commentary to Peter Jona Korn 1922-1998

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Today, one of my dosest friends, the composer Peter Jona Korn, has passed away. He was, like me, a lone wolf and resisted any form of mental gagging throughout his life.

Bertold Hummel on 12 January 1998

Tombeau for PJK

Peter Jona Korn and Bertold Hummel, Dorfgastein 1976

Peter Jona Korn was born 1922 in Berlin, Germany. He began his musical studies at the Berlin Music Academy and continued them at the Beltane School in London as a student of Rubbra, at the Jerusalem Conservatory with Wolpe, at the University of California at Los Angeles with Schönberg and at the University of Southern California with Eisler and Toch. He studied film music composition with Ròzsa and Dahl. In 1944 Mr. Korn became an American citizen. He taught composition at the Munich Trapp Conservatory, was guest professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and was the director of the Richard Strauss Conservatory from 1967-1987. He was Vice-President of the German Composers Association and was a member of the board of directors of GEMA. Mr. Korn died in Munich on January 12, 1998.

Peter Jona Korn:
I came to Palestine in September of 1936. There were altogether twenty young German-Jewish music students who where given certificates. I was the youngest one. They wanted to start at sixteen, but I was fourteen at the time, and I got one of them. The jury consisted mostly of William Steinberg as the main juror who more or less decided which of the many applying young musicians would be given a certificate to the new Conservatory in Jerusalem. Which was a terribly difficult thing to get, because you couldn't emigrate unless you were in one of the trades needed in kibbutz, or unless you went on a capitalist certificate, which required £1,000, an unheard-of sum, and nobody could afford it. So these student certificates were prized possessions. Herbert Brün was among the first group that went a few weeks before. I was in the second group together with Yohanaan Boehm and Haim Alexander. I was there for five days, long enough to see Stefan and show him what I had composed, which he thought was pretty awful, but he still thought I was very talented, both of which was true. And then a few days later I wanted to visit with relatives in Tel Aviv, drove down with Emil Hauser, and he drove us into a ditch, having been sideswiped by an Arab car. My right arm was smashed. Wolpe went in another car a few weeks later and also was driven into the ditch. And the scar on his nose happened then. When I came back from the hospital from Tel Aviv, it was just about that time Wolpe had the accident. So we probably did not start to work until early in '37. [...]

I went through harmony with him quite thoroughly, very unacademically. He went step by step by first doing things quickly. Triads, then seventh chords, then adding diatonic modulation, then adding chromatic modulation. Somewhere in between adding suspensions and so forth. He sort of didn't mix things, and for everything sooner or later I would do a little mini-composition, where I would say use modulation. This included no counterpoint at all, because I said, "Now I want to do counterpoint. How does one do it?" And he said, "Well, I'll show you what counterpoint is like." And then he sat down and played the following, because I will never forget that that was the first example. He said, "Counterpoint is something like this. You have [plays a line], now comes the counterpoint [plays a second line with the first]. He simply sat down and gave me that specific example. There was really no strict counterpoint, it was really just zweistimmiger Satz and dreistimmiger Satz, as a result of which I wrote a Duo for Violin and Cello, which Parnas and Hofnäckler played on the radio, and on this final concert. [...]

He did not say terribly much in the beginning about Schoenberg, because we did not know any Schoenberg. After I studied with Schoenberg, I probably wrote him some letters tearing Schoenberg apart. His admiration for Schoenberg and Webern and other twelve-tone composers was quite obvious, but I don't remember that he said too much about actual works of Schoenberg. He talked very little about twelve-tone technique. Nobody studied twelve-tone technique with him, which of course Schoenberg didn't teach either. Much more Bartók was played. Bartók was a live concept to us, of all the modern composers the one we had most actual contact with. Even Hauser and his quartet played the first Bartók, which I found terribly exciting, even though they didn't play it quite for what it was worth. So of contemporary music composers the ones that were most alive in our contact, I would say, were Bartók and Stravinsky. He spoke about Stravinsky and Bartók as if they were close to him personally. He didn't speak that way about Schoenberg, strangely enough. But it may just not have come up that much. One didn't get to hear [the music]. There were no records. At least in the case of Stravinsky and Bartók there were already some records about.

The composer that I feel he spoke most about was Mahler. Once he said that he had gone to bed reading the Seventh of Mahler and was all excited. Mahler we did get a chance to hear. Every year the Philharmonic would play another Mahler symphony. The first one that we got to know was the First under Steinberg. They didn't do the Second for obvious reasons. Then they did either the Third or the Fourth, and I'm not sure who conducted it. Then they played the Fifth under Michael Tauber creditably enough. And of course Das Lied von der Erde and the Second Symphony we knew from recordings. They were among the first records to come out. So we had more of a contact with Mahler, we were very much programmed towards Mahler, he initiated a great curiosity as far as Mahler was concerned. Irma played a lot of Debussy. I had the feeling that Debussy more than Ravel was terribly important to him. My spontaneous reaction is that Debussy is among those he admired particularly. [...]

The name Hauer came up once. I said, "Wer ist Hauer?" [Who is Hauer?] and he said, "Hauer ist ein Meister den ich sehr verehre" [Hauer is a master who I revere very much]. No other composer. He probably explained to me about twelve-tone rows and that Hauer found that at the same time, and this is when the remark came. He did not speak about Webern. I have a feeling that this study with Webern was very casual, maybe one of those things where he met a couple or three times.

Peter Jona Korn (1922-1998), composer and conductor, was born in Berlin and attended the Berlin Hochschule für Musik (1932-33). He studied with Wolpe in Jerusalem and moved to the U.S.A. in 1941. He was active as a teacher in both the US and Germany, and was director of the Munich Hochschule für Musik. Interview: AC, Munich, 7 May 1985.

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