Czech music - throughout more than one thousand years old history - can be considered beneficial in both European and worldwide context, several times co-determined or determined a newly arriving era in musical art, above all in music of Classical era, as well as by original attitudes in Baroque, Romantic and modern classical music.
The musical tradition of Czechia arose from first church hymns, whose first evidence is suggested at the break of 10th and 11th century. The first significant pieces of Czech music include two chorales, which in their time performed the function of anthems: “Hospodine pomiluj ny” (Lord, Have Mercy on Us) from around 1050 (the authorship is sometimes ascribed to Svatý Vojtěch (St.Adalbert of Prague), bishop of Prague snd missionaire, living between 956 and 997), unmistakably the oldest and most faithfully preserved popular spiritual song to have survived to the present, and the hymn "Saint Wenceslas" ("Svatý Václave") from around 1250. Its roots can be found in the 12th century and it still belongs to the most popular religious songs to this day. In 1918, the song was discussed as one of the possible choices for the national anthem.
First documented personalities and records appear in Czechia in the 14th century, following the founding of a department of musicology operated from the very start of the Charles University in Prague in 1348, e.g. the composer of liturgical songs Záviš of Zápy or hymnographer Domoslav. They are several records of Czech love songs from the 14th century of courtly type "Dřěvo se listem odievá" (Trees Are Putting on Leaves) or "Jižť mne všě radost ostává" (All My Joy is Waning). As an example of the record of medieval notation can serve Gradual of Arnošt of Pardubice from 1363. Important insight into the beginnings of Czech music brings Jistebnice hymn book from 1430, which contains representative collection of liturgical, martial and spiritual songs, created until that time, including Christmas carols. The Czech carol "Di est leticie" was known in the Middle Ages all over Europe, another one with the origin in the beginning of 15th century, "Virgo partit filium" (Narodil se Kristus Pán) is regularly sung even today. In the book, we can find also famous Hussite battle hymn "Ktož jsú boží bojovníci" (Ye Who Are Warriors of God).
Baroque and Renaissance
The most important composers and musicians of Czech renaissance - predominantly of various forms of sacred music - were Jiří Rychnovský, using advanced renaissance vocal polyphony, Šimon Bar Madelka, Ondřej Chrysoponus Jevíčský, Jan Trojan Turnovský, remarkable for his well-handled polyphony technique and careful work with words in relation to music, Jan Simonides Montanus, Pavel Spongopaeus Jistebnický, Kryštof Harant of Polžice and Bezdružice, combining his music with oldier compositional techniques, and Jan Blahoslav, music theorist emphasizing the need for the musical rhythm to correspond with the chronometric system of prosody of the verses.
To the most notable Czech composers in Baroque era - and also in general - belongs Adam Michna (all name Adam Václav Michna, Chevalier from Otradovice) working in early Baroque, also organist, choir leader and poet who initiated the development of Czech music and became a significant inspiration for Czech artists of future generations. His works content pieces, which cannot deny Renaissance echoes. His music acts with remarkable vivacity, comprising both humour and tragic of daily life. About 230 of his compositions from three Czech and two Latin collections are known today. Best known are his 3 hymn cycles, Česká mariánská muzika, Loutna česká and Svatoroční muzika. His poetry remains very vivid with intense influence of senses.
The most important Czech figure of the Baroque Period was the composer Jan Dismas Zelenka, the personality of outstanding innovative spirit, next eras anticipating harmonic invention and mastery of counterpoint. He is called "catholic counterpart" of Johann Sebastian Bach, who studied Zelenka's works and was influenced by him. From Zelenka's opuses belong to most the important an extensive collection of sacred music (masses - above all his last six, called "Missae Ultimae", oratoria and cantatas). From other works are notable his concertos and sonatas. The works of Zelenka remained unknown for a very long time, because they were in the possession of the Saxon king. In 19th century, Bedřich Smetana copied some of them, but the real appreciation of the composer and his opuses started only in the 1960s with the boom from the turn of the 20th and the 21st centuries. Gradually, many of his compositions have been performed and recorded in world premieres, above all by new Czech, German and Swiss ensembles and soloists, using original instruments and vocal techniques of Baroque period with a great success.
To the other prominent Czech Baroque personalities belong trumpet virtuoso and composer of sonatas and other technically brilliant pieces with main role of brass and wind instruments, Pavel Josef Vejvanovský, the most important in hymnal tradition of Czechia, composer and organist of Middle Baroque Václav Karel Holan Rovenský, whose magnum opus, "Cappella Regia Musicalis" from 1693, massive collection of hymns and sacred songs (772 pieces) of the Roman-Catholic liturgy in the Czech language was continually reprinted throughout the ensuing centuries and has been the basis for many Czech hymnals and mainly, a representative of the late baroque style, composer and organist Bohuslav Matěj Černohorský, deeply influencing the musical evolution in Czechia not only as a composer, but also as a teacher. His fugue "Laudeatur Jesus Christus" is cited by the Baroque Music Library as an excellent example of its kind, He composed fugues and toccatas for organ, as well as vocal works. In Czechia born Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, very beneficial composer for the violin in the history of the instrument cannot be forgotten.
Composer, stylistically of the late Baroque, but important also for the development of early classicism was František Ignác Antonín Tůma. His sacred works, which were known to Haydn and Mozart, were noted by his contemporaries for their solidity of texture and their chromaticism. Among them we find some 65 masses, 29 psalms and five settings of Stabat Mater. He composed also instrumental music, predominantly trio and quartet sonatas, sinfonias and partitas with preferred role of string instruments.
Classical and Romantic era
Czech composers significantly contributed to the birth and development of Classicism in music. The style developed already deep in Baroque era from sources, created by local musicians thanks to exceptional activity of musical life at that time (the English music historian and traveller Charles Burney called Czechia “European conservatory”).
Among all Czech contributive musical personalities excelled symphonist and one of founders of classicist composition Jan Václav Antonín Stamic (generally known by germanized name Johann Stamitz), the father of famous Mannheim school, substantially innovating structure of symphonic works and sonata form. His main innovation is the four-movement structure of symphony. He was the first composer to use it consistently - more than half of his 58 symphonies and nine of his ten orchestral trios are in four movements. He also contributed to the development of sonata form, most often used in symphonic first movements but occasionally in finales and even slow movements as well.
To other Czech composers who significantly contributed to the development of classical music belong Jiří Antonín Benda in bringing the musical form of melodrama to life, the author of over 70 symphonies and almost 100 sacred works Jan Křtitel Vaňhal (generally known as Johann Baptist Vanhal), being considered highly influential to Mozart, making use of many features, which appeared later in large scale of famous composer's works, being also substantially discoverable in symphonies, prefiguring Beethoven's works.
Josef Mysliveček, a pioneer in the composition of music for wind ensemble and the master of compositional models in the genres of symphony, Italian opera, and violin concerto, called "Il Divino Boemo" (A Divine Czech) or Antonín Rejcha, whose work directed from classicism to romanticism, but his innovative methods of composition, which he applied in a variety of works, leaving their mark on the works of Beethoven and Schubert, and techniques such as bitonality and polyrhythm, derived often from folk music, directly anticipates that of modern composers far in advance.
Also Jan Ladislav Dussek (baptized Václav Jan Dusík) is considered a predecessor of the Romantic composers for piano, especially Chopin, Schumann and Mendelssohn. He composed large scale of piano sonatas and concertos, and also the highly unusual chamber sonata with percussion, an extremely rare example of pre-20th-century chamber music that includes percussion.
Romantic era in works of Czech composers started also with Jan Václav Hugo Voříšek by melodically inventive early Romantic idioms in his music, e.g. "impromptu", which term was used for the first time in relation to his piano pieces and subsequently used by Schubert, Chopin and numerous other composers.
In later Romanticism begun the period, which brought Czech music an international fame. It was practically initiated by Bedřich Smetana, the pioneer of a musical style which became closely identified with his country's aspirations to independent statehood. He is considered the founder of the Czech national school of music and the truly Czech nationalist composer. To his major works belong symphonic poem "Má Vlast" (My Country), operas with dominating themes from Czech legends, history and traditions, above all "Libuše" and "Prodaná nevěsta" (Bartered Bride) and an extensive collection of solo piano works, including many folk dances, especially polkas. Smetana had been a virtuoso performer on the piano, and those compositions, augmented by the more mature piano pieces of his difficult last years, constitute an important body of piano literature.
The most famous Czech composer and one of the leading world composers of all time was Antonín Dvořák. Dvořák’s own compositional style, usually denoted as Classical-Romantic synthesis, is considered the fullest recreation of a national idiom with that of the symphonic tradition, absorbing folk influences and finding effective ways of using them. Dvořák was also substantially influential for the growth of American classical music (being the director of Conservatory in New York between 1892-5), where he composed the most famous work "Symphony No.9 From The New World", in which he also showed the way how to work with genuine American music in classical rank. This symphony belongs among the most favourite compositions of this kind in the world. Neil Armstrong took a recording of the New World Symphony to the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission, the first Moon landing, in 1969, and left it there as some representative document of the culture of human
civilization. To Dvořák’s most important works belong also Symphonies No.7 & 8, funeral mass "Requiem", considered to be one of the best compositions of that kind ever, oratorial work "Stabat Mater", a spiritual hymn "Te Deum", "Concerto for violoncello", two collections of "Slavonic Dances", string quartets and "Rusalka", the most famous operatic work.
Other famous late romantic composers were Zdeněk Fibich, the author of symphonic poems and scenic melodramas, and in Czechia born symphonist and one of leading conductors of his generation Gustav Mahler. Also some of leading composers of Czech Modernism, Josef Suk, Vítězslav Novák (both pupils of Antonín Dvořák) and Leoš Janáček, had their roots or beginnings in Romantic era.
The period between second half of 19th century and first half of 20th century, can be considered the golden age of Czech music, represented mainly by so-called "The Great Four" of personalities of already mentioned Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák also modernists Leoš Janáček and Bohuslav Martinů, but with inconsiderable role of several other, lesser known, but for the development of modern and contemporary music important composers.
Leoš Janáček, composer of an original, inimitable modern musical style, inspired by Czech (above all of Moravian and Silesian region of Czechia) and other Slavic folk music and musical characteristics of folk speech, which is a major sign of his rendition of opera singing. He presented a previously unheard world of music, sometimes even almost from otherworldly spheres, which major example is his "Glagolitic Mass". Janáček's music employs a vastly expanded view of tonality, using unorthodox chord spacings, structures, and modality. To his other distinctive works belong "Sinfonietta", operas "Káťa Kabanová", "Jenufa" and "The Cunning Little Vixen", rhapsody "Taras Bulba", string quartets, and other chamber works.
Josef Suk was influenced first by Late romanticism, but in later pieces he uses more extended harmonies to create a personal and complex style, based on chromatic polyphony with a direction towards the freedom of atonal music. This concentration on dissonance created music which always showed a tension due to the absence of any musical relaxation. To his best works belong the symphony "Asrael", written in response to the deaths of his wife and Dvořák, "Fairy Tale Suite", the cycle of piano works "Things Lived and Dreamed", and the trilogy of symphonic poems A Summer's Tale", "The Ripening" and "Epilog". Suk won a silver medal at the Art competitions at the Olympic Games 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, with his work "Into a New Life".
Bohuslav Martinů, a prolific modern symphonist and opera composer, moving in many distinctive directions with neoclassicism, expressionism and jazz music in veins. He usually belongs to the so-called "Great Four" (as they are sometimes called altogether with Dvořák, Smetana, and Janáček). Martinů created over 400 musical work during his life, from which 6 symphonies, "Concerto for violoncello and orchestra", "Field Mass", "Gilgamesh" oratorial work, the extensive collection of piano concertos and chamber music have to be mentioned. From operatic works stand out "Juliette", "Plays about Mary" & "The Greek Passion".
In the first half of 20th century started his career the discoverer and one of major world composers of microtonal music, Alois Hába. To the most important personalities in high modern era belong original keys creator and symphonist Miloslav Kabeláč and a composer of modern sacred works (above all for organ) Petr Eben.
Musical events in Czechia
Already in 13th century, Czech King Wenceslas II organised the first major musical event in the country, that was to draw the attention of all of Europe. He held a musical competition in Prague, inviting the most famous European musicians and the king also took part personally, as a minstrel. The most famous music festival in the country of today is Prague Spring International Music Festival of classical music, founded 1946, a permanent showcase for outstanding performing artists, symphony orchestras and chamber music ensembles of the world.
The wealth of musical culture in Czechia lies in the long-term high-culture classical music tradition during all historical periods, especially in the Baroque, Classicism, Romantic, modern classical music and in the traditional folk music of particular Czech lands. Since the early eras of artificial music, Czech musicians and composers have often been influenced by genuine folk music, which is can be recognized already in records of Czech music since 14th - 15th century, and dances.
Vladimír Hirsch (2014)
published in Czechia - the Heart of Europe
published in Czechia - the Heart of Europe