Zdenek Fibich and his place in Czech and European music in the last decades of the 19th century: (21st of December 1859-12th of October 1900).
In early songs, chamber pieces and the opera Bukovin [Beechwood] (1871) he was much influenced by Schumann's Romanticism. After his return to Prague he developed personal and musical links with Bedrich Smetana and adopted Smetana's programme of Czech national music. This is strikngly clear in his symphonic poems Zaboj, Slavoj and Ludek (1873 based on supposedly ancient Slav poems from the Dvur Kralove Manuscript), Toman a lesni panna [Toman and the Forest Maiden] (1875 based on a ballad by F. L. Celakovsky), and in other orchstral works such as the overtures Noc na Karlstejne [A Night at Karlstejn] (1886 after a play by Jaroslav Vrchlicky), and Komensky [Comenius] (1892 for the 400th anniversary of the birth of the great 17th-century Czech thinker), in the cantata Jareni romance (1880 on a poem by Jaroslav Vrchlicky), and the opera Blanik (1877 libretto by Eliska Krasnohorska on a story from Czech mythology). At the suggestion of his friend Otakar Hostinsky, a critic, supporter of Bedrich Smetana and from 1882 professor of aesthetics at Charles University, he adopted Wagner's principles of music drama for operas starting with the Nevesta messinska [The Bride of Messina] (1883 with libretto by Hostinsky after Friedrich Schiller). Specifically this meant the use of leitmotifs, forms that involved the musical integration of whole acts and the type of vocal melody, but not to any great extent Wagner's musical style or distinctive type of invention. Zdenek Fibich remained primarily a lyricist drawing on nature and lovefor inspiration. Leading examples here include the piano cycles Z hor [From the Mountains] (1887) and Nalady, dojmy a upominky [Moods, Impressions and Mementos] (1892-94), the symphonic poem Vesna (1881), the cantata Jarni romance [Spring Romance] (1880), and the orchestral idyll V podvecer [Early Evening] (1893).
Fibich's ties to cosmopolitanism set him in broader literary and general cultural contexts. Cosmopolitanism was a movement represented mainly by his literary contemporaries Jaroslav Vrchlicky, Julius Zeyer, Josef Vaclav Sladek and others. These were trying to give Czech art an international dimension by taking great world themes, and translating and using works from other cultures. It was not a movement aimed against the patriotic work of their predecessors, since its members continued the established tradition direction with some nationally-minded works on national themes, but they nonetheless invested a great deal of effort in trying to integrate Czech art into the mainstream of European art past and present, and to enriching it with impulses from abroad. In Fibich this cosmopolitan tendency was early expressed in the symphonic poem Othello (1873) and the opera Nevesta messinska [The Bride of Messina], and after writing the symphonic poem Boure [The Tempest] (1880) in 1894 he produced an opera of the same name based again on Shakespeare's play. The piano cycle Malirske studie [Painterly Studies] (1898), inspired by works of the world old masters was in the same line. So too were the operas Heda (1896 based on episode in Byron's epic Don Juan) and Pad Arkuna [The Fall of Arkun] (1898 on the story of the defeat of the northern Slavs). The crowning expression of Fibich's relationship with literary cosmopolitanism is the trilogy of stage melodramas Hippodamie (on a play by Jaroslav Vrchlicky on classical themes 1889-91). This work was also the culmination of the composer's originally-minded revival and modern adaptation of a genre that had been founded by Jiri Benda on the basis of an idea by Jean Jacques Rousseau. Earlier Fibich wtote 6 concert melodramas with piano and several with orchestra, including Stedry den [Christmas Eve] (1875) and Vodnik [The Water Goblin] (1883) on ballads from Karel Jaromir Erben's Kytice [Bouquet].
Fibich's later work was strongly affected by the decadent atmosphere of the fin de siccle. There were personal as well as aesthetic motives at work, especially his relationship with the decadent poet Anezka Schulzova, who was entirely in tune with the fashionable movements of the day. This is clear in the operas on her librettos, Hedy, Pad Arkuna [The Fall of Arkun] and also Sarka (1897), where she has shifted the national mythological subject onto the highly subjectivised level of intimate tragedy. It is also evident in pieces inspired by his affair with Anezka, such as several piano pieces from the cycle Nalady, dojmy a upominky [Moods, Impressions and Mementos] and the idyll V podvecer [In the Early Evening].
His non-programmatic instrumental pieces are less numerous, and include the Piano Trio in F minor (1872), String Quartet in A major (1874) and in G Major (1878), Piano Quartet in E minor (1874), Quintet in D Major for violin, cello, clarinet, french horn and piano (1894), Symphony no. 1 in F major (1883), No. 2 in E flat major (1892) and no. 3 in E minor (1898).
Over more than a century following the composer's death, Fibich's work and his place in Czech music culture have been the subject of very varied assessments. Time and again there have been debates on Fibich's importance and contribution to the living heritage of late 19th-century Czech music, and these have sometimes turned into sharp polemic. Zdenek Fibich has been overestimated and underestimated. Zdenek Nejedly, from 1905 the first professor of musicology at Charles University in Prague, was his pupil, and as an influential music critic in the first four decades he very much over-rated Fibich, placing him on a level with Bedrich Smetana and even above Antonin Dvorak. This was never generally accepted, and would seem to have even damaged Fibich's reputation. His frequent (more in his early work) Romantic stylistic orientation to Robert Schumann did not meet with the favour of later generations of musicians with modern tastes, and sometimes they even showed an open dislike that was no doubt partly a reaction to the overblown praise from the famous critic. Pupils of Antonin Dvorak tended to take a critical line in relation to Fibich. Vitezslav Novak expressed himself on the subject several times in his memoirs, About Myself and Others. Commenting on the symphonic poems he praises the natural inspiration of Vesna and In the Early Evening, but is critical of Othello, Zaboj, Slavoj a Ludek. Nor does he spare Fibich's most original creation: "I find no appeal in Fibich's melodrama trilogy Hippodamie. The music played by itself in the prelude and the interludes effectively provides the stage mood, but when accompanying the spoken words of the actors it encumbers them and what are mostly undistinguished motifs or just held chords say little to the musical audience." And commenting on the small pieces from the Moods, Impressions and Mementos cycle, to which Zdenek Nejedly had devoted a whole book called Fibich's Love Diary, he resorts to direct ridicule: "This composer is the author of a unique curiosity in the whole piano literature. According to the detailed explanation of Prof. Zdenek Nejedly in his book Fibich's Love Diary, they are musically illustrate not just all the bodily parts of the beloved, but even part of her toilette, for example a hat--and later once again--a new hat! No other composer has ever thought of such niceties and none ever will."
Nejedly's book had in fact been severely criticised immediately after it came out in 1925 by a professor of musical science in Brno, Vladimir Helfert in the Brno magazine Hudebni rozhledy [Musical Outlooks]. He pointed out the incongruity and tendentious character of Nejedly's interpretation of the individual pieces in the cycle and his uncritical approach to them. And ten years later, when Vladimir Helfert published his lengthy study of Czech music from Smetana to the present, called Czech Modern Music, he expressed critical reservations about Fibich of a more fundamental kind. He praised some of his positive contributions, but indicated what he considered faults. Of Fibich's tectonics he wrote that "Fibich's large forms do not develop according to the law of organic growth and logical internal welding together as is the case with Beethoven or Smetana. He replaces this classic creative method with the principle of co-ordinative, i.e. essentially mosaic systems. He starts from a formally complete inspiration and then shifts it forward on the basis of modulation variations, at most at the interval of third. In doing so he derives no new musical possibilities from the inspiration concerned, does not think it through and develop it to its final point." Helfert also commented epigrammatically on Fibich's stylistic backwardness, his failure to exploit the chance of learning from the huge wave of stylistic advance brought by world music in the 1890s, and so organically to shift his form of musical expression onwards: "In terms of stylistic progression, his place is before Smetana or at least with Smetana. At that point he would have been highly up-to-date. In this stylistic backwardness lies the whole tragedy of the Fibich phenomenon in modern Czech music."
The leading position of Zdenek Nejedly as Minister of Education and Culture in the governments of the Czechoslovak Republic after the 2nd World War, and the fact that Vladimir Helfert was no longer alive, led to a kind of compromise middle position which around the mid-20th century was adopted by the public as well. The prevailing idea was of a sort of authoritative triumvirate of founders of modern national music, i.e. Smetana--Dvorak--Fibich. As a result, the 100th anniversary of Fibich's birth in 1950 brought over-inflated celebrations of the composer and uncritical performance of his pieces in almost all state musical institutions. Fibich was presented here with all his weaknesses and Czech musical life was oversaturated with his pieces. It became clear that his music did not represent an oeuvre of even quality, compact in style or consistently original. This led to a general turning-away from his work; long and probably even unjust. In the 1960s and 70s he was rarely played and numerous attempt to review his mature music in full for many years met with failure. The opportunity came again with another major anniversary--the 150th anniversary of his birth and 100th of his death--in the year 2000. The razzmatazz was limited compared to the celebrations of 1950. Many of his works had been printed for the anniverary fifty years before, but publication activity was much more modest in 2000. Nonetheless, advance in recording technology and the repertoire range on recording media offered new possibilities. New recordings of Fibich's chamber and piano pieces came out on CD. Some of his operas were staged, and even his stage melodramas were presented at the National Theatre, although the production showed that the latter were conceived for a more resonant and slower, epic romantic acting style. The modern restrained idiom worked badly, whether in terms of time co-ordination with the music, comprehensibility and the dynamic balance between the orchestra and the stage. The electro-acoustic amplification of the acting performances using contact microphones produced a distinct feeling of alienation; in the end the cycle was not presented in full. Five years have now gone by since this last major anniversary and Fibich's music has once again in large part vanished from Czech musical life. Once again it is evident that the concept of the three classics-founders of Czech modern music is faulty. The work of Smetana and Dvorak has proved a self-evident, durable part of cultural legacy and been integrated into musical life throughout the world. It continues to be played and recorded, and to arouse enthusiasm and honour for its originality, imagination and perfect composition. Fibich's work comes no where near them in terms of response or frequency of performance. If these indices were precisely quantified, they would show his comparative status to be a mere fraction of the others.
We cannot, however, dismiss Zdenek Fibich as a poor or even bad composer. He was an educated composing professional, as is strikingly clear when we compare him to other Czech composers who were his contemporaries, and whose music has long been forgotten. Bedrich Smetana himself several times named Fibich as the best younger Czech composer immediately after Dvorak. When in the spring of 1874 Smetana refused the request of Vilem Blodek's widow that he should complete Blodek's opera Zitek, or when he refused to produce new choral works for Hlahol in December 1876 or the libretto for an opera Ahasver was offered him in February 1879 by Josef Vaclav Fric, he always recommended Dvorak and Fibich instead. Bedrich Smetana, of course, knew only Zdenek Fibich's work of the 1870s and 80s. This was when he was still a promising young man, and his music did not yet show the problem that Vladimir Helfert was to characterise as tragic stylistic backwardness (see above): although he took up aspects of Wagner's innovation in opera, his musical style remained largely within the ambit of Schumann's idiom, and a few elements of the so-called Tristan harmony were more or less exceptions in his work. That backwardness is also strikingly apparent in his musical responses to the impulses of literary decadence. Elsewhere in the world and among other Czech composers this was linked with impressionist or late Romantic innovation in melody, harmony and other aspects of musical expression. Nejedly and his followes believed that some sides of Fibich's piano stylisation were foreshadowings of impressionism, but they were always only techniques known from Chopin, and came nowhere near the stylistic innovations of Debussy or Ravel. The music that he wrote on the model of Smetana makes a sympathetic impression as an expression of patriotism and a warm attitude to Smetana himself, but these works are merely derivative. Fibich never had the ambition here to move beyond Smetana and does not do so even unconsciously. Nejedly's fabrication about the priority of the entry motif of Smetana's Vysehrad in Fibich's symphonic poem Zaboj, Slavoj and Ludek is quite unfounded.
Zdenek Fibich's most valuable contribution thus remains his lively sense for the Romantic ballad and the musical expression of natural lyricism. These remain the fixed stars of his work of all periods. In this sense it is comparable with the music of other traditionalists-balladeers and elegiacs in other countries, composers like Camille Saint-Saens, Emanuel Chabrier, Ernst Chausson, Gabriel Faure, Eduard Elgar, Carl August Nielsen, Alexander Glazunov and many others, who thanks to the expansion of the repertoire of the major recording companies and the hunger in musical life for unknown romantic pieces are today still in play. Among these Fibich certainly belongs as a full-value partner, but not with the likes of Smetana and Dvorak. These are not only more original and inventive, but direct their music much more strongly forwards, convincingly fulfilling the period ideal of the creation of new forms of musical expression.
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|Date:||Apr 1, 2005|
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