Leoš Janáček Ballad of Blaník
Jan Novák Ignis for Ioanne Palach
Bohuslav Martinů Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani
Miloslav Kabeláč The Mystery of Time
Leoš Janáček Taras Bulba
conductor Stefan Veselka
choir master Michal Vajda
Czech Academic Choir
The dramaturgical conception of the concert focuses on the number 8, which is connected with important political events in our modern history that changed the fates of both the nation and the individuals within it. It isn´t surprising that composers reflected these crucial moments in their work.
In 1918, in expectation of an end to the horrors of World War I, Leoš Janáček (1854–1928) completed his “Slavonic rhapsody” inspired by Gogol´s novel Taras Bulba. Janáček actually started composing it in 1915, but the harsh repression against anyone showing fondness towards hostile Russia made him decide to stop working on the piece. He only returned to it in 1918, rewriting the composition completely and finishing it off. It was performed in 1921, when the composer František Neumann produced it with the orchestra of National Theatre Brno. Taras Bulba is proof of Janáček´s keen Slavic patriotism and the Russophilia which is associated with it.
The declaration of the Czechoslovak Republic gave rise to the creation of Janáček´s symphonic Ballad of Blaník. Janáček was inspired by Jaroslav Vrchlický´s poem of the same name from his collection Rural Ballads. The piece concerns the sleeping knights of Blaník, who are ever ready to come to the nation’s aid when times are hardest. It isn´t certain when exactly this work was created but it could have been in autumn 1919. The premiere took place on 21st March 1920 at Brno’s City Theatre, where the opera orchestra was conducted by František Neumann. The concert to mark the occasion of the seventieth birthday of President T. G. Masaryk had a bitter aftertaste for Janáček. The composer had prepared a speech concerning his new attitudes to Masaryk´s Czech Question, but shortly before the concert he learnt that Brno Conservatory, created from his Organ School, had finally become a state property thank to his activities but that Jan Kunc had been appointed as its head. Because of this, Janáček left the concert immediately after the premiere of his composition. He dedicated the Ballad of Blaník, just like The Excursions of Mr. Brouček, to President T. G. Masaryk.
The life story of Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959) is connected with the tragic year of 1938 when the composer visited his country for the last time in his life. He was present at the production of Julietta at the National Theatre in Prague, and spent the summer in his native Polička. The oppressive atmosphere connected with the German threat could be felt everywhere. In September, Martinů was invited by Mr and Mrs Sacher to Switzerland, where he composed his Double Concert. He later spoke about these dramatic days: “Here, in this solitude, on the border of three countries, I experienced Munich and completed my work, which contains a trace of drama as well as the atmosphere of those days, the first warning hurricane which swept through Europe.” The concert for two string orchestras, piano and timpani is definitely one of the most important works by Bohuslav Martinů, and is also one of the most frequently played of his works abroad.
The year 1968 was no less difficult for Czechoslovakia, as on 21st August the country was occupied by the armies of the Warsaw Pact. Many composers reacted subsequently to this event – Marek Kopelent, Petr Eben, Miloslav Kabeláč and Karel Husa. The cantata Ignis for Ioanne Palach by Jan Novák (1921–1984), a pupil of Bohuslav Martinů, was created immediately after the shocking deed of student Jan Palach, who burnt himself to death as a protest against the political situation in Czechoslovakia on 16th January 1969. Immediately afterwards, other composers also reacted, mainly those from Brno such as Josef Berg, Alois Piňos and Evžen Zámečník. Jan Novák, experienced in Latin, wrote the Latin text of the cantata himself. The very emotive, stirring piece was performed for the first time on 15th April 1969 in Prague’s Rudolfinum.
Mystery of Time, perhaps the best known symphonic work by Miloslav Kabeláč (1908–1979), will be performed at the end of the concert. He is definitely one of our most important 20th century composers, and one who also gained international recognition for his work. He spent a long time meticulously crafting his pieces, which was also the case with the Mystery of Time; it took him four years to make it. He completed it in 1957, when the composition was performed by the Czech Philharmonic with the conductor Karel Ančerl. Kabeláč´s friend Eduard Herzog wrote about this piece: “A reflection on events in the cosmos, its vast regions and the fixed rules which govern them. […] The author wanted to express the deep emotional trepidation he felt from his insight and the belief that all apparent randomness is controlled by strict and unwavering order…”