A COMMEMORATION OF FAMOUS CZECH MUSICAL TRIOS

4 2004 Dějiny English
obálka čísla

It is well known that historically, the Czech Lands have always had a rather distinguished and long-standing musical tradition. Unfortunately, many of the early 18th century Czech composers left their home country. They preferred to look for some glory in the starry sky elsewhere, either in Vienna or in various German towns. In those days, it must undoubtedly have been a great honor to be praised by such a musical genius as Mozart, as it happened to the Czech emigre Jiri (George) Benda (1722-1795). Another well-known composer and pianist was Jan (John) Ladislav (Ladislaus) Dusek (1761-1812). At that time, we can find the third generally knowned Czech composer Vaclav(Wenceslas) Tomasek (1774-1850). Accordingly, at that period of time, these were the three prominent musicians. Naturally they were selected from a great many other Czech composers, who were also excellent musicians and/or artists. In the course of the second half of the 19th century, three much better known outstanding Czech composers and musicians followed the above-cited gentlemen. We can start with Bedrich (Frederick) Smetana (1824-1884), followed by Antonin (Anthony) Dvorak (1841-1904) and finally by Leos Janacek (1854-1928). If we focus our attention on the numerology of their birth and death, we can observe that the number "4" is particularly prevailing. Both the years of the birth (180 years ago) and passing away (120 years ago) of Smetana bear the number "4", while Dvorak died in 1904 (100 years ago), and Janacek was born in 1854 (150 years ago). Keeping this in mind now, during the year of 2004, every one of them creates for us an opportunity for very special celebrations and we have the pleasant privilege of commemorating all these annual jubilees. No doubt, there are many reasons to pay reverent tributes to their excellent accomplishments, relating to the Czech musical world, especially as it is a valuable heritage bequeathed both to their generations and also to all subsequent generations.

It is well known that Smetana was born on March 3, 1824 in Litomysl, situated about 80 miles east of Prague. Although his parents were not rich, they lived in quite a satisfactory manner. Bedrich started his musical life very early. In fact, he was a stupendous prodigy, because when he was 5 years old, he was already a good violinist. At the age of 6, he was enthusiastic about performing as a pianist in public, and at 8, he was able to make his first composition. These were unusually outstanding achieve ments, especially when one considers that he was musically totally unlettered, not having yet the chance to attend a conservatory. Deeply in his soul, he was constantly animated by the desire to contribute in some significant manner to typical Czech music. At that time, the already famous pianist Liszt served for him as a musical idol, and he became his lifelong friend. As a patriot-composer, he belonged to the group of Young Czech patriots. Regrettably, this caused him various troubles from the Austrian authorities. In 1848,Smetana established a musical school in Prague. However, in the course of the subsequent eight years, both he and his wife found it difficult to make the school a success. Hence, in 1856, he welcomed the opportunity to accept an offer from Sweden to become director of the Goeteborg Society of Classical Music. He moved to Sweden with his family and stayed there for 5 years until 1861. Regrettably, his wife had contracted asthma previously and experienced great problems with the Scandianvian weather. In consequence, they were compelled to return to Bohemia. Unfortunately, she died during their return trip when they reached the town of Dresden in Germany. In 1862, when Austria was weakening its harsh hold over the Czech Lands, the Provisional Theatre was opened to serve Bohemians. At that time, Smetana conceived the idea of composing a Czech opera. In 1863, he completed his first opera, Branibori v Cechach [The Brandenburgers in Bohemia], in which Czech resistance against Germans was celebrated, to be played at the Provisional Theater. This ope-ra was followed by a vivacious, tuneful and warm comic opera Prodana nevesta [The Bartered Bride] (1867), performed in colorful Czech folk costumes. Henceforth, he composed additional operas, like Dalibor (1868), Libuse (1872) and Dve vdovy [The Two Widows] (1874). In 1874, when he was 50 years old, Smetana, like Beethoven, lost his hearing during the time when he was working hard on his composition of six symphonic poem under the composite name of Ma vlast [My Country], of which the most world-wide known one is Vltava [The Moldau], in which he musically described the whole flow of this Czech river. All the remaining five portions of this cycle are Vysehrad {the name of the castle in Prague}, Sarka {a valley on the outskirts of Prague}, From Bohemia’s Meadows and Groves {Czech landscapes}, Tabor and Blanik. The latter two portions are based on legends of Hussites, who fought for religious freedom. All the individual segments were dedicated to patriotic themes, as they had their origin in the history of the Czech Lands. Although he was now completely deaf, he was returning in his work to operatic compositions. In 1876, he created the opera Hubicka [The Kiss]. Later on, in 1876-1878, it was followed by Tajemstvi [The Secret] and finally,in 1879-1882, by Certova stena [The Devil’s Wall]. At that time, he also created his well-known piece of music Z meho zivota [From my Life]. Besides his deafness, he was now also tormented by a loss of memory and of his speech. Moreover, he was tortured by his illness {syphylis}. Due to all of his health problems, it was necessary to put him in an asylum, where he died on May 12, 1884. He is considered to be a founder of Czech music as well as a national hero.

Dvorak was born on September 8, 1841 in Nelahozeves, located about 15 miles northeast of Prague, 17 years after Smetana’s birth. He grew up in a family of a butcher and an innkeeper. When he was still a boy, he loved music very much. He started taking music lessons at the age of 12. Originally, his father wanted him to become an apprentice in the butcher’s shop. However, at the age of 17, he went to Prague to study both organ and composition. While studying, he supported himself by playing the violin and viola in cafes and theaters. In regards to the prevailing and burgeoning Czech patriotism, he was frequently considered a dedicated nationalist. Throughout his life, he developed a close and very pleasant friendship with Brahms, who often helped him to get some of his music published. Besides, his relations with Smetana and Liszt were continuously very close. To some extent, he also developed an enthusiasm for Wagner, whom he met in 1863 in Prague and even played under his baton. He created during this time two of his early operatic works, Alfred and Kral a uhlir [King and Collier] {1871} and a one-act opera Tvrde palice [Pig-headed Ones]. Dvorak’s friendly co-operation with Smetana resulted in his increased interest in folk music. Consequently, he wrote his Slovanske tance [Slavonic Dances]{1886} first for a piano duet, and later on, he arranged them for orchestra. In those, we can find that their individual melodies are filled with nationalistic beauty and great charm. In 1859, he graduated from the Prague Organ School. His favored instrument was viola. In 1862-1871, he took part in playing in the orchestra at the Provisional Theatre in Prague. Quite often, he played several Smetana operas. In 1876, deeply saddened by the tragic death of his first three children, Dvorak wrote the Stabat Mater, which is considered to be one of his finest choral works as a great oratorio. In 1877, Dvorak’s comic opera Selma sedlak [The Peasant a Rogue] was created. In 1884, Dvorak conducted his Stabat Mater on the occasion of his first visit to England in Royal Albert Hall in London, and again during his second tour to England, this time in Worcester. In 1885-1886, Dvorak’s oratorio was borne, bearing the name of St Ludmila. In addition, in his Czech patriotic conception, Dvorak composed his significant work called Hussite Ouverture. In 1892, Dvorak went at the invitation of Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, the wife of a wealthy grocer, to New York, USA to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music, founded by Mrs. Thurber. She wanted him to create a national American school of composition. During his stay in the United States, he wrote some of his best pieces of music, which are often called "American". They include the F major String Quartet. Opus 96 and the E flat String Quintet, Opus 97, which are considered to be the finest chamber works. While staying in the U.S., he had also written Biblicke pisne [Biblical Songs], op.99 {1894} to the Czech text of the Psalms of David. In those days, he also wrote his sparkling andvery melodious Concerto for Cello in B minor. In 1893, he wrote the world-famous Symphony # 9, in Eminor, subtitled Novosvetska [New World Symphony], which was in fact his ninth and last [published as the "Fifth"]. Quite frequently, some critics thought that Dvorak tried to catch up in this symphony the spirit of American folk songs and spirituals, especially Negro and Indian melodies. Indeed, although more than 100 years have elapsed since his creation of the Novesvetska, no other composers of symphonic music have created similar music about the United States, including American composers.

In 1893, Dvorak was warmly invited to the Czech settlement in Spillville, Iowa, to spend there with the Czech community six months instead of his trip home to Bohemia, which was seriously considered at that time. In 1993, at the 100th anniversary of Dvorak’s stay in Spillville, the Governor of the state of Iowa declared to Dvorak’s honor that that year was to be called Dvorak’s Year. Before long, Dvorak became homesick. As soon as his return home was secured, he was very much enthused and as a result composed his famous Humoreska [Humoresque] for piano. His exquisite Violoncello Concerto was also created in those days. Thrilled with the United States, Dvorak wrote his short cantata Americka vlajka [The American Flag] {1892-1893) as a token of commemoration of 400th jubilee of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. He also offered to write a new U.S. national anthem.

In 1897, after Dvorak’s return from the USA, he resumed his job as a teacher of composition at the Prague Conservatory. In 1901, he was appointed as a director there and an honorable doctor’s degree was conferred upon him by the Czech Charles University in Prague. Indeed, Dvorak was a very hard working composer, because he wrote nine operas, nine symphonies, and concertos for cello, piano and violin, as well as lots of songs piano pieces and chamber works. Practically all of them reflected songs and dances of his homeland. His very popular fairy-tale opera Rusalka [The Water Nymph] is a symphonic poem, which is based on a legend of Bohemia. He also wrote a comedy titled Cert a Kaca [The Devil and Kate], which soon gained popularity. Endeavoring to revive the time of his youth, Dvorak composed the opera Jakobin [Jacobin]. His melodious music found many admirers all over the world, particularly in England, where he was also conferred a honorary Doctor’s degree by the Cambridge University Musical Society. In order to express their great esteem for Dvorak and his achievements, the Austro-Hungarian House of Lords awarded him a membership.

Dvorak died on May 1, 1904 in his small house in the village of Vysoka, in the district of Pribram, located about 40 miles south of Prague. Thereafter, he was buried in Prague at the Slavin cemetary, which is situated on the hill of Vysehrad, where the most famous Czech persons have their honorable tombs. His passing away was an occasion for national mourning. Janacek was born on July 3, 1854 in Hukvaldy, close to Pribor, in the Moravian province which was a part of the Czech Lands and is nowadays situated in the Czech Republic, and grew up in great poverty. Thus, he was 30 years younger than Smetana, and Dvorak’s birth preceded him by 13 years. He was a Czech composer whose music was strongly influenced by the Moravian folk songs.

Janacek studied at the Organ Music School in Brno and Prague, and later at the conservatory in Leipzig, Germany and Vienna, Austria. In 1881, Janacek founded on the basis of the Prague example an Organ Music School in Brno, which was transformed after the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 into a conservatory. This was also the era when he had written several organ compositions as well as the well-known Teaching Doctrine of Harmony. Janacek lived most of his life in Brno. He became the director of the afore mentioned music school. He acted not only as a teacher and theorist, but also as a composer and conductor. He attempted his first composition when he was 22 years old, which was much later as compared with Smetana and Dvorak. In fact, his more serious composition was created when he was 40 years old. Nonetheless, he maintained a constant continuity in his productions until the time of his death.

It is generally known that Janacek was a Czech nationalist, which was reflected in his music. His compositions, however, differed considerably from the soft and melodious music of Smetana or Dvorak. His music was more dissonant and epigrammatic, based on a special theory of musical tonality. Janacek also under took a through study of folk songs, which he then catalogued and edited. He had his own theory of a certain music usage which he interwined by some portions of speeches. In other words, the spoken language was for him a very melodious and rhythmical expression which was equally important to be included into his musical works. It even seemed that he had been enthused by a motto "speech melody". It was frequently said that it had been his desire to spread the application of that kind of theory in every Czech school of acting or conservatory.

In 1902, he created his first opera, Jeji pastorkyna, composed during the years 1896-1903. The plot is based on the Slovak literary work of Gabriela Preissova. Its first night performan-ces took place in Brno 1905 and in Prague in 1916. The latter was his most decisive success. Gradually, this opera was performed on various European stages, which resulted in Janacek’s world fame. The opening night performance in German was under the name of Jenufa in Vienna 1918. For may years, this opera was a real success only on the international arena, while at home, it was not favorably accepted. Its libretto by Victorian Dvorak was not an easy plot. It dealt with a morally sensitive matter, because its main subject was the murder of an illegitimate child.

Also, his opera Liska Bystrouska [The Little Vixen], based on the novel of the writer Rud. Tesnohlidek, was composed in 1921-1923, with its first night performance in Brno 1924. His next opera was Kata Kabanova [Katya Kabanova], created in 1919-1921, based on the novel of A. N. Ostrovsky’s Boure [Tempest]. Its first night performances were frist in Brno 1921 and then in Prague 1922. Again, it has a somewhat delicate plot, because it deals with a married woman who has an affair, and is driven to suicide by her conscience. In many instances, Janacek’s characters do not sing but declaimonly. It behoves to the orchestra to keep up the musical expressions. In 1924, Janacek composed another opera Vec Makropulos [The Makropoulos Affair], which is based on the novel of the well-known Czech writer Karel Capek. In 1926, this opera was followed by another one, called Z domu zemreleho cloveka [From the House of Dead]. Well, in total, Janacek composed 10 operas. But he also created many other musical pieces, be it orchestral, chamber, piano or choir music. Also, he created a rather crude piece of music, called Hlaholska mse [The Glagolic Mass], which introduces us to a primitive Slavonic world.

Janacek died on August 12, 1928 in Brno. He was a very powerful composer, and it could probably be said without hesitation that he had a definite impact on the new generation, interested in more modern symphonic music.

Literature: Harold C. Schonberg: The Lives of the Great Composers,1970 Norman Lloyd: The Golden Encyclopedia of Music,1968 Bian Lange: Smetana,1970 (available at the Cz.& Slov.Mus.& Lib, Cedar Rapids, Iowa) Masarykuv naucny slovnik, 1926 (ditto) Otakar Sourek: Antonin Dvorak, His Life and Works, 1954 (ditto) Jarmil Burghauser: Antonin Dvorak – 1841-1904, 1991 (ditto)

Charles Opatrny

Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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