The charm of Czech music


Why is it that so much Czech music is loveable in such a unique way?  What quality is it that causes the listener immediately to trust composers such as Dvorak and Martinu, to feel such a deep empathy with them? Perhaps it is a silly question; in a way, one always feels empathy with a great composer. But when one compares Dvorak with Brahms, for instance, Janacek with Debussy, Martinu with Stravinsky, the lack of worldly sophistication of the Czechs, the guileless honesty, the connection to the inner Czech child, is deeply striking. The other nationalist musical schools that came into being in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – French, Russian or Hungarian, for instance – are equally distinctive and distinguished, of course; but the words ‘innocent’ and ‘childlike’ do not so instantly spring to mind. Needless to say, this is not a value judgement in any way; but it does make Czech music uniquely, irresistibly attractive.

All of the composers represented in the two programmes of Czech chamber music that we are presenting at this summer’s Salzburg Festival were great craftsmen, thoroughly skilled classical composers who mastered – and in some cases transformed – traditional forms. But none of them ever lost touch with their roots, with the folk music and dances that permeated the lives of Bohemia and Moravia in the 19th century. It is perhaps significant that all six composers came from the countryside; and that all of them were surrounded by music from birth – it was part of Czech culture. Any occasion in Czech life was an excuse to make music. (Dvorak’s very first composition was a polka written for the village band of which he was a proud young member.)

Smetana’s father was a brewer and a keen amateur violinist; Dvorak’s father was a butcher, but also a dedicated zither-player – in later life a professional one. Janacek’s father was a church organist, Suk’s a choral director, and Martinu’s a bell-ringer! For all the composers, music played a central role in their education; and all of them retained the musical culture of their childhoods throughout their creative lives, albeit in different ways. Smetana, a political revolutionary who is now considered the ‘father of Czech music’, was actually brought up speaking German, and in later life had to study the Czech language before he could produce the first genuinely Czech operas. Dvorak was equally proud of his nationality, and composed many purely Czech works; but perhaps his most influential and original achievement was to retain a vital element of folk music within his symphonies, concertos and quartets. His entire output is permeated with the spirit of dance, song or folk-tale.  Martinu is another case in point. Famously brought up in a church tower, his works are full of the peals of bells, and also of a huge variety of dance-forms, from baroque to jazz; but somehow his Czech identity is always at the core of his music. Janacek is different, of course; although no stranger to dance or to folksongs (like Dvorak, he was a keen collector of folk music), his outstanding legacy lies in his creation of a new musical language based on speech-rhythms. But he is all the more a composer ‘of the people’ for that; walking the streets of every town he visited, noting down the patterns of the speech he heard – even, macabrely, notating his daughter’s dying utterances – he remained resolutely entrenched in the spirit of his native Moravia. As for Suk, he built on and developed the legacy of his teacher and father-in-law Dvorak; probably his most famous work, the ‘Asrael’ symphony, was dedicated to the memory of Dvorak and his daughter Otilie, Suk’s wife, who died just a year after her father.

All these composers shared a fierce pride in their Czech cultural heritage, and had much else in common; but of course they were very different characters, with very different destinies. Smetana is the most tragic figure of the five. Poor man – what a life. After all sorts of personal and career difficulties, he achieved some success – but thereafter was struck down all too soon with deafness, followed by madness. His piano trio was inspired by an earlier tragedy: the death of his adored daughter Bedřiška. His anguished grieving can be heard throughout, as we hear the ghost of the little child – a talented pianist – playing Chopin, whose music she loved. The work ends in a cry of pain. And yet, for all the suffering, there is still charm, there is warmth, and there is that freshness and honesty that runs like a Czech river through all the music in these programmes.

Dvorak, indisputably the most widely beloved of these five composers, features largely in these programmes, since chamber music was very much at the centre of his output. Although his works can be deeply tragic – as witness the extraordinary last movement of the Four Romantic Pieces – I find that when I think of his music, the over-riding impression is of deep joy. (Somehow I have the feeling that his next-door neighbour in heaven these days must be Haydn.) . Composers from Brahms onwards have always loved the simplicity of Dvorak’s heart; performers adore playing his works; children respond to his music instantly. In fact, I think that anyone who does not love Dvorak should seek therapy immediately!

Suk is the least well-known of the five. We are playing a very early work of his, the piano quartet op 1, composed before he had found his powerful later voice. His progress was striking; even his piano quintet, written only two years after this quartet, inhabits a very different, more sophisticated world, somewhat freer of the influence of his teacher and future father-in-law Dvorak. And yet, I find the piano quartet irresistible; the soul of the 17-year-old Suk sings out, the freshness, optimism and uncomplicated romanticism of the music reaching out to us, making of the quartet not just a promising early production but a deeply satisfying work in its own right.

Janacek, of course, was a far more knotty character altogether: difficult, sullen, full of anger, this extraordinary man followed an entirely individual path and in doing so carved out a unique niche for himself in the history of music. And yet, despite the grand scale of so many of his masterpieces, the clear-eyed child is never absent. We hear it here in the fairy-tale magic of Pohadka and in the passionate fury of the violin sonata.  And finally Martinu: the only one of the five who ended his days exiled from his beloved homeland, his life-story was the most dramatic of all. Having written his first cello sonata as the Nazis approached Paris – had they captured him, he would have been done for – he wrote his second sonata to celebrate his (narrow) escape to America. It is full of the vibrant energy of jazz – symbolic of the power and vigour of his new home. Like Dvorak before him in his “American’ works, Martinu loved and absorbed the music of his adopted land, and wrote music that was both clearly American and deeply Czech.  It might seem like an anomaly; but actually, the immediacy of the folk music of both countries does seem to be related. In fact, it was Dvorak who, during his tenure as professor of composition at the conservatory of music in New York, stressed that it was from their native music that American composers would create a truly national style. And how right he was – even if he might have been slightly surprised to find some of the forms the music was to take. It’s nice to think that there’s some justification for naming Dvorak as the father of rock and roll! The influence of Czech music is everywhere…

Steven Isserlis