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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.


Miloslav Kabelac (born 1st of August 1908, died 17th of September 1979) counts among the great Czech symphonists. In this area, his import is entirely comparable to that of Dvorak or Martinu. In the context of Czech symphonic music of the 20th century, Kabelac's oeuvre has a crucial and, in its way, exceptional place, which has so far not been adequately appraised and made generally known. The creative development of Kabelac as a symphonist was already positively influenced by the composer's personality and dispositions: he was a deeply and universally educated person, in whom intellectual activity and a wide range of knowledge coincided most beneficially with spontaneous creativity and musical imagination. All of these elements together directed his creative process in a very distinctive manner. Kabelac was not only perfectly and widely trained as a composer, pianist and conductor, he also had a deep musicological, ethnological, historical and philosophical education, as well as being an able mathematician and technician. Thanks to this ample erudition, he later (in the 1960s) found it easier to successfully enter into the compositional problems of electro-acoustic music.

Kabelac was also endowed with further qualities that are valuable, or rather indispensable, for the path of the symphonist. His poetics - and this holds for Kabelac's entire output - includes an ever present tendency for gravity of content, for monumental or monumentalising constructive and conceptual proportions. On the other hand, his compositional method shows a working out in detail of the construction of each work, maximal economy in working with expressive musical means, an incessant search for new compositional methods both in the form of creative experiment, and - perhaps even more strikingly - by actualising those musical elements and compositional techniques which were long overlooked by European music (metro-rhythmical aspects, the use of percussion instruments, sound colours), or else long abandoned or practically forgotten (elements and procedures of old, pre-Baroque European music), or as yet only negligibly (and often inadequately) used (elements of non-European musical cultures).

His graduation piece, Sinfonietta (1931) and the eight symphonies which followed it form a monumental pillar at the centre of Kabelac's oeuvre, astonishing in their homogeneity, developmental logic and solidity of form, as well as in their individuality and convincing expression. Without a doubt, it is the symphonies that hold the key to understanding Kabelac's creative type, his original poetics, and his lifelong human and artistic development. Kabelac's symphonies can also represent certain important trends in the development of Czech music in the times of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (1939-45), but especially in the post-war period. There is also no doubt that at least some of them would have considerable import in the development of European music after the war. I have been able to uncover many remarkable links by comparative studies of the work of Kabelac and of the leading figures of Polish post-war music, particularly Witold Lutoslawski. Alas, Kabelac has not yet been incorporated into this context to the appropriate extent. Czech musicology is yet to step up to this challenge.

Kabelac's symphonies represent, on the one hand, a series of entirely autonomous and fully individualised works of art. On the other, they form an entity of a higher order, interconnected through their inner order with distinct marks of a systematic and consistently fulfilled process of development and innovation. If the generally recognised ideal of a true work of art is reaching a productive proportion between fulfilling and concurrently surpassing the present conditions, norms and rules of artistic production, resulting in new artistic value, then Kabelac's symphonies, individual and as a whole, are one of the telling proofs of the fulfilment of this ideal. At the time Kabelac was embarking on his career as a composer (1931), the symphony represented a genre within Western music with a relatively stabilised profile, at least in its basic constructive parameters (monumentality) and meaning (gravity, universality of utterance), with a relatively finalised development, during which the symphony had arrived at a manifold differentiation in shape, sound, and, understandably, style, in the sense of the Adlerian Personenstil and Zeitstil. All this generally served to discourage young composers from approaching the symphony.

Not so for Kabelac, for whom the symphony remained a creative challenge with plenty of space for various innovations. His process of innovation within the limits of the symphony gradually enters the higher levels of the work, in terms of material, form and content. In the domain of pitch material, it is his distinctively structured artificial modalities, whose inner laws Kabelac exploits for the melodic, harmonic, but also the rhythmical, even the constructive layers of the work or its individual movements. Furthermore, there is historical material from older historical periods, particularly those that were - until his time - practically untouched by neoclassicism and other approaches: Gregorian chant, medieval non-liturgical spiritual music and secular music, Hussite chorales and so on. There is also material from non-European cultures - here, Kabelac's importance, particularly in the context of Czech music, is outright foundational.

Kabelac's unusual interest in percussion and its greater use for modern musical expression also falls into this area. This tendency will later lead to a complete emancipation of percussion instruments in his work. In terms of compositional techniques, we see an actualisation of the old techniques of early polyphony (organum, heterophony, early polyphony) as well as refined, finely nuanced techniques of developed renaissance polyphony. As concerns texts, we mostly encounter Biblical sources (I should remark here that all of these were composed under the totalitarian regime!) in unconventional adaptations, as is particularly striking in the 7th and 8th symphonies. The architecture is characterised by an exposition of cyclical form, while the sonic texture and instrumental colours are marked by a number of striking deviations from the traditional orchestration of a symphonic score. On the level of content and meaning, certain ancient (and also once primary) functions of music enter the process of artistic expression: the magical, ritualistic function, in which Kabelac re-revealed their immediate communicative power as a vessel for a modern and pressing conveyance of ideas.

Kabelac always respected the basic parameters of the symphony genre as petrified by tradition: primarily, that it is an instrumental form conceived of in ensembles, then its cyclical form, gravity and high universality of content including a fundamental inclination to a dramatic treatment of the subject, and finally, monumental ambitions of all the crucial parameters: form, sound distribution in space, expression and content.

The aforementioned graduation piece, Sinfonietta (1931) has an atypical three movement structure of Fugue - Variation - Finale. In its approximately 18 minutes of duration, it represents the type of a "small symphony", whose monumental tendencies are guaranteed in part by the large orchestra and in part by the strictly concentrated evolutionary form of the individual movements (particularly the extensive fugue of the first movement) and the concentrated final gradation in the concluding movement. However, a further ten years were needed for the first numbered item in Kabelac's symphonic output.

Symphony no. 1 "in D" op. II (1941-42) deviates from the standard form of a symphony mostly in the constitution of the orchestra: it is written only for strings and a large group of percussion instruments. The role of percussion is certainly not just rhythmic or dynamic in the traditional sense. Rather, percussion is an equal partner to the string group and in this way participates significantly in the thematic development of the work. It is worth noting that another work for a similarly "reduced" instrumentation - Arthur Honegger's 2nd symphony, generally much better known - was written at approximately the same time, though both these works are entirely independent.

In Kabelac's 1st symphony, it is the number and variety of the percussion instruments in contrast to the sonically quite homogeneous string orchestra that is most striking: Kabelac writes for two timpani, snare drum, tambourin provencale, bass drum, two tambourines, cymbals, triangle and tam-tam, whilst also specifying a large range of mallets.

The character of the musical material shows clear marks of rational deliberation in all three movements. The 1st movement (Lento grave. Allegro, in sonata form) is based on two themes: the main theme is structured so as to alternate steps of a second and large interval leaps (sixths, sevenths). In the rhythmic plane, the principle of augmentation and diminution is used as an analogue to the procedure in the pitch domain, both successively and simultaneously. The second theme is relatively expansive and internally segmented; its outer extremes are inversions of each other. It is also built on alternating small steps and leaps. The principles of augmentation, diminution and inversion are therefore key in the construction of the entire first movement. Not only frequency and clarity, but also the multi-layered nature of their appearance is doubtless a mark of rational design in the construction of this movement.

The 2nd movement (Largo) is based on an artificial seven-tone mode, 1-2-1-3-1-3-1 (1). In contrast to the expansive and dynamic character of the 1st movement (large interval steps), the idiom of the 2nd movement is rather contracted, engrossed into itself, which is given already by the predominance of seconds melodically, and further supported timbrally (the dark timbres of low violas with celli and double basses prevail). The mode has twelve transpositions, which Kabelac makes adequate use of, including augmentation and diminution, where the augmentation and diminution also concerns the proportions of the intervals, following certain algorithms. At the same time, the resultant effect of augmentation - intervallic expansion - is a very effective means of gradation. The intervals in the series are gradually stretched into the form 2-3-2-4-2-4 and 3-4-3-5-3-5. A detailed analysis reveals a number of other compositional operations in which Kabelac goes as far as connecting the constructive principles used in the 1st movement with the principle of the artificial mode in the 2nd movement.

The 3rd movement (Allegro) is a typically energetic symphonic finale, in which the greatest prominence is given to percussion. The driving basic metre, 3/8, is incessantly enlivened by metrical deviations, irregular accentuation and an artful development of melodic lines above this basic metric pulse: the melodic and rhythmic phrases oppose the fundamental quasi-mechanical nature of the music through a differing metrical foundation, which seems to surpass the limits of the basic metric figures, and bridges the sharply defined accents of the mechanical foundation. In essence, this freely rhythmically arranged polyphony, as if without bar lines, is dominated by something like a talea - a model and basic organising principle, in the boundaries of which all the layers of the texture, despite their variability, will always coincide. The logical synthesis of all the constitutive layers gives the impression of an iron will and consistency, and an enormous concentration of energy. This, of course, has important semantic ramifications (let us remind ourselves that this work was composed during the Nazi occupation).

Symphony no. 2 "in C" op. 15 (1942-44, orchestration finished 1946) for large orchestra is a munificently laid out work of about 45 minutes in duration and a sweeping pathos-laden gesture of Romantic temperament, which was necessitated by the unsettled times in which it was written. In its sonic disposition, formal layout and compositional style, the 2nd symphony belongs among Kabelac's more traditional. Innovative elements are less striking and focus more on details of structure, musical material or instrumentation: the use of a solo saxophone in the 2nd movement, once again, the important role of a highly emancipated percussion section - particularly in the rhythmic counterpoint in the opening fugue of the 3rd movement - and work with artificial modalities. The symphony consists of four movements, wherein the 3rd and 4th are intricately connected into a single whole. It is written for a large orchestra including 6 horns, 4 trumpets, alto saxophone, 2 harps, organ, and a large percussion section, among others. The romantic conception of the work also lies in self-citation of symbolic motifs and excerpts from Kabelac's previous works. In short, and in the language of period journalism, it is a typical "symphony of war and peace".

Symphony no. 3 "in F" op. 33 (1948-57) for brass (3 trumpets, 6 horns, 4 trombones, tuba), organ and timpani. The four-movement symphony represents a fairly radical innovation into the genre's traditional form already in its instrumentation. The work is written not for orchestra, but for solo organ and an ensemble of fourteen brass instruments with timpani. It is a peculiar form of a concertante symphony with a ceremonially exalted, pathos-laden expression. The four movement cyclical form is framed by two slow movements. Not even the order of tempi across the movements is typically symphonic.

Similarly to the 2nd symphony, a fugue is used as the form for one of the movements (in both cases, it is the 3rd, scherzo movement).

The first movement, in sonata form with two themes, has a pathetic character with a grandiose energy. This resides particularly in the main theme, which is based on the considered alteration of small and large intervals (this theme is not based on an artificial modality). The secondary theme, on the other hand, develops in seconds, and its foundation is the nine-tone mode 1-1-2-1-1-2-1-3.

The short second movement has the character of an intermezzo, which, in contrast to the 1st movement, gives a more prominent role to the solo organ and timpani. In terms of expression, the entire 2nd movement gives the sense of a deep, resigned, generally sombre meditation with a slight gradation about halfway through, with a quieted, as if resigned conclusion.

The 3rd movement stands in for the symphonic scherzo with its fast, wild tempo with distinctive triplets. It's a virtuoso fugue for solo organ, which the brass enter only with curt interjections which strengthen its general dynamic pulse. The non-diatonic subject of the fugue contains 10 notes from the chromatic scale, and grows out of a concise head in the booming register of the C2-C3 octave. The dramatic tension is increased by a general pause, which divides the head from further expansive development of the subject. Its construction once again reveals the involvement of rational deliberations - there are clear inversional relations between the individual motives, there is augmentation and diminution of the shapes, including interval contraction and expansion. Kabelac then develops these techniques in many ways in the following sections of the fugue. Despite the high density of the aggregates, which throw uncertainty on the tonality, the fugue remains clearly tonally rooted, including the standard expressions of tonal centres.

The 4th movement is a dignified, affectedly flowing finale with a ceremonial feeling and a clear expression of the main tonality of the work bearing the title "in F": here, F minor prevails, beginning and ending the movement. In its generally majestic, festive tone, the final movement approaches the character of the opening, which we can also interpret as a sign of the symphonic conception of the entire work. That is also confirmed by the summarising, recapitulating character of the movement's thematic material, which contains reminiscences of the characteristic motives of the previous movements.

Symphony no. 4 "in La - Camerata" op. 36 (1954-58) is written for chamber orchestra. In addition to the atypical tempo scheme of its movements (Grave-Scherzo-Lento-Allegro), there is a striking presence of elements of non-European musics (in both the melody and the harmony) as an effective expressive contrast to European idioms. This primarily concerns the 1st movement, which consists of only 100 measures and yet gives produces a monumental effect, on which all aspects of the musical language and architecture participate. The use of pedal points and heterophony is very characteristic for this movement. In general, its static nature implies a non-European religious ritual. The composer himself has said of the 4th symphony's 1st movement: "My interest is in folk traditions from around the world. The air of the first movement sets an atmosphere distant from our musical thought." The 1st movement, Grave, has the outline of a sonata form, set in a very slow tempo, and its general impression is considerably static. The first theme is essentially a series of 15 tones from the eight-tone artificial mode 1-2-1-1-3-2-1-1 with twelve transpositions, which does not contain the "dominant" - that is, the tone a perfect fifth away from the fundamental. This series of 15 tones is rhythmicised using a metric mode within a four-beat metre (i.e. it is in fact an application of the talea method to the melodic series - a species of color, a technique originating from isorhythmic motets in the ars nova period). The metric mode essentially permutates the progression 2-3-4, meaning the 2nd, 3rd and 4th beats of a four-beat metre (the 1st beat is consistently "unoccupied"). The rhythmicised perfect fourth pedal point in the bass has an important function in the exposition of this theme, adding to the general "oriental impression" of the section.

The second theme is comprised of two mutually freely invertible parts and grows out from a five-tone section of the mode of the first theme and gradually goes through all 12 notes from the chromatic scale. The remaining three movements have a more neoclassical character: unlike the first movement, they are convincingly "European". The 2nd movement is a classical symphonic scherzo (the basic 3/8 metre remains stable throughout) in a simple ABA form. A fanfare motif in the horns plays a crucial role, giving the movement the character of a "scherzo da caccia". The regular metric pulse is made dynamic by irregular divisions of simultaneously occurring melodic phrases. The mutual complementarity of several layers is a natural driving force of the gradational pull of the A section. The middle of the B section brings a contrasting theme, again a very dynamic three note phrase, first stated in the timpani. The range of this theme is limited to an octave, variously filled in by third, fourth and fifth progressions (the range of both themes in the first movement was also confined to an octave). The reprise of the A section is practically an exact repetition.

The 3rd movement is also in a simple ABA form with an effective expression of the middle section. The themes are once again melodically economical, but they conceal enormous potential for gradation, which the composer gradually reveals and develops in three waves with sharp breaks at the peaks of the gradations: the third of them brings the movement to a quiet, somewhat resigned conclusion.

The 4th movement has the regular form of a traditional symphonic finale, particularly in its fast tempo and high energy. It unfolds in a rondo form with fanfare-like motives based on a regular metric pulse. The emphasised note - A above middle C - in the main theme confirms the validity of the main key of the work - Kabelac has of course not abandoned tonality. Similarly to the final movements in the previous symphonies, Kabelac recapitulates the key thematic material of the previous movements, so that he can add a new idea to it at the peak of the final gradation, one taken from his own composition for children's choir, Zaklindni [Incantation] (no. 5 from the cycle Prirode [To Nature] op. 35).

Symphony no. 5 "in B - Drammatica" op. 41 (1959- 60) is a very unusual concertante symphony: the concertante "instrument" is in fact the human voice - a textless dramatic soprano. This conception was motivated by considerations of content relating to expressing the conflicting relationship of an individual to an inconsistent world. In its pitch construction, this symphony is also based on the thorough exploitation of an artificial mode - the seven-tone, non-diatonic 1-2-3-1-1-3-1.

Kabelac's "Fifth" has a close relationship to his orchestral one-movement composition The Mystery of Time op. 31 (1953-57). In a certain sense, it is its counterpart: if The Mystery of Time was inspired in particular by the composer's ideas about the world around us, by eternal laws and the unity of the universe, then the 5th symphony takes its lead from the opposite pole: it focuses on the inner life of the individual. There, it is nature and its "static" eternal order, here, it is the torrid human soul with its contradictions, conflicts and transformations. The entirety of the work is again governed by a strict logical architectural order with a strong involvement of rational constructive operations. Moreover, it presents closer motivic connections between the musical material of its individual movements (anticipation of themes in preceding movements).

The 1st movement is in sonata form with an affected slow introduction. The first theme of the solo soprano is again based on an artificial mode, the aforementioned 1-2-3-1-1-3-1. The mode has a clear minor sound - the presence of the Phrygian minor second gives it an elegiac, spirited mood. Later, this initial mode is expanded by an eighth tone in the range of an octave, a minor seventh from the fundamental. The compositional operations used to develop melodic lines from this mode are typical of Kabelac - there is an accentuation of the generally ascending line with an expansive "interval augmentation". The second theme is in the same mode as the first, and with its entry, there is a fluent and gradual increase in tempo.

The 2nd movement is a scherzo (Presto in a 2/4 metre) in a clearly articulated ternary form. The motivic material is based on the mode of the 1st movement with occasional modifications. Through partial "cut-outs" from the mode, Kabelac also temporarily achieves other modal structures, for example both variants of the octatonic scale: 1-2-1-2... and 2-1-2-1...

The 3rd, slow movement of the cycle is in ternary form with an extended final section also develops from two themes, of which the first has the strenuous and gradual ascending melodic tendency so typical of Kabelac, filled in with "creeping" seconds. The second theme, by contrast, uses mostly larger interval steps and leaps. There is no material derived from artificial modes in this movements.

The 4th movement has a development analogous to the opening movement: it accelerates gently from the initial slow tempo to an Allegro. The thematic material again returns to the initial mode with its typical hiatuses. The second theme also has this modal structure, constructed as a contrasting addition to the first.

by Jaromir Havlik

(1) We give the modes according to the number of chromatic steps, ascending. The mode in question, starting from C, for example, is therefore C-C#-D#-E-G-G#-B-(C).
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Title Annotation:Czech music focus
Author:Havlik, Jaromir
Publication:Czech Music
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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