During Covid, Avery Morris, with her twin sister Alexandra, performed outdoor concerts in the Marquez Knolls area to the joy of residents, who sat on lawn chairs in the street.
To prepare for the concerts Morris spent time on the internet searching for violin/viola duets to perform. It was then she learned of the work of Czech modernist composer and Holocaust victim, Gideon Klein.
One year later, her interest in Klein grew further, and Klein’s violin compositions became the subject of her doctoral lecture recital at Stony Brook University, where she is pursuing her doctorate in musical arts.
After uncovering Klein’s never-before-heard violin manuscripts, transcribing and performing them, she was awarded a Fulbright Study Research Award for the topic, “Gideon Klein’s Lost Works and the Legacy of Czech Musical Modernism.”
“I thought Klein was a well-known composer,” said Morris, who received a master’s degree in violin performance from the University of Ottawa. “But it turned out that many of my professors had never heard of him.
“Those that do know his work, know his string trio, which was the last piece he ever wrote, and possibly his piano sonata. Aside from those pieces, too few musicians are familiar with his rich experimental music written before his deportation to Terezin” she said.
Avery learned that Klein (1919-1945) had been offered a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London, but anti-Jewish legislation prevented his emigration. His final works were composed when he was a prisoner in the concentration camp Theresienstadt in Terezin.
He subsequently was sent to Auschwitz and was killed in January 1945, when he was only 26 years old.
In the 1990s, Klein’s pre-Terezin compositions were first discovered in a suitcase in the attic of a house in Prague.
Curious about these works, Avery contacted the Jewish Museum in Prague with hopes of getting access to the scans.
“I became obsessed with his life and his compositions,” Avery said. Many of the pieces discovered are sadly not complete, but mere fragments, something which Avery often finds more interesting.
At Stony Brook, “I ended up transcribing one solo violin piece” for part of her doctoral program. “The next semester I did another piece,” she said, and added her teachers Jennifer Frautschi, violinist and artist-in-residence, and Hagai Shaham at Stony Brook told her, “Violinists need to know and perform this piece. It needs to make its way into the standard violin repertoire.”
Frautschi also encouraged Avery to apply for the Fulbright Study Research Award.
Avery explained to CTN in an interview that one of Klein’s compositions uses quarter tones, which are the notes in between standard chromatic pitches. “This music purposely sounds out of tune, though gives rise to new colors and musical timbres,” she said. This was a common fad in the 1930s when many Czech composers were experimenting with microtonal music, specifically at the conservatory where Klein was studying.
“Prague Conservatory had a microtonal department, led by Klein’s professor and the dedicatee of his quarter tone composition, Alois Haba,” Avery said but, “the Nazis considered this music degenerate.”
The German government forbade it and shut the program down in 1941.There are still a few pianos in Prague that were designed with extra keys (between the regular keys) so that quarter tones could be played.
In Prague, Avery will have access to the quarter-tone piano Klein studied on.
Avery said of the pre-Terezin pieces she’s seen; it seems that Klein was in a period of exploration with his music. Fragments she’s explored include a jazz sketch for saxophone, violin, percussion and piano; a dodecaphonic violin solo piece; a blues sketch written in homage to American jazz pianist, Teddy Wilson and a piece for harpsichord and string instruments.
In months leading up to her move to Prague, copyright restrictions prevented the Jewish Museum from uploading the pieces online, only validating her need to continue her research abroad.
“I needed to see the archives in person,” Avery said. “In developing my research, I also need to work with local composers, musicologists and Czech translators who are familiar with Klein’s work – as well as experience the city in which Klein lived and these musical compositions were born.”
A biography of Klein “Don’t Forget About Me” was recently published by David Fligg. In a recent Zoom meeting with him, Avery asked him, “Would Klein even want his unfinished fragments these pieces performed?”
Fligg said, “That’s a fair question, but it’s scholarship. It’s up to people if they want to play it or not, and audiences if they want to hear it.”
Avery feels there should be a historical record and that Klein’s pieces deserve to be heard.
While in Prague, Avery hopes to explore other Czech composers from the same time period as Klein, to better understand his musical language.
She will take regular lessons from Josef špaček, former concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic. Additionally, she will organize frequent performances at her Fulbright affiliate institution, the Academy for Performing Arts (HAMU) and meet regularly with her research advisor Dr. Iva Oplištilová.
Avery began playing violin at age seven, while at Marquez Elementary and then continued her studies at Paul Revere Middle School.
Sisters Avery and Alexandra Morris won first place in the annual Palisades Symphony youth competition in 2013 and performed Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante (first movement) for violin, viola and orchestra with the Palisades Symphony in Mercer Hall.
They attended Crossroads High School before attending Bard College of Conservatory of Music. Her sister now works at UCLA in cancer research. They are the daughters of Patricia, a professor at Otis College of Art and Design, and Jeff, head of Facility Brand, a branding and design consultancy.