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Miloslav Kabelac: symphonist.

On the occasion of last year's publication of the complete set of Miloslav Kabelac eight symphonies on CD, recorded for Supraphon by conductor Marko Ivanovic and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, we present a study of this crucial chapter in the history of 20th century Czech music.



Symphony no. 6 "in E" op. 44 (1961-62) is again a concertante symphony, for solo clarinet and orchestra with two pianos, composed in three movements. This was one of the first scores in which Kabelac used his new notation, with which he strived to express as precisely as possible the temporal organisation of the music through graphic means. Another rarity found in this score is the use of a new sound source and sound quality in the 2nd movement: a pedal point (a minor ninth doubled at the octave) played back from magnetic tape, which plays for the duration of the movement. Only its dynamic intensity is regulated by an operator, following a curve in the score. A demanding solo clarinet recitative takes place over this background, which is complemented by the sound of the string section. The sonic and expressive effect of this music is truly unconventional.

The 1st movement, at 786 measures, is extensive, dramatically heightened with a demanding concertante element. Its pitch and metro-rhythmic structure is complex, worked out in detail from algorithms determined in the pre-compositional phase. These algorithms permeate both the micro- and macro-structure of the work. Kabelac assigns metro-rhythmic specifications to the individual measure directly. The new notation allowed him a fairly exact method to graphically fix his vision. The pitch material, once again, grows out of an artificial mode--this time, it is the ten-note symmetrical mode 1-a-1-1-1-1-1-2-1-1. This mode is "responsible" for the outer sections of the form--that is, the opening part of the exposition and the final part of the recapitulation, which is an almost literal repetition of the section of the exposition under discussion. The pedal point harmonies are always comprised of notes from the mode and their intervallic range is always that of a major seventh. Measure 108 brings the first change in the modal structure up to this point, when the composer introduces the two remaining pitches from the chromatic scale, which are not part of the mode (in the prime form, it is the notes A and D). This dyad is used to great effect. Almost simultaneously with this change, the dynamisation of the texture begins, through a gradual change of the pedal point background on the basis of an ostinato figure with a different metrical arrangement.

Another change in the pitch organisation comes in measures 198-318, where the mode changes to a new, nine-tone asymmetrical mode, 2-1-2-1-1-1-2-1-1, first presented in the solo clarinet melodic line. At the apex of a monumental intensification in this section, Kabelac places another change in the modal structure, switching to an octatonic mode with two neighbouring hiatus, highly expressive particularly as it outlines a diminished triad. The number of pitch classes in the artificial modes gradually decreases (10-9-8-7), which also leads to a lower number of seconds and an increase in larger intervals, which also adds to the rise in tension.

The final section of the form, in effect a modified reprise (from measure 594), introduces a four-note melodic model in the clarinet, which, in a tense final "monologue" of the solo instrument, is gradually reduced to only three chromatic notes, presented, however, in an arrangement with a rising major ninth. The melodic model is further reduced to a combination of only two notes in the range of a minor second, i.e. also a major seventh or a minor ninth. The constructivism of the 1st movement of the 6th symphony became a culmination of Kabelac's rational compositional process in symphonic form. Its detail, rigour and the pervasive use of "modal algorithms" is unsurpassed, even by his last two symphonies. As mentioned above, the 2nd movement makes use of a dissonant pedal, recorded on strings (violins, cellos and double basses) onto magnetic tape, in a sustained low dynamic and with a lot of reverberation. This drone should be played back by two to three speakers placed behind the orchestra and directed at the audience. The movement is in ABA form with a condensed mirrored recapitulation. The melodic material is derived from an initial two-note group, which expands to a three-and four-note group, which is subjected to modal rhythmisation. The entire movement is a monologue of the solo clarinet over the pedal.

The third movement is a brusque, brilliant and elemental finale on a foundation of mechanical triplet oscillations of two or three notes, as well as varied forms of 2/4 and 3/4 measures. Kabelac's last two symphonies, the seventh and eighth, bring remarkable innovations into the traditional genre in several components at once. They both introduce text in addition to music as a crucial semantic component. In both cases, this is an adapted, or rather intentionally deformed biblical text, in effect also arranged modally on the basis of pre-selected and pre-excluded "constructive elements" of speech.

Symphony no. 7 op. 52 (1967-68) is scored for large orchestra and narrator--it is therefore not a classic vocal symphony, although out of all the varieties of the genre, this is certainly the one it is closest to. The text was assembled by the composer from the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of John, following a dramaturgical plan for the work, thought out in detail in advance. The text contains only nouns (as well as some adjectives, prepositions and conjunctions), as semantically condensed units with profound and timeless validity. Both the text and the music are divided into three movements, arranged symmetrically around the central second movement: Eternity--Man--Eternity.

By limiting the text to nouns--general and maximally semantically loaded terms--Kabelac gave these terms a wider and more emphatic universality, surpassing the religious-ritual function. Furthermore, the words of the Bible are dignified and ceremonial even in their basic form, especially in the Kralice (1) translation which Kabelac used, and are therefore particularly suited to artistic stylisation. In the case of the 7th symphony, the composer used the Bible to express his position on the questions of meaning, man's place in the world, the meaning of life, the meaning of human sacrifice for life in the midst of an apparently chaotic space between the beginning and end of all things. The symbolic meaning of the themes intimated in relation to the events in Czechoslovakia in 1967-68 brought out many additional contemporary connotations.


The presence of a rational constructive element is particularly apparent in the 7th symphony. The entire symphony is governed by a logical order and a strictly adhered to proportion of all its components. The number 7 serves as the fundamental coefficient, which is certainly to do with the biblical symbolism of this number, perhaps also with the serial number of the symphony. The text and music in all three movements--3 is another important number here--is divided into seven parts, the pitch relations are dictated by the basic modus of the entire work--Kabelac's favourite 1-2-1-3 (also used in the 2nd symphony)--five-note with a periodicity of a fifth, that is, 7 semitones.

In the dramatically exalted middle movement, a different mode is used, the five-note 1-3-1-6 with a distinctly exposed succession of a semitone and tritone. Another source material is the Gregorian sequence Dies Irae (the interval range of the first and key melodic phrase of this sequence is, again, a fifth, i.e. 7 semitones) and the melody of a pentatonic elegy from New Guinea, which introduces an effective contrast of a distant musical expression against European musical thought. Another important constructive element is symmetry: it controls both the musical and textual macrostructure and also permeates into the lower levels of the structure. Despite the absolute lucidity of the constructive intention, there is not a trace of schematicism in the work. Kabelac was an excellent architect and thinker, but also a sensitive and experienced musician, with excellent knowledge of the psychology of perception. In his analytical study of this work, musicologist Vladimir Lebl points out a remarkable structural detail: even though the 7th symphony is demonstrably symmetrical on practically all levels, a mechanistic understanding of symmetry is impeded by the short duration of the final movement in comparison with the first (with which it is otherwise clearly symmetrical).


This fact, however, does not impede the feeling of symmetry, as the author counted on the difference between physical time and the internal time of musical structure. After the expressive climax of the 2nd movement, the final movement is a single drawn out catharsis, with a continuous expressive and dynamic diminution. Therefore, it was necessary not to overburden this diminutive process with an excessive duration. From the psychological perspective, then, the feeling of symmetry remains fully present. This principle is also evidently in place in some of Kabelac's earlier symphonies, particularly in the 6th.

Symphony no. 8 "Antiphonal" op. 54 (1969-70) is a work extraordinary in its form, its instrumentation and also in its musical and conceptual content. It has nine sections: five movements and four interludes. Their structure is dictated by a firm logical order, proportionality and symmetry. The axis (both in structure and meaning) is the third, longest movement. The interludes which connect the individual movements are identical in their duration and musical materials, and differ only as to the alternating direction of dynamic development. The work is written for an ensemble of percussionists (6 players), organ, coloratura soprano and two mixed choirs (large and small). The text, once again, comes from the Bible. This time, Kabelac opted for statements and formulas of ritual, magical and symbolic meanings: Mene, tekel, ufarsin, amen, hosanna, hallelujah. The musical language of the symphony is modal and grows out of another one of Kabelac's strange modes. At the climax of the 3rd movement, we hear a suggestion of the Gregorian Dies Irae. The musical expression also mines elements of shouts, crowd chants and both monotonic and exalted enchantments.

The basic idea of the 8th symphony is an emphatic warning against the danger of degeneration of all the positive values of humanity (we must realise the historic situation of the work, which was composed in the direct aftermath of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia). The suggestive images of doom and suffering alternate with states of apathy at first. Only later is there a flash of hope from the depths of a destructive storm, and the conclusion of the work is a grasping of this hope. The ending is positive at its core, even if redeemed by suffering by which it remains marked.

The 8th symphony was written at the request of Les percussions de Strasbourg, who premiered it in Strasbourg in June 1971, together with soprano Jana Jonasova and organist Vaclav Rabas. The work was conceived for a specific venue, the Church of St. Paul in Strasbourg, where the premiere was to take place. Following the authors instructions, the performers were divided into four places in the church: the organ at the back, Les Percussions de Strasbourg in the front, by the altar, the small and large mixed choirs on the left, and on the right (in the pulpit), the solo soprano. Hence the subtitle, "Antiphonal". The conductor stands in the middle, facing the percussion ensemble and the choir. The work was premiered at an evening titled "Hommage a Miloslav Kabelac", together with the Eight Inventions for Percussion op. 45, the two organ Phantasias op. 32 and the four Preludes for organ op. 48. Kabelac could not attend the premiere, as he did not receive the necessary documentation from the totalitarian authorities. The Czechoslovak premiere of the 8th symphony only took place 13 years later, on the 12th of January 1984 in Prague. At this time, the composer was no longer alive. Timbre and rhythm play key roles in the musical expression of the 8th symphony. The melodies are typically economical (mostly composed of steps), and as in previous symphonies, is based on an artificial mode. The numerical relationships derived from it are then applied to other parameters. A five-note mode with the periodicity of a fifth prevails: 1-1-2-2-1. It is identical to Messiaen's sixth mode of limited transposition. As in the 7th symphony, the number 7 has a key role, and can be discovered in practically all components of the work. Seven is the number of the perfect fifth, i.e. the period of the chosen mode, and it also clearly structures the textual component: mene - tekel - ufarsin = 7 syllables, hallelujah - hosanna = 7 syllables, amen - amen - hosanna = 7 syllables. We could continue in this way for some time.

It has been stated multiple times that Kabelac's creative development was remarkably logical, consequential, without any major twists and contradictions in his basic creative principles, which he reached very early on, at the very beginning of his compositional career (i.e. at the beginning of the 1930s) and from which he never deviated in a major way. Not even during his climactic creative period, which lasted from second half of the 50s throughout the 60s and 70s, when he was, somewhat paradoxically, considered the leading figure of the Czech musical avant-garde. He was aware of this characteristic disposition of his creative type and his work, and repeatedly stated that the basic principles of his musical thought and compositional process never changed, whether it concerned work in traditional compositional systems or composition in a more, let's say, experimental vein.

He always respected the symphony, the most important "instrument and environment" of his artistic expression, in its constitutive parameters, petrified by tradition, despite all the innovations that his eight symphonies bring about. As was stated already, in addition to the instrumental and ensemble character, these innovations consist particularly in cyclical form as concerns structural properties.

In content, it is the highly universal nature of his artistic message and a fundamental inclination towards a dramatic treatment of the subject. The natural and indisputable tendency for the monumental touches on both the structural and the sonically-spatial and expressive components. The other traditional parameters are subject to innovations of various intensities and extents. As to the diversity of form, it is the orchestral (non-programmatic) and concertante symphony that are most common with Kabelac, with three instances of both. There are also two vocal symphonies, and, if we include his graduation piece, also a sinfonietta. The import of Kabelac's symphonies (and his work in general) lies partly in a consistent striving for unusual sound (particularly in the 1st, 3rd, 6th and 8th symphonies), partly in the individual and untypical formation and development of musical material, with the distinctive participation of constructive deliberations. Furthermore, there is the highly economic use of musical material. Kabelac seldom uses explicitly new types of material (exceptions include pieces of musique concrete such as the Hradcany vigils and, in paticular, Efontibus Bohemias op. 55, 1971-73), but he has the ability to grasp traditional means in an entirely untraditional way--therein lies his innovativeness, originality and uniqueness.


We have also expressed the opinion that Miloslav Kabelac, together with Antonin Dvorak and Bohuslav Martinu, are the three Czech symphonists of greatest importance. While the symphonies of Dvorak and Martinu have long been graced by a series of complete recordings made both at home and abroad, in the case of Kabelac's eight symphonies, a full recording was only made last year. Prior to this, half of the symphonies were unavailable on commercially published discs: recordings of the 1st, 2nd, 6th and 7th symphonies existed only in radio versions, often made some time in the past and of corresponding technical quality. This unhappy situation was remedied with a series of modern digital recordings issued on four compact discs.

This task was undertaken by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marko Ivanovic (see CMQ 2012/3, and pp. 9-17 in this issue), who prepared for the recording in an exemplary manner and became well acquainted with the interpretive particularities of Kabelac's symphonic scores. His rendition is artistically flawless in all respects, doubtless also thanks to the exceptional form of the orchestra and its responsiveness to the conductor's vision of the shape, sonic character and content of the individual works. The highest praise should be reserved not only for the orchestra and its conductor, but also for all the soloists on the recording, and of course the recording engineer and three musical directors responsible for the discs. As the last bars of the 8th symphony come to an end, we can make a general impression of the conductor's conception of the entire recording: Ivanovic consistently oscillates--in a carefully considered manner--between a majestic, exalted, even dramatically devastating plane, and a quiet, enigmatic mysteriousness: sometimes tense, sometimes soothing, surreal, or contemplative. These are the two poles of Kabelac's expression, and Ivanovic's approach carries them across with full conviction. This recording of the symphonies of Miloslav Kabelac can significantly enrich the appreciation for the exceptionally valuable symphonic oeuvre of a Czech composer not only at home, but also abroad. Czech musical culture still owes much to his work.


by Jaromir Havlik

(1) The Kralice Bible was the first translation of the Bible into Czech from the original languages, made by monks of the Unity of Brethren (Jednota bratrska) and printed in the Moravian town of Kralice nad Oslavou in the late 16th century.
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Title Annotation:focus
Author:Havlik, Jaromir
Publication:Czech Music
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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