Hans Krása was born in Prague on 30 November 1899. His affluent family encouraged and generously supported his musical studies, to the extent that his father hired instrumental ensembles in order for Hans to hear his compositions. Krása studied with Alexander Zemlinsky in Prague, and in 1921 he began working as a vocal coach at the New German Opera. He spent considerable time in Paris, where he came to admire, among others, the works of Igor Stravinsky.
Krása’s first important success as a composer came in 1920 with his Four Orchestral Songs, based on the “Songs from the Gallows” poems of Christian Morgenstern. His 1923 Symphony was performed under Serge Koussevitzky in Boston, and his 1933 prize-winning opera Verlobung im Traum (Betrothal in a Dream) was conducted in Prague by George Szell.
In 1938 Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister wrote a children’s opera called Brundibár (Bumblebee) for a government competition. Rehearsals started in 1941 at the Jewish orphanage in Prague, which served as a temporary educational facility for children separated from their parents by the war. In the winter of 1942 the opera was first performed at the orphanage but by this time composer Krása and set designer František Zelenka had already been transported to Theresienstadt. By July 1943, nearly all of the children of the original chorus and the orphanage staff had also been transported to Theresienstadt. Only the librettist Hoffmeister was able to escape from Prague in time.
Theresienstadt, 35 miles north of Prague, is now known for its being exploited with Nazi propaganda intended to deceive the world and cover up the campaign of genocide against the Jews. The Nazis cynically presented Theresienstadt as “the Fuhrer’s gift to the Jews,” but in fact it was a transit camp through which prisoners were systematically transported to death camps in the East.
Reunited with the cast in Theresienstadt, Krása reconstructed the full score of the opera, based on memory and the partial piano score that remained in his hands. On 23 September 1943, Brundibár premiered in Theresienstadt. The production was directed by Zelenka and choreographed by Camilla Rosenbaum, and was shown 55 times in the following year.
There are reports from survivors that the Nazi commandants pushed Krása to write the Overture for Small Orchestra as an overture to Brundibár because the Nazis thought that, to be a proper opera, Brundibár needed an overture. The Overture has a similar pulse and a certain thematic connection to Brundibár but there is no evidence that it was performed in the camp.
Krása was deported to Auschwitz on October 16, 1944, and murdered in the gas chambers two days later.