Otakar Ostrcil: 25th February 1879-20th August 1935.
"The performance was an achievement of the first rank, the singers were brilliant, and so for the most part was the orchestra. The premiere was a colossal even if not an unambiguous success. Berg had to take a bow at the end of the first act, which is a rare thing, and so surprised his opponents that they didn't recover until after the second act. The second performance (a subscription event) was quite different. Very calm, respectful success. After the third performance there was a big scandal, undoubtedly organised and provoked by the Czech gutter press against 'Berlin Jews' (?) and you have probably heard about that already. In a precisely calculated silence before the last scene of the second act--in front of the chorus of sleeping soldiers, there was whistling and laughing; that was a signal for stormy applause in protest! All hell broke out: whistling, shouting, yelling, continually interrupted by applause and isolated calls of 'excellent', people tried to speak, the curtain fell and Ostrcil remained heroically calm standing for perhaps ten minutes in front of the unmoving orchestra. Once he tried to continue, the curtain rose to thunderous applause, but then there was piercing whistling. In the end Ostrcil left the conductor's desk, people continued to shout pro and contra, and eventually the police cleared the theatre (instead of arresting the half-dozen guttersnipes who had stirred up the instincts of the 'old subscribers'!)."
The events surrounding the Czech premier of Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck in 1926 represented one of the biggest cultural scandals of the First Czechoslovak Republic. The seismograph of political tension registered the first more significant twitch of the needle into the dangerous part of the scale, the first tremors heralding the oncoming earthquake. The case is sufficiently well known. The cited description of the premiere, second and unfinished third performance comes from a letter written by the German-speaking Prague composer Viktor Ullmann to the conductor Heinrich Jalowetz, who was working in Germany at the time. Ullmann vividly described the atmosphere and above all expressed his respect for Otakar Ostrcil as conductor of the performance, head of the opera company at the National Theatre, and man. The "Wozzek Affair" was one of the key moments in Ostrcil's life.
Composer, Conductor, Head of the Opera, Autodidact
He was born into the family of a doctor on the 25th of February 1879 in the suburb of Prague that is today the city's Smichov district. The street, today known as Zborovska, has the Dietzenhofer Gardens on one side and the Jirasek Bridge runs into it. On the eve of what would have been Ostrcil's sixtieth birthday in 1939 a commemorative plaque designed by the artist Frantisek Kysela, who created the stage designs for his operas, was placed on his family house. At the end of the 18th century, a botanical garden had been established on the site where Ostrcil was born and lived part of his life, and until 1920 the gardens were named after the Emperor Ferdinand V. The Jirasek Bridge was completed in 1933. It so happened that this bridge, leading to the house with Ostrcil's commemorative plaque, was designed by the inter-war Czech architect Vlastimil Hofman, who also worked as a stage designer and like Kysela had collaborated with Ostrcil at the National Theatre.
Ostrcil attended high school in Smichov and later in the Lesser Town, and then studied modern philology at Charles University. All three Ostrcil brothers--Antonin, Josef and Otakar--had had a music tutor at home, but none had ever thought of a professional career in music. Antonin later admitted, however, that from childhood Otakar's attitude to music had been quite different to that of his two brothers, who had accepted it just as a usual part of the life of a middle-class family. He wrote that "music wasn't just fun for our Otik; soon it completely took him over and he couldn't live without it. Already at high school he used to take music paper with him to school and would compose keenly, not just in free moments, but sometimes, I believe, during lessons in subjects that he found less attractive. Yet he was such an outstanding student and so popular with his teachers that he was never reprimanded for it."
Otakar was not, however, the kind of rebel prepared to desert his studies to devote himself to the muses out of love for music. It was as if he hardly belonged to the fin de siZcle generation that grew out of Romanticism and stormily sought "new directions" at the end of the century. At university he was a pupil of Jan Gebauer, author of the Historical Grammar of the Czech Language, and he attended the lectures of the aesthetician Otakar Hostinsky. It is also believed that he was influenced by the philosopher Tomas Masaryk, who was teaching at the university in just the years when Ostrcil was studying there.
Ostrcil tried amateur composition and had private lessons with Zdenek Fibich. For sixteen years he dutifully taught Czech and German at a commercial academy until in 1919 Karel Kovarovic appointed him repertoire director of the opera at the National Theatre and a year later made him his successor as head of the opera. Ostrcil headed the opera of the National Theatre for fifteen years and his was an era of bold, interesting repertoire, great signers and actors, and great performances. Kovarovic naturally knew that the professor from the commercial academy was no inexperienced novice conductor. Before he came to the National, for fourteen years Ostrcil had led the Orchestral Association, an exceptionally good amateur orchestra originally associated with the name of Vaclav Talich. For four years he had also been head of opera at the Vinohrady Theatre, a company that initially had great ambitions and aspired to be a counterweight to the National Theatre in both repertory and performers, although after a dispute between the opera and drama companies the opera eventually left the theatre in 1919 and since then the building has been used only for spoken drama. Kovarovic had watched Ostrcil's work at Vinohrady Theatre and so knew his talents as conductor and director. In 1914, for example, Ostrcil had presented Josef Bohuslav Foerster's opera Debora, a piece that had not been played for twenty years after a poorly received premiere at the National. Ostrcil's production entirely rehabilitated Foerster's debut opera. At Vinohrady Theatre Ostrcil had developed into an opera conductor of vision and also gained a grounding in the organisational aspects of heading a company.
As a composer Ostrcil first tried his hand at opera as a mere sixteen-year-old, but he only gave an opus number to his fourth opera. In choice of material and treatment for this first serious opera he was much influenced by the legacy of his teacher Fibich, who had recently died. The opera Vlasty skon [The Death of Vlasta] followed on from Fibich's national mythological Sarka. The novice composer immediately acquired a major supporter--the authoritative defender of the legacy of Bedrich Smetana, the critic and historian Zdenek Nejedly. He hailed Ostrcil as the continuer of the Smetana line and the heir of Fibich. Smetana's Libuse, Fibich's Sarka and Ostrcil's opera The Death of Vlasta, all on successive subjects from Czech mythology, provided a persuasive argument. Ostrcil also followed Fibich in composing melodrama, a genre that his teacher had resurrected, and used verses by Eliska Krasnohorska, Jan Neruda and Karel Jaromir Erben among others.
Nejedly was not the only one with faith in Ostrcil. In 1911 the Leipzig Breitkopf & Hartel press published a small monograph for which Ostrcil wrote a--so far very brief--musical autobiography, Ostrcil was chosen as the first Czech composer in this series precisely because he appeared to be promising as an opera composer, and opera had always played the leading role in Czech modern music since the times of Smetana.
In his choice of subject for his next opera, however, Ostrcil's deviated from the expected line by using Julius Zeyer's novella Kunalovy oci [Kunal's Eyes]. Set in the delicate, mystical work of the Orient, a tale of justice and belief in love, this dreamy symbolist work was appropriate for a period enchanted by Chinese and Indian poetry, the efforts of Rabindranath Thakur to bring Asian and European cultures together, and by ancient religions. In fact this was a further step in the search for a modern face for Czech opera, and it was the same with the one-act opera Poupe [The Bud] based on Frantisek Xaver Svoboda's comedy of 1910. While some saw The Bud as a penitent return to the legacy of Smetana, for Ostrcil it was actually a new development. Poupe does indeed have much in common with Smetana's opera The Two Widows. It has a similarly simple plot, modest number of characters and intimate atmosphere, but musically it operates in the territory towards which Smetana had been moving, but which he had been unable to reach in the context of his time. Poupe is an opera without closed musical numbers, integrally composed all the way through on Svoboda's original play script, making it effectively the first Czech comic "literary opera". At a time when the genre of comic opera was in crisis, when its subjects were becoming threadbare and when musical idiom in the post-Wagner epoch was too overloaded for comedy, Ostrcil showed himself to be a composer of courage and outstanding technical skill.
For his next substantial stage work Ostrcil took another exotic theme. The Legenda z Erinu [Legend of Erin], again based on a text by Julius Zeyer, is set in Ireland. This story from the 3rd Century is about a miraculous power that vanishes when he who is endowed with it refuses aid to the needy. The Legend of Erin was premiered in 1921 in Brno, since Ostrcil was already in his first season as head of the opera at the Prague National Theatre and it would not have been suitable for a new head to open his first season with a premiere of his own work. In the Twenties Ostrcil also wrote major symphonic works: a Symfonietta, the symphonic poem Leto [Summer], but above all his symphonic variations Krizova cesta [The Stations of the Cross]. In Krizova cesta op. 24 Ostrcil created one of the structurally most perfect works of 20th -century Czech music, and thanks to the Biblical inspiration one of the most intellectually profound. The fourteen variations represent the fourteen stations of the Cross on Christ's way to Golgotha. In a collection of essays published for what would have been Ostrcil's sixtieth birthday, the musicologist Vladimir Helfert characterised his music in the following terms:
"Truly modern, in its objectively strict structure Ostrcil's music reflects the efforts of the time to find a new objectivity. Rigour in the polyphonic ordering of the parts, rigour in the way this polylinearity is fully thought through, consequent solidity of architectural form and therefore monumentality as a solid organism growing from the inside--these are the great and hugely valuable contributions of the Czech musical creativity of our time. In these structures the creative spirit rises to a greatness that depends not on the inspiration of the moment, but on a solid internal order, This creative principle, elevated to suprapersonal areas of inspiration, is exemplified in Krizova cesta. I have no words for this work other than noble and elevated. Sympathy with the human suffering of Christ intensified into the idea of sympathy with the sufferings of all mankind. It is a branch of the same tree from which grew Bach's Mass in b minor, Wagner's Parsifal and Mahler's Song of the Earth."
Head of the Opera
As head of the National Theatre Opera Company, Ostrcil became famous for his boldness in repertoire and production and organisation. Unlike his predecessor Karel Kovarovic he had no doubts about Janacek and so in the case of the opera The Excursions of Mr. Broucek this time it was Prague that could boast the world premiere. Ostrcil presented the new works of the Czech composers of his generation: the operas Vina [Guilt] and Preciezky [Les Precieuses] by Otakar Zich, Ilseino srdce [Ilse's Heart] by Rudolf Karel, Pred slunce vychodem [Before Sunset] [Before Sunset] by Emil Frantisek Burian, Svanda dudak [Svanda the Piper] by Jaromir Weinberger, and Bratri Karamazovi [The Brothers Karamazov] by Otakar Jeremias. He revived the pre-Smetana composer Frantisek Skroup and his contemporaries Vilem Blodek and Karel Bendl. His policy reflected his belief in the importance of promoting Czech music abroad, but above all at home. "People abroad cannot have even the slightest interest in Czech compositions that are not even performed here at home--and so are actually performed nowhere", he once wrote to Josef Bohuslav Foerster. He presented works by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, which would otherwise have been the domain of the Prague German stage. And finally in 1926 Berg's Wozzek.
Ostrcil first encountered Berg's Wozzek at the Prague festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in May 1925, when extracts from it were played in the New German Theatre. He decided to include it in repertoire the very next season, a surprising decision given his own reputation and above all the Czech and Slav orientation of the National Theatre. Many regarded Ostrcil as a traditionalist, and guardian of the legacy of Smetana, but what they had forgotten, of course, was that Smetana had also been modern in creative spirit and ahead of his time, and it was with the progressive in Smetana that Ostrcil truly identified. The Czech premiere of Wozzek actually took place a season later than Ostrcil first intended, and for political reasons. The balance of forces in the young Czechoslovak democracy was changing. The communist party was growing in strength (the future communist president Klement Gottwald first became a member of its central committee in the Autumn of 1925), and the Locarno Conference of the same year meant a weakening of the position of Czechoslovakia in relation to Germany. In March 1926 Czech fascist groups united to found the National Fascist Community. Throughout the year there were fears of a fascist putsch, supposedly timed for the 28th of October, the anniversary of the proclamation of the Czechoslovak Republic. In 1926-27 that National Fascist Community already had as many as two-hundred thousand organised members. The premiere of Wozzek became a pawn in a struggle between the parties of the extreme left and right, inflamed by the revived hydra of nationalism.
Wozzek was the third premiere of the season, preceded by new productions of Carmen and Josef Bohuslav Foerster's Eva. The translator of the libretto into Czech was Ostrcil's brother-in-law Jiri Maranek, the director was that pioneer among modern Czech opera directors Ferdinand Pujman, and the designer Vlastislav Hofman. The premiere was staged on the 11th of November 1926 in the presence of the composer, and the interrupted third performance took place five days later. A furious campaign was unleashed in the press--the continuation of the whistling and heckling "pro and contra" described by Viktor Ullmann. One of the leading defenders of Alban Berg and Ostrcil was Zdenek Nejedly. His attitude clearly had less to do with a conviction of the qualities of Berg's music (it was a time when Nejedly's aesthetic judgements were already dependent on simplified formulae) than with the social criticism implicit in Georg Buchner's play and particularly respect for Ostrcil. "The Wozzek Affair" was also, however, welcomed as a fresh healthy wind, as a weapon that would cut "the Gordian knot of our small and larger tangles, with their stale smell of personal interests and petit-bourgeois gossip. We should therefore very much welcome the Wozzek affair, since what is now happening is that essential sorting of souls that always precedes the purification of life from artistic oversimplification and aberration. After a long time here we have the real struggle over a work of art of a kind that we had earlier been lacking," wrote another defender of Ostrcil, who saw him as heading "a new productive line in our leading cultural institution".
The opera was finally withdrawn from the National Theatre repertoire (it was not to appear there again until 1959), but in the following year, 1927, Ostrcil at least received satisfaction in the form of the award of a Czechoslovak state prize for its production. It was a moral victory but with a bitter aftertaste.
In the Service of Czech Music
The main task of the National Theatre was to cultivate domestic repertoire and Ostrcil made great efforts in this area, presenting cycles of Czech operas on a scale previously unknown. A Smetana cycle was presented three times under his direction, Fibich and Dvorak cycles twice, and a Josef Bohuslav Foerster and Vitezslav Novak cycle once in each case. 1923 saw the premiere at the National Theatre of the production of The Bartered Bride--directed by Ferdinand Pujman and conducted by Ostrcil--which was to play for another ten seasons and represent a turning-point in the understanding of this most national of Czech operas. The singer who took the role of Marenka in Ostrcil's production, the soprano Ada Nordenova, remembered how Ostrcil used to work:
"Rhythm, the spine of the music, the heartbeat of every work, was the first thing with him. He would work it up with the most sensitive possible precision, until it was clean and sparkling as a cut diamond. At the same time he would devote immense care to declamation and the shape of the word and the grammatical correctness of his beloved Czech language. He attached great importance to holding back and the dramatic effect of pauses. 'The pause is also music', he used to say. Then he would turn to dynamics and expression, the basis of dramatic characterisation. The rehearsals were like profound religious services, a matter of bringing out the highest beauties and consecration. It also sometimes happened that the Master, who was the model of refinement and heroic self-control, would still come to a rehearsal out of sorts and in a bad mood. And then it was up to us to sing attentively and with gusto, and after a few pages the black clouds would disperse and a smile would light up his friendly eyes. The burden of official cares would fall from his shoulders and dissolve in the beauty of the music. He would forget, forgive. He was always a gentleman, highly cultured and warmly human, he never hurt anyone, but helped, and was generous. It was only through this that he could create evenings after which people left the theatre with tears in their eyes, with an embrace fraternally opened up by human sympathy, and become better, purer."
Ostrcil had conducted The Bartered Bride already while still at the Vinohrady opera in 1915 (the director was Karel Hugo Hillar, the stage designer Frantisek Kysela). At this stage he also already had a clear conception of its musical form, and Zdenek Nejedly was already of the opinion that Ostrcil was the first to manage to build a drama out of the anecdotal plot. He wrote that, "Until now in official productions the Bartered Bride has tended to fall apart into a series of independent vocal and instrumental numbers without dramatic unity. The roots (of dramatic unity) do not lie in a 'new', arbitrary interpretation of the work in terms of stage drama, but purely and simply in Smetana's music as in the highest law that the conductor has to fulfil." The mutually respectful relationship between Nejedly and Ostrcil, evident for example in their correspondence, has to be seen in the context of the time. Ostrcil did not live to see the erudite historian and lively critic Nejedly turn into the dogmatic overseer of communist cultural life. Ostrcil's opera cycles provided the Prague public with the opportunity to hear the complete works of the leading composers of modern Czech opera, and the orchestra and company developed with them. On the other hand, Ostrcil's efforts were not always appreciated. The annals of the Ostrcil era at the National Theatre must include, for example, the dispute between the conductor and the composer Vitezslav Novak. As so often it originated in a misunderstanding that also related to the case of Berg's Wozzek. At the time Vitezslav Novak had the feeling--quite unjustified in fact--that Berg's work had been given precedence over his own opera Deduv odkaz [Grandad's Legacy]. In 1931 Novak published his views on Ostrcil as the sum of his "bitter experiences of the past decade in the National Theatre"--as he put it--in the brochure Novak contra Ostrcil.
"On the occasion of my fiftieth birthday in 1920 Professor Ostrcil made me a short but very cordial speech that inspired me with rosy hopes. Immediately thereafter, however, my Karlstejn and Zvikovsky rarasek [The Zvikov Imp] were consigned after a double performance to the depths of the music archive for a whole ten years. The premiere of Lucerna was first postponed without a word of explanation, and then scrapped and put in the archives for seven years. In 1926 my next opera Deduv odkaz was staged. The premiere was scheduled for the pre-Christmas period, on an extremely unsuitable day. Before it Wozzek was staged with huge care after long months of preparation, which meant that there was very little time for the rehearsal of my opera. The chief showed such a drastic lack of interest in my work that he didn't even stop a dress rehearsal when the chorus made the wrong entrance, he told me to answer the Hamburg Theatre myself when they asked how successfully the opera was playing, after the holiday the opera was transferred to the estates Theatre, and the chief handed over the conducting to the cappella master Winkler without a single orchestral rehearsal ..." and so on and on. The rehearsals for the Novak opera had been insufficient, he said, and the performance dates badly chosen, while Ostrcil was an incompetent repertory director and teacher, and insignificant as a composer. And what was worse, according to Novak, Ostrcil was even a failure as a conductor: "... he has no feeling at all for the delicate sound of the orchestra, but drives the singer and musician forward or holds them back by relentless metronomic gestures. I have often observed Professor Ostrcil at work. He sits at the conductor's desk magnetically attracted to the score, from which he virtually never takes his eyes, and his outstretched arms, left and right, wave up and down like the wings of an albatross, always in the same way, whether or not the music needs to be loud or soft."
Novak even exploited an incident that was supposed to have happened in Vienna sixteen years before in order to back up his picture of Ostrcil as a bad conductor. Once again Zdenek Nejedly rushed to Ostrcil's defence, but since he had been known as an "anti-Novakian" for ten years, this did not greatly help matters. The dispute was in many respects fired by human weakness, from which not even geniuses are exempt (on the contrary), and the attacks and counter-attacks printed in the press provided juicy morsels for the public.
Another colleague composer, Josef Bohuslav Foerster, had an entirely different attitude to Ostrcil: "I recognised Ostrcil as a born conductor, a great artist and a man of sterling worth. One of those people who give so much of themselves, use themselves up, who sacrifice themselves. Apart from a conductor, he grew into a creative musician of a distinctive kind, a refined spirit, a man of quick and penetrating judgment, Each new work that he wrote is the result of continuing growth, deeper knowledge, higher efforts and more courageous flights of imagination. Complete dedication to the point of exhaustion is reflected not just in his conducting, but in his scores. He presented my Debora while still at the Vinohrady Theatre. He rehearsed and staged it with moving dedication and admirable results. I was at the premiere and that evening we established a friendship that was to last through times of ease and storms, joyful days of victory and their inevitable shadows."
The dispute between Ostrcil and Novak came to a climax in 1930, when three Novak operas were presented in new productions in the Autumn--Lucerna, Zvikovsky rarasek and Karlstejn--and a ballet version of his Slovacko Suite under the title Slovacko Sundays. Novak just could not forgive Ostrcil for scheduling the Czech premiere of Max Brand's opera Machinist Hopkins between his premieres, complained that performances were stacked up too close and condemned this kind of opera "factory." Not long afterwards the conflict faded, and such small dramas ceased to be important. It was harder and harder to create calm conditions for creative work when these were ever more clearly menaced by political events.
The Mission of the National Theatre
Ostrcil was also accused of neglecting Janacek. It is true that a full cycle of Janacek operas was never staged at the National, but in his time Ostrcil rehearsed and conducted his Excursions of Mr. Broucek, Kata Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, Jenufa, and The Makropulos Case, The opera From the House of the Dead was produced twice in Ostrcil's time (1931 and 1934), conducted by Vincenc Maixner. Ostrcil was like Janacek a frequent guest at the spa in Luhacovice and their contacts were friendly. As a composer he felt little kinship with Janacek, but he refused to let his own temperament as a creative musician interfere with his conduct as head of the opera, where he had to try to be objective. When accused of being personally prejudiced against Janacek the composer Ostrcil answered: "As head of the opera I could not have any standpoint other than the positive to so universally acknowledged a phenomenon as Janacek. My personal standpoint is not decisive."
Under Ostrcil's leadership and thanks to his colleagues as well, the staging and interpretational style of the National Theatre was transformed. His interpretation of the score of Smetana's The Bartered Bride (it was recorded and is available on CD in the Czech Historical Recording series and the Naxos company), represented a striking break with the earlier conception. Kecal was shorn of drastic comedy, Marenka was liberated from monotonous sugariness and changed into a temperamental girl with deep feelings, while instead of a weakling, Jenik was presented as a manly ambitious youth. Vasek ceased to be a mere dunce and acquired the sympathetic naivety of a boy dominated by his authoritarian mother. Both parents, too, earlier just a kind of staffage for the action, changed into living people. Ostrcil's assistants in the metamorphosis of the old Bartered Bride into modern music theatre were the director Ferdinand Pujman and the artist Frantisek Kysela. Ostrcil also brought Smetana's last opera Certova stena [The Devil's Wall] to life, and in 1934 he presided over the hundredth performance of Smetana's debut opera Branibori v Cechach [The Brandenburgers in Bohemia], Dalibor was performed four hundred times in his era, and Hubicka [The Kiss] even more, while Tajemstvi [The Secret] was presented three hundred times. In 1934 The Bartered Bride was played for the 1250th time at the National Theatre.
Ostrcil formulated the mission of the National Theatre in the following words: "It is not a theatre like any other in the world. It places us under an obligation above all to Czech work, to the work of our predecessors and contemporaries. The theatre ought to be the guardian and exemplar of good taste. The balance of the National Theatre cannot be measured purely in terms of box office takings, but in terms of the ethical plus that it calls forth and leaves behind it. It should be our endeavour to equip it for this mission with sufficient means, but then uncompromisingly to require that it fulfil its mission in full."
For this task Ostrcil built up an ensemble of outstanding soloists and others, including colleagues on the conductor's bench who are mostly little remembered today: Bohumir Brzobohaty, Vincenc Maixner, Josef Charvat, Frantisek Skvor, Josef Winkler. Jaromir Herle was an excellent choirmaster and the directors, apart from Ferdinand Pujman mentioned above, included Josef Munclinger and Emil Pollert. In the 1934/35 season Josef Turnau, the former intendant of the opera in Frankfurt, was accepted into the National Theatre company when Prague provided him with temporary exile from Nazism. Soloists who shone at the National in Ostrcil's time included Ada Nordenova, Otakar Marak, and Vilem Zitek, and of the younger singers Ota Horakova, Jan Konstantin or Vladimir Toms.
Last Contest: Honzovo kralovstvi [Honza's Kingdom]
The name of the tenor Vladimir Toms, who died tragically young, is fatefully linked with Ostrcil's period. He took the leading role at the Prague premiere of the last of Ostrcil's operas Honzovo kralovstvi [Honza's Kingfom] based on Leo Tolstoy's short story Ivan the Simpleton (the librettist was Jiri Maranek) and survived the composer by only a few months.
The opera had its premiere on the 25th of May 1934 in Brno. In October of the same year it was presented in Ostrava. In April of the following year Ostrcil included the opera in the schedule of the National Theatre in Prague. The fairytale allegory about a country where love rules and truth prevails over mammon and power set of a journalistic campaign which in many respects recalled the campaign around Alban Berg's Wozzek nine years before. The opera's pacifism and strong stress even annoyed some of the critics who were essentially on Ostrcil's side:
"This is the first work by Ostrcil in which social concerns are so markedly expressed. In a composer whose work has previously been characterised by an almost aristocratic detachment, this is an unexpected turn-around. The enrichment in terms of motif and the more accessible expression do not, however, convincingly add up to musical gain. Honza's Kingdom is a work on which the time and current trends in opera have left their mark. But is it not a backward step as against the earlier works, whose stylistic purity was beyond doubt?"
One unambiguously positive review of Ostrcil's opera came from Vit Nejedly, son of Zdenek Nejedly. His formulation already anticipates the view taken of Ostrcil's opera after the war when it was praised on the basis of quotations from the works of Lenin and Stalin:
"This is the first time that Ostrcil has introduced into opera what are known as 'nonartistic' aims and one might say political tendencies. In this context he is absolutely the first--of course outside the opera of the Soviet Union--audacious enough to take the step. Optimism, humanity and dramatic quality are all equally important. The musical side of the work, based almost entirely on polka rhythm, has to be comprehensible even for an audience with very little musical education."
Immediately after its Prague premiere Ostrcil's opera was being discussed as a work propagating the socialist ideal. For some this was a positive feature, for others negative. Ostrcil's critics were concerned with his political position, but for Ostrcil himself it was a human manifesto, and by no means a primarily political gesture, in the period of increasing Nazi threat. The duel in the press put Ostrcil under an unusual amount of psychological stress, which perhaps made him vulnerable to what at first seemed a minor illness. The flu that the composer caught after the premiere of Honza's Kingdom developed into an embolism of the lung, and the failure of other organs. The voices quarrelling over his opera oppressed the sick Ostrcil. The librettist Jiri Maranek took the composer's side:
"What is the lyrical and moral message of Ostrcil's Honza's Kingdom? It is entirely simple and clear. People should help one another, people should be brothers to each other, brotherly love and sympathy are morally higher than the enslavement of the weak by the strong or the use of force against justice. Violence is a crime, and the brotherly love of man for his neighbour can perform miracles. And evil--as Ostrcil said--cannot be fought with a new evil, as fire cannot be put out by more fire."
The ordinary public also took the composer's part:
"Dear Brother and Maestro, May God repay you for Honza's Kingdom. If one man believes, the end has not yet come, we believe in the victory of the spirit over cannons and rapacious selfishness. It is enough if we fulfil our task, like the man who opened the eyes of your Honza. Perhaps in this madness that has so seized mankind, we shall not be able to do anything but to offer ourselves as sacrifices, so that others may live."
Otakar Ostrcil died on the 20th of August 1935 in Prague. On the 6th of December of the same year the first interpreter of Honza in Ostrcil's opera, the tenor Vladimir Toms, also died, at the age of thirty-five. The epitaph for both of them could be a verse from Honza's song: "... What though villains thwart your work, all that was in your power--you have done."
In the Midst of the Time
Views on Ostrcil's opera were also affected by the fact that the Russian story had been transferred into a Czech setting and generally Czechified, including the character names. This was regarded as an unequivocal (reasserted) identification with the Czech national opera tradition founded by Smetana. No connections were discerned (and perhaps no one wanted to find them) with the mythological themes of Kunal's Eyes and Legends of Erin or the religiously motivated Stations of the Cross. Yet here again, even more emphatically, Ostrcil was standing in the midst of his time, looking around and expressing himself on the state of the world. At the same time Josef Bohuslav Foerster wrote another Czech opera on a tale by Tolstoy, Bloud [The Fool]. While in postwar eyes Foerster's opera was judged as a work of religious mysticism, Ostrcil's Honza became a hero derived from pure healthy folk sources, a model figure of the aesthetics of Socialist Realism. Both works, however, expressed the same message in the context of the Thirties.
Honza's Kingdom was presented by the National Theatre on the 1st of September 1935 as part of the 13th International Festival of the ISCM in Prague, as the opening event and also as a commemoration of the dead composer, who had been chairman of the preparatory committee. The holding of the festival was an act of solidarity on the part of musicians who refused to be intimidated by the rise of Nazism. The town of Karlovy Vary, originally planned as the festival venue, withdrew from the festival six weeks before it started. Political, economic and organisational factors were all acting against this international musical solidarity, and it was only pushed through thanks to huge energy invested in the belief that not to hold the festival would be to succumb to the pressure of evil, Honza's Kingdom was conducted for the festival by Frantisek Skvor. In the festival programme leadlet Ostrcil's work was characterised as follows:
"Although Ostrcil was a faithful student of Fibich who was a typical programme composer, he was the first who long before the war matured from major programmatic forms to absolute forms, to the concrete musical expression and the economically balanced modern orchestra, and thus parted company with the Romantic art of the 19th century and proclaimed the rise of a new era. Ostrcil, who lived the Neo-Romantic style in all its last consequences and as a conductor propagated it, actually grew out of it most completely and was the first to emancipate himself from it. In his own development Ostrcil gets to the principles of modern music. He stands in the first rank of those who strive for a new expression, and he is one of he few who in doing so actually found new certainties and created a synthesis of the modern and order in his work."
Honza's Kingdom is a fairytale about three brothers, a sick princess and a devil who collects corrupt human souls. The brothers Ivan and Ondrej are ripe for hell, but Honza is victorious over the devil. Good is confronted with evil on the stage. When Honza calls out "Praise be to Christ", the devil vanishes and the people celebrate Honza as a messenger of peace. This and many other moments later contributed to the tendency to judge Ostrcil's music independently of the libretto, which was criticised not just for its "Christian" approach, but also for lack of structural unity and the fragmentation of the action. As early as after the Brno premiere critics were taken aback by a feature previously unknown in Ostrcil's work, i.e. "the tendentiousness of the libretto, sharpened references to contemporary conditions that in most cases have a satirical-grotesque stamp". This earlier untested level supposedly led Ostrcil to a music "deliberately folk in nature with a tendency to intellectual triviality". Fortunately, however, its artistic character "growing from the structural model of Smetana" managed to give musical unity to the unsatisfactory libretto. Ostrcil worked with the librettist, however, and we can assume that many of the structural elements were his own ideas. As a whole, his opera has several levels: good and evil cannot be separated from each other, they are two sides of the coin of life and in the layers of musical language (melody and harmony on a rhythmic base) they exist concurrently. The authors gave the opera the subtitle, "a musical play", and it is actually a morality, a story told by a fairground storyteller. All the elements are at the same time in harmony and in opposition: good (Honza, the princess, the people) and evil, which has two forms--real evil (Ivan, Ondrej, the soldiers) and unreal evil (devil), which is really controlled by the good that seeks to overcome it. Evil is finally rendered harmless by the forces of good. Ivan and Ondrej themselves become the object of the scornful laughter of the devil and instead of fighting with the people, the soldiers start dancing with them. The devil is given the prologue and end of the opera, and in the penultimate scene we see his mechanical aides, megaphones, which as was already well known in the mid-Thirties had the power to conjure up mass psychosis. When two years after its scandal-provoking premiere at the National Theatre in Prague it was also presented by the New German Theatre (conducted by Fritz Zweig, directed by Renato Mordo), i.e. in the last free season before the Munich Agreement and occupation, Honza's appeal for peace was even more urgent. By that time, however, real life was already in the hands of politicians.
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2004|
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