Written by Dan Bickel and James Nightingale
December marks the sesquicentenary of the birth of Czech composer Vítězslav Novák (1870-1949). Novák’s music has a place within the late-Romantic school of Czech composition, sitting beside such notable composers as Antonín Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana, Josef Suk and Leoš Janáček. However, his interest in modern musical trends, stimulated by the Prague premiere of Richard Strauss’ Salome, lends his music a modernist edge that makes it distinctive from his compatriots.
Novák grew up in a southern Bohemian village where his musical talent was encouraged by a sympathetic music teacher. In his late teens, he attended Dvořák’s composition classes at the Prague Conservatory and became a good friend of Dvořák’s son-in-law, the violinist and composer, Josef Suk.
Novák’s early music was inspired by the rich folk music of neighbouring rural Moravia and Slovakia. In 1896, he travelled to Moravia (now part of the Slovak Republic) and the Tatra mountains, where he was captivated by the landscape, the people and their music. This fascination led to the composition of the Slovak Suite a n d In the Tatras, works full of folk song. Another work from this part of his career is Toman and the Wood Nymph, which is based on a poetic rendering of the Czech legend by František Ladislav Čelakovský.
The woodsman Toman, betrayed by his lover, goes off into the forest and dies of grief in the arms of a wood nymph. The pictorial and impressionistic score, full of musical colour and some adventurous harmony, surprised Prague audiences at its premiere in 1908.
From 1901-17, Novák held meetings in his home of a group of like-minded musicians including Suk and Rudolf Karel. These friends, along with Novák’s wife, Marie Prášková, debated new music from abroad, shared their own scores and helped each other along in their careers.
After the Great War, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed leading to the foundation of Czechoslovakia. Novák was a prominent agitator for Czech and Slovak culture, using folk song to raise the profile of a new national culture. Having taught composition at the Prague Conservatory from 1909-20, the formation of Czechoslovakia inspired Novák to take an administrative turn, and he took on the post of director of the Conservatory. However, he was embroiled in heated public controversy over Dvořák’s music with a music critic from Prague University, which led to a campaign against his own music by sections of the Prague press. This prompted Novák to compose in a more conservative style but even so, audiences and critics were not receptive to his several operas and ballets of the 1920s and 30s.
With the annexation of Czechoslovakia and invasion by German forces in 1938-9, Novák’s career took another turn. He resigned from the Prague Conservatory and dedicated himself to composition. Works from this time included the St Wenceslas Tryptich and De Profundis, pieces which embodied resistance to German rule. These were followed in 1945 by the May Symphony, dedicated to Stalin, the liberator of Czechoslovakia.
Novák died in 1949, his post war years having been dedicated to choral arrangements of folk songs. This was a return to the inspirations of his early career, the Moravian and Slovak folk songs that were his ever present muse.