The contribution of Czech composers to the history of Western classical music has long been widely appreciated. Yet, when compiling a list of them, one tends to name only a few big names, usually starting with Antonin Dvořák.
So here is a brief presentation of ten composers, past and present, who remind us why the Czechs are so valued for their musical heritage.
1. Antonin Dvořák (photo)
Born in a village near Prague, the son of a butcher and an innkeeper, Dvořák grew up in the folk traditions of his native Bohemia. As a child, he played the violin in his village orchestra. As an adult, he continued to draw on his knowledge of Czech folk and rhythms, like his predecessor Bedřich Smetana to become one of the world’s most prolific and well-known composers.
Although his career was slow to take off – the self-critical composer even burned some of his early works – Dvořák found a champion in composer Johannes Brahms. On his recommendation, the publisher Simrock commissioned Dvořák to write some Slavic dances, which, with their irrepressible energy and infectious melodies, continue to be among Dvořák’s most popular works. Brahms’ influence proved to be a common thread in the composer’s life and music – you can hear it particularly in his boisterous Sixth Symphony. A stint living and working in America has also rubbed off on his music. “I know that I would never have written my new symphony, nor the String Quartet in F major, nor the quintet here in Spillville, if I had never seen America! writes the composer. Nevertheless, Dvořák’s primary loyalty was always to the folk idiom of his homeland, which, combined with a characteristic bittersweetness, resulted in some of his finest works, among them his opera Rusalkahis Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” and his nostalgic Cello Concerto in B minor.
Cello Concerto in B minor (Alisa Weilerstein/Czech Philharmonic/Jiří Bělohlávek)
Although he grew up under Habsburg rule, when German – not Czech – was the main language of his household, Smetana came to be widely regarded as the founding father of Czech nationalism. Czech folk music is found in all of his music, and although he was not the first composer to write operas in the Czech language, the eight he wrote were the first surviving classical repertoire. His life is marked by tragedies: his first wife dies of tuberculosis, three of his four children die at a very young age. For a long time he fought poverty and lack of recognition in his own country. At 50, he became deaf and later suffered from hallucinations until he was finally committed to a mental asylum. Yet his output is considerable, with some of his finest works being composed when he can no longer hear them. The last movement of his String Quartet in E minor is punctuated by a piercing high E which, the composer explains, represents the effect of his tinnitus. Outside the Czech Republic, he is best known as the composer of My Vlast (My Homeland), his six-part cycle of symphonic poems – a work awash in folk music – which pays homage to Czech nature and history.
My Vlast (Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek)
3. Leos Janacek
One of the most original and eccentric composers of the past two hundred years, Janáček split his allegiances between the folk aesthetic of Dvořák and the thornier sonic world of 20th-century modernism. He spent most of his life in Brno, Moravia, where for a long time he worked as a teacher, and remained little known as a composer. Then, in his fifties, came Jenufa – his gritty and intensely dramatic opera on infanticide, and a work that showcased Janáček’s flair for lyricism and expressiveness, his striking orchestration, and his imitation of speech patterns in melody. It was a huge success and he went on to produce a series of masterpieces over his last decade, including two string quartets, the Sinfonietta and the Glagolitic Mass, and four great operas: Kat’a Kabanova (1921), The cunning little vixen (1924), The Makropoulos Affair (1926) and From the house of the dead (1930, performed posthumously) – all four inspired in part by the composer’s passion for Kamila Stosslovaa married woman nearly forty years her junior.
Jenufa (Wiener Philharmoniker/Charles Mackerras)
Son of a firefighter and a shoemaker, Martinwhere spent his early years in a church tower overlooking the Czech-Moravian highlands. Later in life, Martinwhere would attribute the cool, objective quality of his music to that early experience, watching people and places from afar. Although initially an absent-minded student, he established himself as a composer in Prague and Paris before the Nazi invasion of France forced him to flee to the United States, where he continued to compose prolifically. Breaking completely with the Czech romantic tradition adopted by his predecessors Dvořák and Smetana, he drew inspiration from a wide range of sources, including French modernism, jazz, surrealism and neo-classicism, with key works such as his operas. Juliet, Greek Passion and his final symphony Symphonic fantasies.
Juliet (Choir and Orchestra of the National Theater of Prague, Jaroslav Krombholc)
5. Joseph Souk
A pupil and son-in-law of Dvořák, whose daughter Otýlie he married in 1898, Suk is considered one of the main composers of Czech modernism. He initially drew heavily on the influence of his teacher before developing a more personal style, full of harmonic complexity and dissonance which, in a marked break from Dvořák, moved away from folk music. His wife died when she was only 27, and morbidity was clearly a concern for Suk, providing the theme for major works such as his “Funeral Symphony”. Israel and his symphonic poem Maturitywhose emotional force, sense of grandeur and striking juxtaposition of moods have invited comparisons with the works of Mahler and Richard Strauss.
Israel Symphony (Sudwestfunkorchester Baden-Baden/Karel Ancerl)
6. Jan Dismas Zelenka
Bach greatly admired his Czech contemporary Zelenka for his sacred and secular compositions. Raised in Central Bohemia and trained in Prague and Vienna, Zelenka wrote music of harmonic inventiveness and polyphonic complexity, full of harmonic twists and unexpected chromaticism – all featured in perhaps his best-known masterpiece. : Under olea pacis and palma virtutiswhich was carried out in the presence of the Emperor Charles VIshortly after his coronation as King of Bohemia in 1723. Sometimes considered Bach’s Catholic counterpart, Zelenka fell into oblivion after his death, but interest in his music has grown since the Baroque revival of the 1950s.
Under olea pacis and palma virtutis (various artists)
7. Vitezslava Kaprálová
Despite his untimely death at the age of 25, Kaprálová achieved much in his short life, conducting both the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and composing a substantial body of work ranging from art songs to piano concertos. A child prodigy, she began composing at age nine, at first in a generic romantic style reminiscent of Chopin. Later, after studying at the Prague Conservatory and in Paris, where she befriended and then embarked on an affair with the composer Bohuslav Martinù (who even considered leaving his wife for her), she has developed a distinctive voice, characterized by a flair for orchestral color and an adventurous approach to harmony. Judging by his later works, notably his two piano concertos and the Concertino for violin, clarinet and orchestra, op. 21, which she composed in 1939, she could have become one of the best-known composers of the 20th century had she not died, in 1940, of what was most likely typhoid fever misdiagnosed as tuberculosis. military.
Piano Concerto in D minor (University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Kiesler)
8. Vitezslav Novak
A pupil of Dvořák in Prague, and one of the young composers, alongside Suk and Janáček, who joined a group of artists and writers to publish a “Czech Manifesto of Modernism” in 1895, Novák is highly regarded by his Czech compatriots, although his name is rarely mentioned elsewhere. Coming from a conservative family in Kamenice nad Lipou, a small town in southern Bohemia, he took a long time to get comfortable as a composer: his early works were folkloric and heavily indebted to his late romantic predecessors. . Later he adopted more modernist tendencies, uniquely blending them with a style inherited from Dvořák to create richly orchestrated music full of painterly detail, as in his symphonic poems. In the Tatras, and Toman and the Wood Nymph, Pan and De Profundis.
Toman and the Wood Nymph (Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jakub Hrůša)
9. Jozef Myslivecek
The twin son of a successful mill owner, Mysliveček studied philosophy at Charles Ferdinand University before following in his father’s footsteps. He attained the rank of master miller in 1761, but abandoned the family profession in order to pursue musical studies, eventually becoming one of the greatest classical composers of his time, and a strong musical influence on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whom he knew well. family. . In his mid-twenties, he left Prague for Italy, where he wrote about 45 symphonies, numerous concertos, a lot of chamber music and almost 30 operas, most of which are distinguished by their freshness and elegance.
Symphonies – F26-31 (London Mozart Player/Matthias Bamert)
10. Petr Cigler
Following in the footsteps of the Russian Romantic composer Alexander Borodin, Petr Cigler – born in 1978 – is both a composer and a chemist, and quite eminent at that: he is currently working on ways to adapt medical treatments, in particular MRI vaccines, gene therapy and treatments for cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, to individual needs. His music, which has been performed in over 30 countries, is extremely experimental, incorporating “instruments” such as anvils and used cars, as well as extended techniques of more traditional instruments. He is bold, complex and inventive, frequently drawing inspiration from Cigler’s passion as a scientist, especially in his works. Entropic Symphony and Daily models.