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Zdenek Fibich: the opera composer who returned the opera.

Zdenek Fibich is considered one of the most gifted composers of music drama to have entered Czech musical life after the "founder of Czech national music", Bedrich Smetana. On the other hand, for most Czech composers of the 19th century, creating an artistically valuable and at the same time popular operatic work presented an almost insuperable problem. Fibich was only to succeed on the opera stage with compositions acceptable to both the serious critics and the broader public at a mature age, when he already had other important works behind him. This essay considers the composer's complicated path to opera on the occasion of his double jubilee - the 160th anniversary of Zdenek Fibich's birth and the 110th anniversary of his death.

Zdenek Fibich (21st December 1850 - 15th October 1900) was born into an affluent family, his father was an official who worked for a noble family. From his mother's side he inherited a close link with the capital of the monarchy, Vienna (Fibich's son Richard married in Vienna). Fibich studied (aside from the years spent with the teacher Zikmund Kolesovsky) in Leipzig and Mannheim, and spent a short period in Paris. To give the reader some orientation, the extent of diffusion of Fibich's work may be defined by the cities of Antwerp, Vienna, Zagreb, Halle, Frankfurt, Berlin, Paris and St. Petersburg. (It was in 1900 that thanks largely to Oskar Nedbal, Fibich's music reached France and Russia, and found favourable responses there). In addition to operas, symphonic music (3 symphonies, symphonic poems), and piano works including most notably the large collection Malady, dojmy a upominky [Moods, Impressions and Reminiscences], he wrote 6 concert melodramas, culminating in the musical arrangement of three dramas by Jaroslav Vrchlicky: Namluvy Pelopovy [The Courtship of Pelops], Smir Tantaluv [The Atonement of Tantalus] and Smrt Hippodamie [Hippodamiaes Death].


A Born Dramatist

Zdenek Fibich was interested in dramatic forms from his youth. There are no surviving records of his experiments with the ancient drama Medea (1863) or his operetta Gutta von Guttenfels (1867), but the fact that the composition of his first "mature" opera, on a text by the well-known Smetana librettist Karel Sabina entitled Bukovin falls into the years 1865-1871, clearly suggests his remarkable talent. After the opera Blanik (1877), for which another Smetana author Eliska Krasnohorska wrote the libretto, it seemed as though the crowning moment of Fibich's career was imminent. The acclaimed aesthetic theorist Otakar Hostinsky adapted Schiller's play The Bride of Messina and during the process of composition worked closely with Fibich to ensure that the result would be a stylistically pure and exemplary musical tragedy which would respect the declamatory cadence of Czech - the kind of work that Czech opera repertoire lacked. In 1884, the premiere of the "Brass Bride" - as the public jeeringly nicknamed the work (from the German word das Messing, brass) - was a complete flop. The disillusioned Fibich was to be paralysed by the failure for almost 10 years. As a Wagnerian with a bad reputation he would only return to opera after he had written the trilogy of stage melodramas Hippodamia (premiere of the whole cycle took place in 1893). To give an idea of the atmosphere of the time let us just say that because of his detailed knowledge of Wagner's work, Fibich unlike Antonin Dvorak was not "allowed" into the Prague Conservatoire as a composition teacher.


Prospero and Fernando in Shakespeare's The Tempest

The early 1890s brought Fibich greater success and happiness. In 1892 he broke through at the International Theatre and Music Exhibition in Vienna with his stage melodrama The Courtship of Pelops. It was a time when he was developing a relationship with Anezka Schulzova (1868-1905) that was to be a great creative inspiration for his music; Fibich was always notable for "fertility of ideas and abundance of imagination", and the young talented theatre critic Schulzova enhanced these gifts still further. As Romain Rolland remarked - love makes everyone a poet - and Fibich sang to the full, both in the increasing melodiousness of his music and in a preference for song or song-based forms.

The libretto of the opera The Tempest was written on the basis of Shakespeare's play by one of the most acclaimed and popular of Czech poets, Jaroslav Vrchlicky, precisely according to Fibich's ideas. For example, for the chess scene, in which Miranda and Ferdinand are not allowed to kiss despite the sensuous whispering of the spirits, Fibich plays provocatively with musical material from his piano collection Moods, Impressions and Reminiscences, where we find a musical "description" of Anezka's body and clothes. Given that the composer and the poet had been in close contact when working on Hippodamia and The Tempest Vrchlicky knew about Fibich's girlfriend, but the intimacy of the two characters (Z. Fibich - Fernando, A. Schulzova - Miranda) was not the only source of inspiration. The choice of subject may perhaps be illuminated by the composer Josef Bohuslav Foerster's description of Vrchlicky's favourite joke, "He used to engage in various jests, accompanying them with witty, sometimes even daring remarks, and the poet's magic wand proved itself a supple instrument for all kinds of metamorphoses and surprising manoeuvres. The master with his long beard, wrapped in a broad, coloured robe, on his head a tall hat adorned with mysterious runes, looked like Prospero behind the covered table." Foerster also related that at this period Fibich was spending money on "magician's potions" and gave a longer account of Vrchlicky's high-jinks, describing how at the salon of his publisher Frantisek Augustin Urbanek the poet appeared after supper as a magician, a strange mitre painted with mysterious runes on his head, and with the help of all sorts of instruments started performing all kinds of unexpected transformations and strange "charms". The authors of The Tempest were dreaming up a work full of stage machinery and stunning effects.


To the personal themes and interests that led Vrchlicky and Fibich to create an opera based on Shakespeare's famous play, we might add a further dimension. Both Germans and Czechs had shared in the celebrations of the centenary of the birth of Friedrich Schiller in 1859, but the Shakespeare festival of 1864 involved a clear attempt to demonstrate the potential of Czech art as compared to German art. With a Czech opera on The Tempest the authors were appealing for the favour of the Czech public. Fibich was perhaps making a play for the position of Smetana's successor, because Fibich's The Tempest even starts with a scene similar to that of Smetana's unfinished comic opera Viola (a shipwreck with the involvement of the chorus). Attention was drawn to the Czech aspects of Shakespeare's The Tempest by articles claiming that the model for Shakespeare's Prospero had been the art-loving enthusiast for alchemy and astronomy Emperor Rudolf II. And if W.A. Mozart had considered creating his own version of The Tempest too, then Fibich could deliberately make a bow to The Magic Flute and at the same time support the Prague Mozart cult in his opera (Caliban/Monostatos molests Miranda/Pamina, Caliban/Papageno longs for children, Prospero/Sarastro sets tests for Fernando/Tamino, the spirits/genii crown the victory of virtue).

The premiere of The Tempest was an unambiguous success, and as early as the mid 1890s fertilised the ground for the rivalry between the supporters of the legacy of Smetana, or Fibich, and the supporters of Dvorak - a situation that was to culminate around 1910 in the "battles over Dvorak". The second conductor at the National Theatre Moric Anger promptly informed Dvorak that " ... Fibich was angry with you over the appointment to your position at the conservatory, as you can imagine, yet now he's got an oven full of operas - one unfinished he has already have put on the programme -and another already cooking - with two acts already completed - and he is starting on the instrumentation. - I'm enormously curious about the, Tempest', the membership isn't expecting anything, I mean any success. It's to be premiered on 1st March, the director [Frantisek Adolf Subert, director of the National Theatre] is directing the opera." (letter from Prague to New York, February 1895).

The "Czech Tristan" and W.A. Mozart

The reworking of the legacy of the 18th century is a neglected side of the opera The Tempest. Fibich was not trying to re-install a classical or early romantic style but was reconstructing a "second nature" in the same sense as Wagner did with the "second diatonics" in his most artful (in terms of preciosity) opera, Die Meistersinger. Wagner's intention was not to renew the modal system of strict rules of counterpoint (i.e. restoration) but to produce an artistically coloured re-construction that corresponded to the chosen subject. The National Theatre presented Wagner's only comic stage work in 1894. Fibich's Prospero and Caliban lie on the imagined line between Wagner's Hans Sachs and Strauss's Baron Ochs. As an example we might take the reworking of the scene in which in the original Shakespeare play Prospero only comments on the declaration of love from the side (Act III, Scene 3); Vrchlicky tackles the scene in pantomime fashion (Prospero intervenes to end the declaration of love in Act II) and this is more adequate to the needs of opera. Furthermore, the sober length of the regular opera number suggests an awareness of distance from the tradition in the same way as the interruption of the conventional "non-modern" bel canto aria by the "contemporary" Baron Ochs in Richard Strauss's Rosenkavalier.

Immediately after The Tempest Fibich wrote another opera - Hedy (finished in November 1895). The libretto, based on Byron's Don Juan, was the work of A. Schulzova and the author's lack of experience was reflected in abundant use of very conventional opera features. There was even a grand opera wedding feast with ballet. But Schulzova above all embraced the concept of a "Czech Tristan" for Fibich's new opera. There were a considerable number of other sources of inspiration. The monologue of Hedy's father, the pirate chief Lambra in the 3rd act was modelled - according to Schulzova - on Lysiart's scene from Weber's Euryanta. The octet with two choruses involves a citation of an ensemble from Tannahauser. Fibich was aware - like Richard Strauss, when he asked Hugo von Hofmannstahl for a contemplative ensemble for the Rosenkavalier - that at the moment when "eine dramatische Bombe" might be expected, a crushing "Ruhepunkt" had its inalienable place. Lambra's four-bar phrase from the octet mentioned was supposed to recall the time of the flowering of classical Italian opera. Mozart's finale concertato from The Marriage of Figaro had made a powerful impression on Fibich and the observant listener cannot miss the quotation from Mozart's Don Giovanni, when the unknown stranger and castaway introduces himself to Hedy. Hedy reliably filled the auditorium of the National Theatre, but a masterpiece was yet to come.

A Strange Legend without Irony - Sarka

Just by choosing the subject of the Women's War, when according to Czech legend after the death of the mythical princess Libuse a war broke out between women and men, the librettist Schulzova and the composer stepped into supranational and timeless contexts and also into the "risky" field of a subject often trivialised in earlier treatments. Homer had told of the proud Amazons. In Virgil we find Camilla, and apart from the model of biblical Deborah a woman warrior appeared in Ariosto's Bradamante, while Edmund Spencer's The Faeire Queen comes from the 16th century. The origins of legend of Sarka can be traced back to the 10th/11th century, when travelling singers journeyed the length and breadth of Europe. Fibich also drew on the same source as Wagner, for the medieval chronicle of Cosmas included retold tales of the medieval singers and the story in The Chronicle of Dalimil written at the beginning of the 14th century is comparable with the Old German epic (Lied aus der Edda, the bound Sigrdrifa found by Sigurd). The main source for later versions was in fact the Chronicle of Hajek from the second half of the 16th century, a work by a wonderful story-teller but a dubious historian. The legend of the women's war survived into the 19th century in minor, lower genres, but at this point the figures of Vlasta, Sarka and Ctirad were naturally associated with the founding stories of Czech national mythology. For example the popular dramatist Vaclav Kliment Klicpera wrote the comedy Zensky boj [The Woman's Fight] (1827), which was not itself particularly successful, but provided the basis for another play by the extremely influential national revivalist Josef Kajetan Tyl Nove Amazonky aneb zenska vojna [The New Amazons or the Women's War] (1843). The second model behind Tyl's play "in the spirit of the most conventional biedermeier of the time" was a work by the Viennese author F.X. Tolda entitled Wastl oder Die bohmische Amazonen. Tolda's farce was one of the most popular plays in Vienna and in Prague (the audience enjoyed the manoeuvres in military dresses and suchlike), and Tyl had no easy task reworking Tolda's text, which at a Vienna staging in 1841 had outraged the Czech public so much that the police had to intervene. The story of the rebellious Amazons had been used numerous times in German literature and it is no surprise that there it had been associated with attacks on Czech culture. In the popular novel by Franz van der Veld Der bohmische Magdekrieg (1823) the women warriors of Devin are motivated to fight not for the restoration of their earlier privileges at the princely court, but by the desire not to become "slaves of squalid, rough Czechs, still on the level of beasts." It is no wonder that the grand old man of Czech historiography Frantisek Palacky in his History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia of 1848 should have rather sceptically described the story of the women warriors of Devin as "the most peculiar old Czech legend." This is because in many versions of the story Vlasta and Sarka are presented as thirsting for the death of men in a perverse way that foists erotic motives on the original tale. In more dignified Czech versions, the poets Vrchlicky and Julius Zeyer in part succeeded in restoring a divine grandeur to these characters, but it is only with Schulzova's libretto that the leader Vlasta comes to represent justice and right. Alexandr Stich wrote that Sarka became "the embodiment of the high ethical nature of the Czech political struggle". Translation was supposed not only to open the way to the German stage for Fibich's opera but also to present an effective negation of the old tradition of the monstrous Vlasta in German literature.


It is doubtful whether as an author with a broad cultural outlook Fibich would have decided to choose this subject had the administrative committee of the National Theatre Association not announced, in 1895, a competition for comedies, libretti and operas with the following condition: "The materials for these works must by taken without exception from Czech life, present or historical. The deadline for the submission of work is the end of April 1897". The conditions were soon repeated, and no entrant could miss the prized values of the day - a narrowly conceived nationalism (ethnic identity defined by blood) and success: "Works originally written in the Czech language or composed by Czech operatic composers may compete for these prizes. The prizes will be awarded to works that will also have substantial theatrical success when staged." Schulzova and Fibich did not hesitate, and immediately after completing Hedy they embarked on hectic work on another opera; on the 21st of January 1896 (Schulzova's name day) Fibich started on Sarka, i.e. even before the premiere of Hedy.

The premiere of Sarka was a brilliant success, and Fibich could justifiably expect the first prize, but his pupil Karel Kovarovic had also entered the competition with his opera Psohiavci and "vox populi" decided in favour of the younger composer, who would soon become head of the National Theatre opera company. With hindsight we can sense in the reviews of the time relief rather than sheer enthusiasm for Fibich's mature work. In 1897 Vaclav Juda Novotny wrote, "And today after those laborious detours through Messina, the trilogy, The Tempest and Hedda, how remarkably Fibich's musical creativity flowers in the Czech sense in the atmosphere of a domestic myth of Sarka and Ctirad. What energy in expression, what power in the stressing of the dramatic element and what delight in the melodious freeing of the voices!" Jaromir Borecky proclaimed Fibich the leading composer of new Czech opera. Karel Knittl enthusiastically shouted, "Fibich is ours!" and made notes of motifs and themes to show that Sarka could not be denied a "Czech costume", but it is also telling that in 1899 at an Academic Reading Room gathering he expressed opinions that could hardly be taken as anything but a swipe at Fibich: "What we know of national character is that it may be coloured a la Smetana or a la Dvorak. For the time being: tertium non datur. Wagnerism brings benefits to opera only insofar as it does not mean that individuality is suffocated and a stereotype of external treatment hung on it. Hence the victory of Smetana and the failure of all those who have a mistaken understanding of what the great reformer sought to do. In the new Czech operas of recent years one cannot always speak of composing, but of a sticking together of at best interesting harmonic combinations, a hammering out in every shade of a so-called leitmotif of indistinct aspect; at the words "horror, fear, plague, hunger, death" we hear the high sounds of piccolos, the deep tones of violas and clarinets, at the mention of love the harp tinkles and the violins twitter, a pub brawl, an earthquake, a battle and hell are represented by drums and trombones, and the music-drama palette is ready-made. A kingdom for a melody! - you cry, sinking onto your couch after the operatic experience."

Vexed, Fibich resolved to realise another opera plan - the two-part opera PddArkuna [The Fall of Arkun] consisted of the one-act Helga and the three-act Dargun. The historical subject, concerning the fate of the Baltic Slavs, was however a failure on the Prague stage. The composer himself died a few days before the premiere.

Fibich - Dvofak -Janacek

Although he lived only 50 years, Zdcnck Fibich left a relatively rounded off oeuvre behind him. Having started out as the author of songs and song forms it was with these that he also said farewell. In his last years Fibich lived in a concentrated atmosphere of contradiction and conflict (including family disputes). This situation has given rise to the idea that Fibich was out of synch with his time; some have shifted him back to the past (the musicologist Vladimir Helfert), some to the future (the school around he music historian Zdenek Nejedly). In fact paradoxically Fibich bears both interpretations. Artistically he had matured in the 1870s, adopting Smetanian ideals. Fibich not only had roots in the "classical" period of the flowering of Czech music, but went even further back, to the period of the classical values of the 18th century (although this may lead to the idea of neo-styles). Fibich never abandoned the idea of progress, he risked incomprehension on the part of the public, and he developed some notable and distinctive avenues (abbreviation, impressions, an individualised approach to instrumental colour, etc.). His innovations remained, however, closely bound up with romantic expressiveness, and he did not found a new movement.


Although today Fibich's work is overshadowed by the music of Smetana, Dvorak or Janacek, the composer had a rare power and created his own individual style - Fibich's was a talent suited to balladic genres, spring themes, epic stories but also the subtle and symmetrical modelling of melodic motifs. Fibich suffered and evidently will continue to suffer from a lack of understanding and staging or production problems. The Czech composer's openness to European culture can cause irritation on both sides. Eduard Hanslick for example wrote of Fibich's Symphony no. 2 in E flat minor that, "Unlike his Czech colleagues, the composer does not use any national overtones. The symphony has German characteristics." Yet the process of rediscovery of Fibich's work brings breath-taking shocks at its quality. The composer moved between the modern and the cosmopolitan sentimental production of salon pieces. Just like Smetana Fibich made major demands on performance and endowed his works with an aura of the uncommonness that is not compatible with everyday theatre (concert) practice.

Although Fibich did not avoid some concessions to social pressure and his last operas bear the marks of compromise (opera is generally a "sensitive" form, one that easily dates, and the history of opera is a history of waste), he did not lose the solid ground beneath his feet. Fibich's operatic work cannot be dissociated from the work of Richard Wagner, even though it shows both directions - "towards" and "away from" Wagner. Yet neither can Fibich be classified with the post-Wagnerian average (Engelbert Humperdinck, Wilhelm Kicnzl, Felix Draeseke and others), for a sense of artistic responsibility cultivated especially with a view to the idealised image of Smetana as the founder of modern Czech music forced the composer to works ambitious in composition style and conception, and this is the basis for meaningful comparison of his music with that of the top representatives of the Tristan generation (above all with Richard Strauss). With Smetana, Fibich succeeded in becoming what was almost a "norm-creating" phenomenon, however his so-called Wagnerism was received. In his operas his contemporaries could test the possibilities of setting the Czech word in music. Perhaps it was in fact necessary that after Smetana's operatic masterpieces originally composed on a German text, an opera should be created using a Czech translation of a German play in a consistent "declamatory style'' ('Me Bride of Messina), before an opera mastered in all aspects could emerge - Sarka, where the requirements for the correct treatment of the Czech word and easily perceptible melody were perfectly met. In Sarka too we can see the beneficial impact of the National Theatre competition, which eliminated the power of the opera stereotype and confronted Fibich with obstacles that he had to get over (the demand for a Czech subject, development of the line established by Smetana's Libuse, fears of the excessive influence of Wagner's Die Valkyrie). Fibich constructed his works around the dramatic character. He respected its nature and its situation. He gave it contours in tempi, harmonies, leitmoifs and instrumentation, used large intervallic leaps to begin sung phrases, "dry" but markedly expressive recitations on a tone, and he combined the ariosi and the regular binary song forms. The elaborate characterisation of protagonists and environments was, in any case, a basic requirement of the aesthetics of the 19th century.

Fibich presented a relevant alternative to Romance opera as well (Charles Gounod, Georges Bizet, Charles Camille Saint-Saens, Jules Massenet and others), to Verism and to Russian opera. He was a force to be reckoned with by both Dvorak and Janacek who at the time of Fibich's opera successes were finding their own way with difficulty as they grappled with the problem of musical dramatic form. All three composers have in common the fact that following the opening of the National Theatre they created operas that brought them disappointments (Fibich's The Bride of Messina., Dvorak's Dimitrij, and Janacek's first opera Sarka), and only in the 1890s matured (or were maturing) to pieces with which they were almost completely satisfied, which brought them the lasting interest of the public and which bear the traces of their own biographies (Fibich's Sarka, Dvorak's Rusalka, and Janacek's Jenufa). In this trio Fibich was chronologically the first, and also the first to leave the stage.
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Title Annotation:history
Author:Kopecky, Jiri
Publication:Czech Music
Date:Oct 1, 2009
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