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Czech Music

Wilfrid Mellers writes in preparation for his
Fibich CD review tomorrow

Currently, we are once more agonisingly aware of how 'Central Europe' has been, through the ages harking back to Shakespeare's 'dark and abysm of time', a hotbed of violence, stemming from ancestral conflicts between forces pagan and Christian, Christian and Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox, and especially from the hegomony of the (Catholic) Austrian Hapsburg Empire, imposed on communities culturally and linguistically diverse. Unsurprisingly, we find this reflected in the folk traditions of these regions, and more dimly in art musics that competitively sought a place in 'the consort of Europe'. Bohemian, Moravian, Hungarian, Czech and the like composers were usually trained at Leipzig Conservatory, or in Mannheim or Vienna, and made a music related to the traditions of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Brahms, and Wagner, the idiom being modified only by vestiges of local colour accruing from each region, sometimes affirming political distinctions with fervour.

Of the three major composers who affirm this tradition the earliest in date, Smetana (1824-84) was primarily a composer of operas, who established his identity in tales of peasant life (The Bartered Bride) or of epic destiny (Dalibor), working technically, from the precedents of Verdi and early Wagner. Later in life he embarked on a series of symphonic poems hymning his cultural tradition, starting from the model of the internationally adventurous Hungarian, Liszt, rather than from the Austro-German symphonic tradition. The second member of the triumvirate, Dvorák (1841-1904), sometimes wrote operas, dealing however in myths and dreams rather than in low life or national epic. Unlike Smetana, he for the most part followed the Austro-German symphonic tradition, converting Schubertian nostalgia into rural reverie with a delightful affability occasionally stiffened by the example of Brahms. The third member of the group, Leos Janácek (1854-1928) wrote most of the music we remember him by in the 20th century. By far the most radical of these composers, he made only fleeting visits to Leipzig when he was a student, working mostly in Prague. His childhood education at a Moravian monastery gave him a thorough grounding in plainchant, which probably fostered his interest in the relationship between language and musical line, and so became a basis for his skill as an opera composer. When, having grown famous, he opened his own musical academy at Brno, he initiated a curriculum that stressed relationships between human behaviour and musical and choreographic gestures as manifest in the sequence of his operas. They profoundly metamorphosed his Moravian peasant culture in the light and dark of our century, reinvoking the instinctual springs of a community's life, while at the same time confronting the fearsome social and psychological traumas that have made us what we are.

Janácek's cycle of operas thus bridges gulfs between past, present, and future, and now makes an electrical impact on our awareness of ourselves, both as social beings and as private individuals: so much so that he means to many people, including me, the opera composer who most potently reveals the 'genesis' of 'modern man'. The realism of his fate-ful operas (Jenufa, Katya Kabanova) is countered by the startlements of his ventures into something like science-fiction (The Excursions of M.Broucek, The Makropoulos Case): so that his operas define our condition and may even seem to be our natural birthright. They are a part of our current repertory, as the operas of Smetana (except for The Bartered Bride) and of Dvorák are not.

Since Janácek is by definition sui generis, he did not found a 'school' of composers collateral to those of the Smetana-Dvorák succession. But when once a Janácek has happened, it becomes more difficult for traditional nationalists, especially those of nostalgic inclinations, to survive. Of course, Smetana and Dvorák are by now firmly established; but another talented regionalist, Zdenek Fibich, immensely famous in youth, seems to have gone the way of all flesh, despite the exceptional precocity of his gifts and the prolificity of his output, amounting to more than 600 compositions in most media, generously produced over a life of merely fifty years, from 1850 to 1900. Trained, particularly, at Leipzig Conservatory (and later in Mannheim and Paris), under teachers of imposing academic repute, he displayed no desire to break away from the models favoured by Smetana and Dvorák, and composed operas mostly with German libretti, involving internationally famous authors like Schiller, Byron, and Shakespeare. Yet none has survived as a repertory piece; nor does his symphonic and chamber music often crop up in concert schedules. Has, we may ask, the poppy of oblivion obliterated him justly, or arbitrarily?

Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, April 10th 1999

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