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A Rare Czech Opera from the 1920s.

Otakar Zich. Vina. Opera in Three Acts Based on the Play by Jaroslav Hilbert. Edited by Brian S. Locke. Part 1: Introductory Materials and Act 1. (Recent Researches in the Music of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, 61.) Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, 2014. [Acknowledgments, p. vi; introd., p. vii-xiii; text and trans., p. xiv-xxx; 2 plates; characters, instruments, p. 2; score, p. 3-185. ISBN 978-0-89579788-9. $325.]

Otakar Zich. Vina. Opera in Three Acts Based on the Play by Jaroslav Hilbert. Edited by Brian S. Locke. Part 2; Act 2. (Recent Researches in the Music of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, 62.) Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, 2014. [Score, p. 187-454. ISBN 978-089579-789-6. $325.]

Otakar Zich. Vina. Opera in Three Acts Based on the Play by Jaroslav Hilbert. Edited by Brian S. Locke. Part 3: Act 3 and Critical Report. (Recent Researches in the Music of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, 63.) Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, 2014. [Score, p. 455-586; crit. report, p. 587-88; glossary of Czech terms and phrases, p. 589. ISBN 978-0-89579-790-2. $375.]

"Neither during his lifetime nor later did his music gain public response and many of his compositions exist only in manuscript." This is the verdict of Josef Bek, who wrote the article on Otakar Zich (1879-1934) for The New Grove. "Zich's scholarly heritage," Bek goes on to explain, "is much more important" (Josef Bek, "Zich, Otakar," The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2d ed. [London: Macmillan, 2001], 27:817). This view is still the current one, as far as Czech musicology is concerned. Although Bek split his article evenly between Zich's work as a composer and as an aesthetician (Zich was professor of aesthetics at Charles University in Prague, 1924-34), it is clear from the bibliography that musicologists have been more interested in Zich the writer (nine items) than Zich the composer (one item, plus two general biographies). This is also overwhelmingly the view of the current online Cesky hudebni slovnik osob a inslituci (Czech musical dictionary of people and institutions, http://www, whose entry on Zich (most recently revised, 2 February 2010) describes him, as "Aesthetician, musical aesthetician, composer and university teacher" (my translation).

So the surprise is that A-R Editions, Inc., has published three tall volumes (43 cm high) containing the full score of Zich's opera Vina (Guilt). It is by far the longest and most expensive entry in the Recent Researches in the Music of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries series, and is the first publication of the opera in any form. Whereas most Czech operas staged in Prague during the earlier half of the twentieth century also were published in pianovocal score, as were Zich's two one-act operas, Malirsky napad (A painter's whim) and Preciezky (after Moliere's Les precieuses ridicules), Vina remained unpublished and sank more or less without trace. It received two productions at the Prague National Theatre in the 1920s: in 1922, where it achieved fifteen performances over two years; and in 1929, when it was taken off after four performances. It was not performed elsewhere. Zich's other two operas did rather better, and both were rerived in Prague after the war. An index of Zich's waning currency as an opera composer can be seen by comparing articles in Czech opera guides. Ceske umeni dramaticke: Zpevohra (Czech dramatic art: opera [Prague: Sole a Simacek, 1941]) was published in desperate but highly patriotic times during the war. In it Josef Hutter, one of the two editors of the volume, and also the author of a long analysis of Vina published at the time of its premiere, provided a long biography of Zich, and substantial synopses of his three operas accompanied by several photographs and stage designs. Forty years later Ladislav Sip's Ceska opera a jeji tvurci (Czech opera and its creators [Prague: Supraphon, 1983]) devoted some seventy pages to the Czech operas of the interwar period, but mentioned Zich only en passant.

That Brian S. Locke, the editor of the full score, thinks rather differently about the opera and its composer was already evident in his deeply researched and deeply felt study of politics and practice at the Prague National Theatre 1900-1938: Opera and Ideology in Prague, Eastman Studies in Music, [39] (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2006). Here he devoted substantial sections to "Zich's Preciezky and the 'Nova Buffa' " (pp. 224-38) and to Zich's Vina ("From Sweet Cantilena to a Violent Scream," pp. 169-78), regarding Vina as one of the key operatic works of the remarkable period of Czech musical modernism between the wars. This modernist trend was controversial at the time in Prague, and Vina in particular, with its "intensely discordant polyphonic textures to depict the fractures of bourgeois society" (Locke [2006], 169), aroused enthusiasm from leading critics such as Zdenek Nejedly, who claimed that Vina "was a manifesto that sought to stretch the bounds of the audience's perception in opera" (Ibid., 175). It also aroused hostility among the more conservative critics. While Otakar Sourek--Dvorak's well respected biographer--felt that the piece picked up halfway, bringing it to a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion, he found the first half monotonous, fragmented, and grey, lacking any inventive spark (review in Venkov, summarized in Frantisek Pala, Opera Narodniho divadla v obdobi Otakara Ostrcila (Opera of the National Theatre in the time of Otakar Ostrcil [Prague: Divadelni ustav, 1964], 2:104). Other critics were even less respectful:

All of Zich's modernism is merely false posturing. In essence, Vina is the product of primitivistic dilettantism, which covers up an inventive impotence, a lack of dramatic feeling, and a dramatic helplessness through harmonic monstrosities, collected cacophonies, and the coarsest naturalism. Parts of Vina are not song, but speech in a series of quite expressionless pitches. Only in a few agitated moments, here and there, did a tone flow from the throat of Mina that was like a flash of true feeling or emotion. Otherwise, everything that was sung on the stage would be just as well or as poorly suited to any sort of text whatsoever. If there are no fixed characteristics of the individuals in the vocal parts, neither are there in the orchestra. The basis of the instrumental part is one- or two-measure motives, quite inexpressive and without an internal relationship to the psychology of the characters or the dramatic situation (Antonin Silhan, "Finis musicae," Narodni lisly, 15 March 1922; quoted in Vina, ed. Locke, part 1, p. xi).

While the venom is characteristic of the aggressively partisan discourse of the period, Vina was nevertheless rather an odd and isolated form of Czech modernism. "Dilettantism" refers to the fact that as a composer Zich was self-taught (his university education was in mathematics with some aesthetics on the side); "false posturing" perhaps expressed Silhan's suspicion (or hope) that Zich's heart wasn't really in this sort of stuff at all (Zich's earlier musical experiences were of Smetana's operas and the folk music of his region, of which he published many arrangements), and may simply have masked poor compositional ability. It could also be argued that as a distinguished aesthetician of the theater, Zich had a rather different take on opera from that of his Czech modernist contemporaries such as Otakar Ostrcil, Alois Haba, Otakarjeremias, and E. F. Burian.

Vina was composed between 1911 and 1915, but it was only when Otakar Ostrcil took over as chief conductor at the National Theatre in Prague in 1920 that he was able to stage the work. The opera is based on a play by Jaroslav Hilbert (1871-1936), and of his eighteen plays given at the Prague National Theatre, Vina was the first and the most popular, achieving six productions between 1896 and 1939, with a total of forty-nine performances. The text explores the relationship between Mina and her widowed mother, and Mina's relationship with her fiance, and with a man to whom, seven years earlier, she had previously lost her virginity and now meets again. (All this is complicated by the fact that this new arrival is also the son of Mina's mother's former lover.) As in Ibsen's Ghosts, the past (the source of the "guilt" of the title) is gradually revealed as the play proceeds toward Mina's suicide at the end. While some critics regarded Hilbert's play as complete in itself, and a musical setting redundant, Zich used a sophisticated tangle of constantly shifting motifs in the orchestra to fill in and comment on the unspoken thoughts and motivations of the characters. The harmonies deriving from the coincidence of polyphonic voices are "either jarringly discordant or disappointingly mundane in the moment, and in the large scale, almost completely directionless. According to Hutter, such was Zich's plan" (Locke [2006], 172). The result is an orchestral score of great complexity, virtually independent of the voice parts. In stylistic terms it is a typical "conversational" opera of the period, with melisma and simultaneous singing studiously avoided, as is (with one exception) anything resembling a set number. There is no chorus, just five characters (soprano, mezzosoprano, tenor, and two basses), and an enormous orchestra with quadruple woodwind, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, percussion, two harps, celesta, piano, and strings. Zich lavished huge care on the voice parts. The words are scrupulously modeled on the vowel lengths and stress system of the Czech language, and are festooned with dynamic markings. A line such as "Ja bych si tak prala, abys ty k nemu prilnula" ("I would so like you to become more attached to him," p. 8) comes with a mf at die beginning, almost immediately followed by a hairpin crescendo up to a poco sf on the longest note ("pra-"), then a hairpin descrescendo. Three other individual notes (out of thirteen) have individual accents attached. This is typical of all the vocal lines in the opera.

It is difficult not to regard this edition as a somewhat quixotic enterprise. Although the source problems are not complex (the copied score together with the performance parts and two piano-vocal scores constitute the only sources--the composer's autograph is still in private hands and was unavailable for consultation), nevertheless a huge amount of labor has gone into setting up a computer-engraved score of this length and with such enormous forces. Locke prefaces the score with a 10,000-word introduction including twenty-one musical examples devoted to the work's motivic construction (all with somewhat laconic labels such as "Guilt," "Resignation," "Confession," "Coldness," "Grief," "Suffering," "Affection," "Condemnation," "Dishonor," "Defiance," "Death," "Livelihood"). In addition, Locke has provided a complete English translation of the text printed in parallel with the complete Czech text, and a glossary of Czech terms and phrases (expression marks or performance explanations) that crop up in the score. The edition is seemingly not intended for performance, since neither orchestral parts nor a piano-vocal score have been made available (extracting orchestral parts from such a score is not a quick mechanical process).

There appear to be three reasons for publishing the score: its status, according to Locke ([2006], 171), as " a microcosm of the Czech modernism advocated in Prague" and how it could be applied to opera; as a touchstone of the acrimonious interchanges between the supporters and detractors of the modernist trend; and, though this is something that Locke does not pursue, as an opera that could interestingly be mapped against Zich's theories of drama presented in his Estetika dramatickeho umeni (The aesthetics of dramatic art [Prague: Melantrich, 1931; 2d ed., Prague: Panorama, 1986]). Are these reasons well served, however, by publishing a complete full score? Few musicologists today are capable of getting some impression of the sound of such a densely orchestrated score, and, since he scarcely mentions it, the orchestration itself seems to be its least interesting aspect for Locke. A decent piano-vocal score with some indications of scoring might have served the scholarly community better in providing a simpler (and much cheaper) means of analyzing the work and getting some idea of its overall nature and construction. Nevertheless it is hard not to salute the sheer effort in getting all this together, and in persuading a publisher to issue it. The score is clearly presented and edited with coherent editorial principles. Judging from the paucity of editorial interventions (carefully explained under "Editorial Methods" in the critical report) and from the brevity of the critical notes, the score that Locke used as his source was meticulous (the critical notes mostly concern additional pencil markings, presumably made during rehearsals and performances). There are very few places (e.g., p. 151) where another editor might have tried to iron out inconsistencies, but altogether this is a tremendous achievement. A series of piano-vocal scores of some of the key Czech operas of the interwar period (e.g., Jeremias's Bratri Karazamovi) would be a worthy successor. Although most were published in their day, they are relentlessly out of print. Reissues with the detailed introduction and fine commentary that Locke provides here would be most welcome.


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Author:Tyrrell, John
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2015
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