Keep the Philharmonia Playing: many live concerts up to March 2021 are sadly cancelled. If you can, give what you can to keep the Philharmonia playing for you.

Donate now

Lockdown Listening with Jakub Hrůša

Conductor Jakub Hrůša on stage

Ahead of our next Philharmonia Session, Hrůša conducts Dvořák, conductor Jakub Hrůša shares a tribute to Czech composers and the historical contribution of his homeland to the music world.

Listen along through the videos below, or find the full albums in our Lockdown Listening playlist on Spotify.

Perhaps I am not a usual listener at all. My approach to music listening tends to be somewhat thematic. I get interested in a period of history, in a particular style, in an individual personality of a composer or a performer (or a creator, generally) and then I follow what is “out there”. Apart from that, I also love listening randomly, to what comes to me without my intention, so to speak (from outside, that is) – but, sadly, that wouldn’t create any meaningful list for Lockdown Listening.

The choice should be personal, I was told. Alas, I listened to so many things during the lockdown period, and my goodness, I cannot select just ten examples! There is no way I could do that. But I can definitely and happily describe what I think none other than a Czech musician can see as a sort of indispensable, historical contribution of my homeland to the entire world. Something weird-looking, like a textbook sample, but for me, surprisingly, true to my real life’s experience of the music. The personalisation lies in choosing the period of music which occupies my mind most of the time.

Therefore, I chose what I think are the ten most important Czech composers after the birth of the Czech national realisation: and it covers about a period of 100 years (1850-1950). All of these personalities are extremely close to my heart, I have conducted their music repeatedly, and will do many times again, I hope. Czech music remains still the minority of my broad repertoire of interests, but nonetheless significant in its importance. I also hope this list will be so specific to the eyes and ears of a British listener that it might spark some interest; in the individual works as well as the composers themselves. Well, let’s see.

 

 

Video

Bedřich Smetana, Má vlast

A unique moment of Czech music and an indispensable description of what a homeland can mean for someone born in it and loving it limitlessly. There’s no other parallel example of such a cycle of symphonic poems in the whole world’s repertoire.
Video

Antonín Dvořák, Rusalka

Arguably the most famous Czech composer, Dvořák tried hard his whole life to succeed in a genre, which for him was the most valuable for the people. He wasn’t always lucky in this area. But his penultimate opera is irresistible in its emotions and pure description of the fragility of human love.
Video

Zdeněk Fibich, At Twilight

One of the most educated composers, who died early at age 50 and was especially known for his intimate piano confessions and large theatre (opera and melodrama) frescoes on universal literary themes, Fibich is most known in his homeland by what’s called a “Poem”. A song with a catchy tune, played by thousands of amateur pianists and in plenty of various arrangements, is originally hidden in the middle of his “idyll” called At Twilight. Watch out for where the melody comes in!
Video

Leoš Janáček, Glagolitic Mass

A spiritual work with no rival, from the most original composer Czech lands have ever rendered. A paradoxical contribution of a “non-believer” (as he described himself) to a Christian mass canon. A most daring (and the last) symphonic piece of a man who was born before Mahler and Debussy. As I heard the brass and organ entries there for the first time, I thought one of us must be mad: the composer or me (because I didn’t believe that was possible). I still have goose bumps listening to it.
Video

Josef Bohuslav Foerster, Symphony No. 4

Foerster was a dear friend of Gustav Mahler, the most lyrical soul of the Czech music heritage. A citizen of Prague, Hamburg and Vienna, an incredibly prolific composer, he never tried to attract superfluous attention. He was a contemplator. I strongly recommend not only his music (out of which this symphony sticks out as the most extraordinary and personal) but also his memoirs in which we get invaluable views of Mahler’s personal and professional life. The latter opened himself to few people as he did to Foerster. (And they could exchange even some Czech words which the famous composer apparently recognised!)
Video

Vítězslav Novák, Toman and the Wood Nymph

Novák - the rationally controlled sensualist. That’s how I would describe this - once upon a time - most valued and respected “teacher of composers”. Few people gained such control over all aspects of composition that they would have been criticised for it. In those cases when the composer grabbed a theme which ignited his immediate imagination and emotions he was a master above others. This traditional Czech poem full of eroticism and sensuality is such one. (And it features on my most recent CD.)
Video

Josef Suk, Asrael Symphony

This piece is the central point of Czech musical modernism, perhaps the most important work of this most beloved pupil and son-in-law of Dvořák, and definitely the piece I am in the deepest love with since my teenage years. I chose this monument celebrating “the eternal and the dearest memory” of Dvořák and his daughter Otilie, Suk’s wife (both of whom died one shortly after the other and exploded Suk’s entire emotional life) as my graduation concert piece, conducted it from the bottom of my (and by) heart and have never stopped since. A piece 100% equal to the best composers of this time!
Video

Otakar Ostrčil, Calvary

Perhaps the least known master of Czech music in the first half of the 20th century, a life-long conductor (music director of the National Theatre in Prague), a constructivist and polyphonic master of our musical panorama. Calvary is a set of variations with unprecedented boldness and edge, and yet offers an authentic glance into the rich heart of its creator.
Video

Bohuslav Martinů, Fantaisies Symphoniques

The prolific, cosmopolitan composer Martinů touched probably all possible genres of (not only) classical music masterfully and repeatedly. After learning the best principles of all time from the Renaissance and Baroque times till his own, he made his compositional style exceptionally free of boundaries without losing structure and coherence. What he gained was extreme imagination of fantasy transported into a symphonic shape. Every page of this score brings unexpected turns and surprises. The end provides us with the typical Martinů-like tenderness and serenity. And sadness.
Video

Miloslav Kabeláč, Mystery of Time

A piece which I heard on radio for the first time without knowing what it was. I couldn’t stop listening - and experience that kind of a feeling until this day. A musical description of cosmic laws and powers. A monument of abstract forms, free of any boundaries of word or plot descriptions. The composer’s positive protest against constraints of so called “social realism”, the official doctrine of the communist aesthetics. An example of that power pure music without words can have if it’s so marvellously composed. I hope it is a discovery for you - as it was for me years ago and, in a fascinating way, is to all orchestras and public listeners to which I brought the piece. It has never yet failed once.

More like this

Video

Jakub Hrůša on Czech composers

Head over to our YouTube channel to learn all about Janáček, Kabeláč, Dvořák and Suk in this playlist, or explore our 500+ films