik as assistant to Boris Blacher (1958-60) and at the Universitiy of Minnesota (1962-4) and the University of Texas (1964-8) before joining the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto as Professor of Composition in 1968.  He became Chairman of Graduate Studies in Music (1971-76).

His music has been performed by virtually every North-American symphony orchestra and performed by such conductors as Karel Ancerl, George Szell, André Previn, Akiro Akiyama, Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Andrew Davis, Charles Dutoit, Walter Susskind, Franz-Paul Decker, Heinrich Bender, Antal Dorati, Milton Katims, Victor Feldbrill, Werner Torkanowsky, and Stanislaus Skrowaczewski.

Lothar’s works are as prolific as they are diverse, with over 170 compositions, including more than thirty orchestral works. “He had a special interest in writing for the orchestra,” said his friend and fellow composer John Weinzweig.

Lothar Klein’s orchestral works prompted Irving Kolodin of the Saturday Review to refer to him as a “composer of excellent equipment and considerable enterprise…his eyes, too, are on the stars.”  Indeed, orchestral music occupied a prominent place in Klein’s catalogue of compositions.  Arthur Cohn, writing in Hi-Fidelity, praised him as “an orchestral craftsman of a very high order.”  No less a composer then Witold Lutoslawski has praised his orchestral skills “of great brio and temperament.”

In 1966, when Kolodin’s review appeared, Lothar Klein was one of four young North American composers whose works had been chosen by George Szell for a Cleveland Orchestra premiere.  Klein’s work, Musique à Go-Go (A Symphonic Mêlée) (1966), a jazzy, virtuosic orchestral study, was described by High Fidelity as “a veritable tour de force worthy of Ravel and Stan Kenton.”  With over 100 performances of Musique à Go-Go, his many other orchestral works have been performed at music festivals all over the World, making Lothar Klein one of the most often performed, if not the most internationally recognized Canadian composer of concert music. 


Music historian Hanns-Bertold Dietz, in commenting on Lothar’s works, writes:

[His] repertoire exhibits an unusually wide-ranging typology in which his personal creative persuasion is more important than dictates of fashion.  He has written several unique concerto-like works, among them The Philosopher in the Kitchen(1974), a CBC commission for contralto Maureen Forrester; the Paganini Collage(1967) and Espagna (Boccherini Collage) (1978) for, respectively, violinist Steven Staryk and cellist Gisela Depkat; and Musica Antiqua (1975), for consort and orchestra, commissioned by Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony, which the Toronto Star called “brilliantly composed…deserved every one of the four curtain calls it received…a giant success.”

The poetics of different musical traditions seem to interest the composer more than the novelties of contemporary techniques, although his style is certainly thoroughly contemporary.  His Musique à Go-Go (1966) owes something to French jazz, Janizary Music (1970) is a homage to Turkish music as parodied by 18th Classicists, Dorick Musick (1973) for chorus and orchestra is carried by the spirit of Elizabethan poetry, Musica Antiqua invokes the theological world of Medieval music and combines a Medieval consort with the backdrop of a modern-day orchestra.  Canadiana (1980) written for Brian MacDonald’s ballet “Newcomers” for the National Ballet of Canada, incorporates some of the music Klein wrote for the CBC television series The Newcomers.  The inspiration for this light and witty orchestral suite of jigs, polkas and gallops is 19th century Canadian piano music. 

All of Klein’s works, whether light or serious, attempt to find parallel points of reference between old and new music, and thereby comment on music’s historical continuity.  His collage compositions, based on pre-existent older music, are profound pieces.  They successfully bridge differences of time and culture, and offer a rich source for stylistic analysis.

These works, in which labels like “conservative” and “avant-garde” lose their meaning, present a convincing aural and intellectual fusion of styles, uniting past and present. This is no small achievement.  In an essay on the historical collage, the composer writes:  “As Homer’s nightingale sings in Keats’ Ode, so a composer writing a collage must find a way to make Perotin or Purcell sing to us today through the historical echoes of music history.  By this creative intersection we can enter reality two ways and at the center meet our richer selves.”


Klein is also rare among today’s composers in his ability to maintain an aesthetic distinction between a sacred and secular manner in his music.  This has allowed him to produce works of such opposite character as the frenetic Musique à Go-Go and Hachava: Memorial Meditations (1979), a moving setting of Sephardic memorial meditations with somber sonorities, evoking the world of the Psalmist.  His Concerto Sacro for Viola and Orchestra performed by Robert Verebes with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in 1985, based on the sacred vocal music of Monteverdi demonstrates Lothar Klein’s ability to preserve the “sacred” qualities of Baroque vocal music and successfully transfer those musical elements into modern concert music.

This use of historical material as the basis for creative inspiration is not new to Klein.  His interest in all varieties of music has inspired him to draw from this source before and evident in his vocal compositions too.  Be they based on Pagan, Hebrew, or Christian poetry, sacred or secular texts, Lothar always proves not only his intimate familiarity with great literature and a keen poetic sensitivity, but also his ability to create a musical lyricism akin to the spirit of the source.  Ancient texts are austerely treated, while Six Scenes from “The Old Man and the Sea” (1964) and Laments from Gondal (1966) song cycles demonstrate an economical yet lush 20th-century bel canto style.  He found great inspiration in the texts of Emily Bronté Three Melancholy Songs (1966) and Emily Dickenson Of Bells, Birds, and Bees (1986).  "Song is vital to my musical makeup. Intensity must be a glowing delight. Emotional experience and song must become lyrically entwined."

In his last album, The Philosopher in the Kitchen (2003), Lothar based his first piece on French epicure and gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's celebrated work Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante (The Physiology of Taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy), published in the 1820s. The piece was commissioned by the CBC in 1975 and written for the great contralto Maureen Forrester.

Almost half of Lothar’s compositions were vocal music. In the jacket of the CD, he outlined his approach to writing such music: "I love the human voice, yet cannot take interest in the art-song unless the co-ordinates of text, historical tone, and an equivalent musical language exist authentically together. Co-existence, of course, is not enough, for each must reflect the other, flourish and thrive.”

Among his later compositions were Partita 2000 (which he described as "a retrospective of musical styles of these last 100 years"), premiered and commissioned by Amici and Music Canada 2000. Gaîté Canadienne (2001), for the Intrada Brass; and String Quartet No. 2, premiered by the St. Lawrence String Quartet in 1995. In explaining his later compositions, the composer stated, "The 1990s reveal a broader interest in style as style itself. If my oeuvre seems eclectic, it is because I deem our times as eclectic, thus offering a great stylistic variety. In my procedures, humor remains an integral element."

In addition to being a contemporary composer and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, Lothar was also a prolific writer of words, publishing articles for the MENC Journal, Canadian Forum, The Composer and for CBC Radio. His 1982 CBC Radio special, Music to Dislike, struck a chord across the country. He also served as music consultant to CBS for David Oppenheim’s television documentary on Stravinsky in 1965.

As a scholar he has given many papers and contributed essays to a number of journals.  His topics range widely from analytical subjects (The Twelve-Tone Evoloution, 1930-60), to studies of single works (Stravinsky’s Oedipus: Perspectives and Meaning), and essays on aesthetics (Music and Liberal Arts).  In his articles, he discusses music on many levels.  History in Perspective: Another View considers various philosophical views of music relating modern-day writers to the views expressed by Hegel.  In “History, Tradition, Responsibility” he compares the contrasting national styles of the past with the “common-practice” theories of the present.  Klein’s writings about music, like his compositions, draw on an extensive knowledge of both the past and present, providing a synthesis of thought and art forms. In 1991, he was guest composer in residence at the universities of Nebraska and Houston, as well as at Smith College (Massachusetts) and the MacDowell Colony (New Hampshire). As a lecturer, teacher, and writer, Lothar Klein reaches across the centuries for an understanding of the essence of art.

Whether writing for orchestra, voice, wind ensemble, or chamber group, Lothar Klein has merited the assessment of historian Josef Rufer, that his music is “imbued with classical ideals, supple lyricism, refined harmonic coloring and brilliant instrumental writing.”

Each of Lothar Klein’s compositions successfully bridge the gaps of time and culture.  He unites the past and present by synthesizing his models and resetting them in the modern idiom.  He adjusts his lyricism easily to the source of his inspiration, whether it be the somber Sephardic meditations in Hachava (1979), the other-worldly Passacaglia for the Zodiac (1971).

The universality of his tastes can be seen in compositions such as Symmetries for Orchestra (1958), inspired by the works of Varèse and Webern, and Meditations on the Passyoun (1961) in which he uses a medieval English and Latin text for his orientation. The innovations of contemporary techniques, although employed, interest Klein less than the poetics of all musical situations.

These historical collages juxtaposing old and new, seem to bear kinship to Respighi’s travel pieces but instead of celebrating “The Pines of Rome” the composer commemorates the musical geographies of our Western musical culture in a profound way.  These works, orchestral and conceri, pose a rich source of stylistic investigation for music historians.


-- Eric Klein,

with extracts from writings by Hanns-Bertold Dietz and other biographical sources.

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