Peter Klatzow, one of South Africa’s most influential composers, passed away just after Christmas, after a career in which he wrote meticulously crafted vocal music, chamber works, liturgical music, an opera and many other things during his long career. Along the way, music, written with children as an audience, also sprang from his quill.
His serious musical studies had started with a scholarship which enabled him to travel to Great Britain to study at the Royal College of Music. He later moved to Italy to continue his training. It was at this time that he met the famous music teacher Nadia Boulanger who gave a conference. Many of Boulanger’s students went on to become some of the most prominent composers of the twentieth century. When she met the young Klatzow, following her lecture and after having examined some of her youthful compositions, Boulanger invited the young man to come to Paris to study with her. But Klatzow, inexplicably, continued to reject this invitation and went to Florence instead for further musical studies.
Then, one day, he called Boulanger, and she informed him that she had been waiting for months for him to arrive in Paris to study with her. While he was telling the story, after that, the next day, he was on the train to Paris. Boulanger herself was a pupil of Gabriel FaurÃ©, and this musical lineage dates back to earlier composers to the Baroque-era composer Luigi Cherubini. With this decision, Klatzow was firmly linked to generations of musical tradition, training and composition.
Back in South Africa, he eventually became a staple of the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town, guiding new generations of South African composers and musicians. By this time, Klatzow was increasingly fascinated by the poetry of the people / Xam of Cape Town after meeting the poet and professor Stephen Watson’s book, Return of the Moon, where Watson had recast material recorded by Lucy Lloyd, as a result of his interactions with prisoner San! Kweiten-ta-Ken. He had been discharged from incarceration in prison to the home service of Lloyd’s uncle, Wilhelm Bleek, the German linguist living in Cape Town in the 19th century.
Together, Lloyd and Bleek studied the Xam language and its poetry, preserving its heritage as the old ways faded away. Klatzow’s growing attraction to the material led him to turn some of that translated poetry / Xam into song cycles, and then later turn Lloyd’s and! Kweiten-ta-Ken’s experiences into an opera in a short but powerful act.
In another of his compositions, Klatzow composed the music for the famous African tale of the heroic maiden, Tintinyane, written for children, in a work that echoed Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf as well as the sounds and textures of African music.
In another work, he composed the vocal / piano arrangements of songs composed by Princess Magogo, a member of the Zulu royal family (listen to a sample here, sung by the late Sibongile Khumalo, which was originally captured for Western notation by the late Mzilikazi Khumalo.
(Klatzow seemed to enjoy a good fight at times, and so almost inevitably there was a vigorous debate about the relative importance of the two composers’ respective contributions to Princess Magogo’s song cycle.) Around this time as well, Klatzow had been commissioned by the Southern African Music Rights Organization (Samro) to set to music President Thabo Mbeki’s most evocative public speech, his âI am an Africanâ speech.
During this time, Peter Klatzow also embraced the most African of musical instruments, the marimba, as the focal point of many of his compositions. His marimba music has elicited enthusiastic responses from audiences and performers around the world, and leading marimba players such as the Japanese Kunihiko Komori have often performed and recorded Klatzow’s compositions for this instrument. In recent years, in response to our friendship, he composed a short piece for young marimba students with whom my wife worked as a music teacher in Johannesburg primary schools.
Despite his sometimes combative reputation, Klatzow knew how to be generous towards young composers with his reflections on their works. Six years ago he was ‘composer in residence’ for the premiere of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, for which he composed a new work – another composition he had inspired from popular poetry / Xam, titled All People Become. Spirits when they die.
During this festival, he participated in a panel designed to respond to new works by a trio of student composers. Matthew Dennis, Antoni Schonken and Diale Peter-Daniel Mabitsela. The three had previously been challenged to compose a new work using only a violin, cello, flute, bassoon and marimba ensemble, and inspired by a set of photographic images by Lebohang Kganye. Once the works were performed in front of an audience, Klatzow joined the composers for a roundtable that not only helped the audience penetrate the creative impulses of the composers but also allowed Klatzow and the three young composers to speak candidly about the sources of their energies. respective creatives – and the difficulties they encountered in actually composing their new music.
It is true that Peter Klatzow was a complex person and some saw him as a sort of “guardian”, patrolling the perimeter of the world of South African composers. Yet my own daughter, singer and songwriter, had found that he encouraged her in her efforts. On hearing of his death, she wrote to me that he had been “a charming, strange, funny, talented and gentle man.”
When Peter and I talked about his compositions and his ‘return to tonality’ of all those more avant-garde composition ideas that were much more popular a generation earlier, Klatzow told me that in the 1970s he Somehow seemed very important to be that way, but, now, that impulse seemed to be receding for composers. As conductor Richard Cock described Klatzow’s work, it became a version of neo-romanticism.
Klatzow then told me that the problem with minimalism was that there were few real melodies. It was more about harmony and rhythm, but he treated the melody as some kind of abandoned romantic notion. “But surely most people listen to music for a melody?” I had asked, and he had vigorously agreed, “Yes, this is very important” and, accordingly, he reinstated the melody, the key, the rhythm – and the pulse. As Klatzow said, “Our hearts beat, this is the basis, and this is the heart of our understanding.”
More recently he has noted that he has found himself increasingly drawn to the music of Beethoven and Schubert. Klatzow explained that the really nurturing element of Beethoven’s work is the sense of form. His last string quartets had paved the way for a much later composer like Gustav Mahler. Klatzow argued that the silences in Beethoven’s later quartets are crucial. People don’t understand how important such silences are in music. But, if a composer writes atonal music, you just don’t have that anymore, and so it brings us back to tonal techniques. “I go out of the dial tone for a feeling of leaving, but then there’s a feeling of coming back.”
Late in his life, Klatzow expressed some fears for the future of “serious” music. In 2015, when we talked about such things, he worried that more and more orchestras and audiences might not have sufficient intellectual curiosity for new music – or is it, perhaps, that he there is something about the new music that is alienating in some strange way, he thought.
I asked him if we were at the end of classical music as we come to think of it and he said, âNo, I don’t think so, but the way we access music has changed. CD stores are closing. He has had his day. The CD was indestructible and once you bought a copy you didn’t have to buy it again and they were basically running out of stuff to record. With forty-six versions of these Chopin studies, why bother to start over? And I climb on YouTube [to look for things I want to hear] and if i really like it i upload it to an mp3.
Now, after two years of an almost total disruption in live public performance of classical music due to all the lockdowns and restrictions brought on by Covid-19, this crisis may have come even closer.
When asked to speculate on the future of classical music in South Africa, he laughed and said he really couldn’t even answer for Europe. Or, as he had asked and answered: “Who is the Verdi of today?” Why is it Andrew Lloyd Weber ?! People love it and he does what Verdi was doing for his audience back then. “
After the news of his death, I asked Richard Cock for his thoughts on the now deceased composer and Cock said: âSince I started my career as a musician, I have known Peter Klatzow. He was a lecturer at UCT when I began my studies there in 1968, and I have remained in close contact with him since my return to South Africa in 1980, after eight years abroad.
âHe has influenced countless young composers over the years, and many of them have had remarkable careers. I have performed several of his works, both for orchestra and for choir. His return to a neo-romantic type in his later years meant that his music was available and relatively easy for amateurs to play, and so my backing vocals gladly picked up his works. He was composer in residence of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival in 2015, and I was amazed at the speed of his work. He often told me that he would compose every day. If no commands were in progress, he would write a song, so I’m guessing there’s a lot of unplayed material waiting!
âWhen Covid struck last year, the staging of the mass he wrote for the Mozart Festival was going to be performed in Germany, and earlier this year we would have performedâ Tintinyane âat the National Festival of the Arts. Unfortunately both were canceled, but they would have been a fitting way to honor him. “
With the passing of Peter Klatzow and the gradual reawakening of the possibilities for live music, it is surely time to plan and prepare for a concert of his works in all their variety, styles and influences. DM