CD series 2

A Suplement to Czech Music Quarterly 2008/1
Available on request in the Czech MIC

Czech Music Series 2 sampler

Zbynek Vostrak: The beautiful Gardiner (1973)
Petr Kotik: Spontano (1964)
Marek Kopelent: A Few Minutes With An Oboist (1972)
Jan Klusak: Variations on a Theme by Gustav Mahler (1962)


This CD is the second in our series intended to chart the output of contemporary Czech composers. The first disc: “Chamber Music”, which was included with the first issue of Czech Music Quarterly last year, provided a cross-section of the most recent works. The present one focuses on composers who came onto the scene in the 1960s. Of course this only represents a fraction of what was happening in Czech music in the 1960s and early 1970s. Nevertheless I think it is a representative selection and of a high standard.
The title we have chosen – The 1960s Generation – is apt but also ambiguous. Even in totalitarian Czechoslovakia, the sixties were a period when modern trends in the arts flourished and it was the composers represented on this CD – alongside many others – whose joint emergence onto the scene in the nineteen-sixties was (and remains) crucial. On the other hand, it would be a great mistake to construe the title as meaning that the selected composers formed a specific group with a shared programme or aesthetic. On the contrary, the four composers had very different approaches and backgrounds and as time went by their thinking diverged even more – and this is quite apparent in the works chosen, which were composed during the years 1962–1974.


Zbynek Vostrak
The Beautiful Gardener (1973)
Josef Svejkovsky, Vladislav Kozderka – trumpet, Alois Cocek – french horn, Jaroslav Lisy,
Josef Votava – trombone, Zbynek Vostrak – conductor. Licensed by Czech Radio

Zbynek Vostrak (1920-1985) was born into the family of a well-to-do Prague architect, and his parents were very supportive of his artistic leanings. He studied composition privately with Rudolf Karel, and after Karel’s arrest by the Gestapo during World War II he taught himself composition while studying conducting at the Prague Conservatory. His first compositions were late-Romantic and Neo-classical in style, one of his first works being a reconstruction of an opera that his teacher Rudolf Karel had sketched out before he died in a Nazi prison. This steered him towards the composition of operas and ballets, to which he continued to devote himself up to the end of the 1950s. Written in a traditional musical style, these stage works did not clash with the Communist cultural ideology and they also enjoyed some measure of success with the public. In the early 1960s, his work underwent a fundamental stylist change. Now in his forties, he turned his back on his previous compositions and began to take an interest in modern approaches to composition and after two year’s private study he created his first twelve-tone compositions that fully embrace the aesthetics of New Music. His subsequent works reflect a more systematic implementation of various techniques, ranging from serial music to aleatorics, graphic notation and conceptual scores, and he also devoted himself in a major way to electro-acoustic composition.
He formulated his own method of composition and described it in theoretical essays. It is based on the contraposition of three basic types of texture, which he termed “form principles“: statics, kinetics and rhythmics, and would draw up a graphic plan for their balanced distribution within the composition. From 1965 he was conductor of the Musica Viva Pragensis ensemble, thanks to which the music of the 1960s Czech avant-garde was heard at European festivals for an entire decade. Following the Soviet occupation of 1968 and the tightening of the Communist regime Vostrak was expelled from the Union of Composers, which meant that his works could not be performed. Musica Viva Pragensis was banned from performing after 1973. From then on until his death Vostrak lived in virtual seclusion, composing for himself, isolated from musical life.
The Beautiful Gardener (1973) for brass quintet was commissioned by the members of the Prague Brass Quintet, who also perform it on the present recording for Czech Radio. The composer was influenced by the painting of the same name by Max Ernst, which is full of mystical symbols. He conveyed the enigmatic atmosphere emanating from the picture through fifteen minutes of very static but hypnotic music for five brass instruments, whose notes reverberate in space. The piece is partly written in aleatoric notation and the performers have a certain element of choice of notes, articulation and alternation of mutes; consequently various performances will differ in details but not in the overall tone.


Petr Kotik
Spontano (1964)
Joseph Kubera – piano, The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble (live recording)

In 1961 Petr Kotik founded the first new music ensemble in the Czech Republic, Musica Viva Pragensis. He was then 19 years old, studying the flute at the Prague Conservatory (1956-62). He started to write music relatively late after discovering in 1960, while working with his mentor composer Vladimir Sramek, that one can compose without much attention to harmony (for which he had very little talent), or even melody, for that matter. Soon after, Kotik studied composition privately with Jan Rychlik in Prague and then from 1963-66 at the Akademie für Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna.  Despite his composition studies, Kotik has always worked independently and is in principal self-taught. He states in a conversation with Richard Kostelanetz, “It never occurred to me to bring my own pieces to class to be corrected by the master.”
Kotik moved to the United States in 1969, first to Buffalo, NY and then to New York City in 1983, where he directs the S.E.M. Ensemble and The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble. In 2001, he founded the Ostrava Center for New Music, which produces the biennial Ostrava Days Festival and Institute. In 2005, Kotik founded the international chamber orchestra Ostravska banda, of which he is the Artistic Director. Among his best known pieces are Many Many Women (1975-78) for 6 voices and 6 instruments, Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking (1988-81) for vocal ensemble and soloists, Letters to Olga (1989-91) and recent works for orchestra Music in 2 Movements (1998-2003) and Variations for 3 Orchestras (2005).

Spontano was composed in 1964 for Frederic Rzewski and Musica viva pragensis. At that time, Rzewski had a DAAD residency in Berlin and Kotik planned a large-scale performance event in Prague at which Spontano was to be premiered (this event, however, never took place). Kotik composed Spontano after completing Music for 3 In Memoriam Jan Rychlik. The austerity of the sound material in Spontano is perhaps a reaction to Music for 3 for Viola, Cello and Contrabass, in which Kotik uses the full sonic potential of the strings (similarly to Helmut Lachenmann’s use in the late 1960s and on – a technique that later became the principal signature Lachenmann’s music).
Spontano was the first piece where Kotik started to intuitively alter music, which resulted from his compositional method (hence the title). The score is written proportionally (i.e. the distance between notes equals time). The horizontal coordination is maintained by stopwatch markings divided into 5 sec. segments. (Musica viva pragensis owned a large studio clock that was modified for the purpose of a mechanical quasi conductor placed in the front of the musicians). The absence of a conductor (and therefore the absence of cues) creates ambiguous ensemble entrances and releases of chords, thus, besides few exceptions, the chord entrances are arpeggiated.


Marek Kopelent
A Few Minutes with an Oboist (1972)
concerto galante
Vilem Veverka – oboe, Ensemble 21 conducted by Jakub Hrusa. Licensed by Czech Radio

Marek Kopelent (1932) studied composition at the Prague Academy of Music from 1951 to 1955. In 1959 he began to discover the compositional principles of the 2nd Viennese school and the European avant-garde of 1950s, and to integrate those principles into his style. The first piece to bring him to the attention of audiences abroad was his 3rd string quartet (1963), which was performed by the Novak Quartet (Novakovo kvarteto) during its European concert tours. During the 1960s, Kopelent became well known in contemporary music circles in Europe, his music being played at such festivals as the Warsaw Autumn, Donaueschingen and Witten among others. From 1965 to 1973 he was artistic director of the contemporary music ensemble Musica Viva Pragensis, founded by Petr Kotik and subsequently conducted by Zbynek Vostrak, for which he wrote several chamber pieces. In 1969 Kopelent received a scholarship from the Deutsche Akademie (DAAD) as composer-in-residence in West Berlin as part of the Berliner Künstlerprogram. With the restoration of the Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia he was fired from his post as editor of musical scores for the Supraphon publishing house. Kopelent was ostracised by the new Union of Composers and from 1976 to 1989 made his living as a pianist accompanying dancing courses for children. During the difficult period of the 1970s he composed many pieces, mostly commissioned from abroad, but he had no opportunity to hear them performed. In 1991 he was appointed professor of composition at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts. He was chairman of the Czech Section of the ISCM and still is chairman of the Atelier 90 composers’ association. He has organised and regularly lectured at international summer composition courses in Cesky Krumlov.. In 1991 he was made “Chevalier des arts et des lettres” by the French government. He was also awarded the Herder Prize in 2001.

The work was commissioned in 1972 by the American conductor and publisher Mario di Bonaventura, who visited Prague at the end of the nineteen-sixties; he needed a chamber piece with accompaniment for the oboist Alfred Genovese, to be performed at the Aspen Festival in the USA, although in the end the festival was cancelled for financial reasons. Interest was then shown in the work by the organiser and programme director of the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik festival in Germany, Dr. Brennecke, and it was premiered at Witten on 28 March 1974 by the oboist Lothar Faber. It was subsequently performed in the 1980s at the Huddersfield Music Festival (UK) and the Warsaw Autumn by Ensemble Modern with Heinz Holliger as soloist and conductor. It was first played in Prague as part of the “Prague Premières” festival in March 2004 by Ensemble 21 led by Jakub Hrůsa, when the soloist Vilem Veverka gave a brilliant performance.

What influenced my concept and work on the piece?
1)      My perspective on the form of concerto and concertante compositions as it evolved from the 18th to the 20th centuries. I approached the exhibitionism of the soloist – an important attribute of the genre – with detachment and a certain irony. The work includes, for instance, “candenzas”, one of which is an imitation of the Russian “Cossack dance”. Why? At the end of the 1960s people in western Europe used to dance it at parties at a time when for us in Czechoslovakia it symbolised the Soviet occupation after 1968. (That was another reason why the work couldn’t be performed in this country).
2)      On the other hand, working on this composition allowed me to tackle new ways of producing notes on wind instruments (chiefly multiphonic, but others too), even though we lacked the necessary information about it here in those days. Without the possibility to try them out in practice, I learned about them from the notes in the score of a wind quintet by the Polish composer Witold Szalonek.
3)      When things in my life started to become difficult after 1968 I found shelter in music and had a desire to write a colourful and playful composition, to which end I opted for a line-up that is unusual in classical music: classical guitar, electric guitar, mandolin and banjo, harp, trumpet, solo violin and double bass, prepared piano and percussion (two players). At the end of the composition, in tune with the concept of the work, all the performers are holding noise-making children’s toys. In the course of the performance there is repetition of “chivalrous” cliches, when the conductor brings in specific instruments with a genteel gesture. An awkward moment occurs when it is the conductor’s own turn (hence the sub-title: concerto galante).
4)      I think even the title of the work is part of all this: when I was fired from my job after the Soviet invasion I set about studying English. I particularly enjoyed the expression “a few” so I used it in the title of the work.


Jan Klusak
Variations on a Theme by Gustav Mahler (1962)
Prague Symphony Orchestra FOK conducted by Libor Pesek
Licensed by Supraphon Music a. s., P 1968

Born in Prague on 18 April 1934 into a Czech-Jewish family. He studied composition at the Prague Academy of Music with Jaroslav Ridky and Pavel Borkovec (1953–1957). Since then he has pursued the career of professional composer, occasionally venturing into acting and literature. His compositional style has changed several times; his first works had a Neo-Classical sound and were clearly influenced by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Isa Krejci. Autumn 1959 saw the beginning of his association with the Chamber Harmony and its conductor Libor Pesek. This encouraged him to move away from his previous style of composition in the direction of New Music and the leading west-European avant-garde composers. He wrote several works for Chamber Harmony, including Images for Twelve Wind Instruments, Four Small Vocal Exercises to Texts by Franz Kafka and his First Invention. These were increasingly influenced by twelve-tone and serial compositional techniques. The first mature synthesizing work, one which evoked a major response at the time and is still one of the most representative orchestral works of Czech music in the second half of the twentieth century, was Variations on a Theme by Gustav Mahler (1962). During the 1960s Klusak played a role in the so-called New Wave of Czech cinema, not only as a composer of film music but also as an actor. After the Soviet occupation in 1968, Klusak found himself increasingly ostracised by the neo-Stalinist regime. He reacted to official restrictions by developing his compositional style even more intensively, and a watershed in some ways was his 5th String Quartet (1975). Klusak made his living from film music and the occasional commission from Czechoslovak Television. After the fall of the Communist regime in 1989 he again started to play a full part in public life, becoming chairman of the music section of the revived Umelecka beseda cultural association and vice-chairman of the Czech Music Council, among others. He was elected to the advisory commission of the Prague Spring music festival and became repertoire advisor to the National Theatre. In 1995 he received the prestigious award “Classic 1995” for his compositions in general and his 5th String Quartet in particular

I started contemplating the composition of orchestral variations on a prominent theme from the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in the Spring of 1960. I imagined a piece of music whose fabric would disintegrate and atomize in the manner of Webern and his followers, and yet something universally musical and familiar would constantly emerge from it. It would be very hard to discern traces of some ordinary music fading away before our very eyes. It would be like someone drowning and resurfacing every so often to yell for help, after which there would just be the roar of water and other sounds of nature. Or like some creature battling death and trying to say or do something meaningful in its final throes, but with no strength left. Incoherence, hesitation, suffusion with blood were intended to be part of the composition from the outset, and I really do think they are present. Or like when we find a fragment of something that had once been part of a whole, and now we strenuously piece it together; I say strenuously because strenuousness and laboriousness, and particularly vain and abortive laboriousness, were also part of the programme of the Variations from the outset.

So what sort of composition are the Variations?
They are Jewish, above all: on account of their Old Testament, existentialist and unransomed attitude, also their Mahleresqueness, as well as their overall atmosphere, which I can’t rationally substantiate, but you can feel; also because they are connected with my father, and finally because they are arranged according to numbers that are significant in the Kaballah (this wasn’t intentional, however, I only discovered it afterwards) (…) Another characteristic of the Variations is that they are to do with content; I’d almost call them a programme composition in the Berliozian, Brucknerian, Mahlerian or Schoenbergian sense, because apart from being music, they also have an extra-musical significance – they have their own ideology. During the first days after finishing the score I wrote down a number of headings: Variations I-II – longing for ideal beauty, a bit ostrich-like; a little glass castle, fairy tale. Variation IV– levity, profligacy; whereas the previous two variations hid themselves from reality, this one is flightily reconciled with it and lives in it without a care or remorse; cynicism. Variation VI – word of command, signal. Variations VII-VIII – mysterious stampede. Variations IX-X – imminent storm. Variation XII – horror of life, and sadness that most people have no notion of such a thing. Variation XIII – extreme hysteria. Variation XIV – beneath the wheels of the world. Variation XV – faint rustles of objects; the impenetrability of things. Variation XVI – extreme loneliness. That probably suffices. It’s obvious, I hope, that the Variations on a Theme of Mahler are a romantic work and they are to be performed romantically (…) I also regard them as a Secessionist and Expressionist composition, written sixty years after the period when those styles were current.

(Excerpt from a lecture by J. Klusak, In: Konfrontace 1969/1)