Religion and Music in England at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Apostles, which was performed on May 12, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

Edward Elgar’s two monumental masterpieces for chorus and orchestra, The Dream of Gerontius and The Apostles, mirror the tensions and contradictions that surrounded religion at the end of the Victorian era.

Elgar, a Catholic, had experienced isolation and prejudice, particularly in his younger years. But he also witnessed a Catholic revival in England, the rise to prominence of John Henry Cardinal Newman as an influential English voice (Newman was the author of the poem that became the text of Gerontius), and the lessening of anti-Catholic sentiment. The Catholic revival and the resurgence of Anglo-Catholic High Church Anglicanism were in part a reaction against a long standing perception of the Anglican faith as spiritually deficient—a sentiment that came into broad public view already in the 1830s.

Adherence to the Church of England appeared to require none of the terrifying internal discipline required of Protestant sects descended from Calvin—evident even in idiosyncratic nineteenth century incarnations such as Seventh Day Adventists. The Lutheran idea of faith alone and the direct connection between the individual and the divine were tempered. The Anglican faith could easily be seen as an unstable and unsatisfactory compromise. It retained the principle of apostolic succession, the indelibility of ordination, and the centrality of communion—replete in some covert Anglican circles with a residual belief in the miracle of transubstantiation. But yet Anglicanism seemed to lack the mystery and authentic aura of Catholicism, in which the church as an institution and community embodied directly the spirit of Christ, and in which the individual was not abandoned to face God alone, but suffered through life until death as part of a sacred community.

But the Church of England was the official church of the nation with the sovereign at its head. That only underscored the national significance of Anglicanism and its support of British imperial ambitions, which were at their height when Elgar composed The Apostles. Elgar may have been a Catholic but he was a patriot and enthusiast of imperialism first. His choral works were written for the great Anglican choral tradition of amateur choral festivals—a central part of English cultural life in the 19th century and the cause for so much great choral repertoire, from Mendelssohn and Dvořák on. It is therefore not surprising that in both Gerontius and The Apostles an unmistakable triumphalist quasi-imperial grandeur (perhaps suggestive of a national conceit of superiority) is audible, which is perhaps why Elgar’s great choral music has travelled so poorly outside of the British Isles.

At the same time, Elgar’s generation—and indeed Elgar himself—were witness to the overwhelming rise in anti-religious sentiment, particularly among the educated elite of Europe and America. Secularism and skepticism were in the ascendency, fueled by the progress of rationality evident in science and technology. Mendel, Darwin, and Maxwell had revealed the mysteries of nature. The urban landscape, weaponry, transport, and even the modes of musical transmission, all had been transformed by new gadgets and devices, each reflective of the progress of science and reason. A retreat into mysticism and miracles seemed unnecessary. If one adds to this the allure of socialism and communism—utopian ideologies based on reason designed to rid humanity of poverty and inequality—it becomes clear why religion, particularly the Anglican Church and Catholicism, was on the defensive as a superstitious remnant of a pre-democratic and even feudal age.

In an age when the material and rational were triumphant, the aesthetic—art—more and more began to satisfy the need for a quasi-religious experience that was not reducible to cold, utilitarian calculation. Art offered an alternative to the ethos of efficiency and sufficient explanation by evidence and argument. In Elgar’s generation it was Wagner that best exemplified the elevation of art into the status of a modern religion. And there is, in The Apostles, the audible influence of the master of Bayreuth, a temple to art, in which a nasty self-indulgent genius was deified.

This context helps explain why Elgar struggled so much with this project. It explains why he chose to write his own text, which allowed him to foreground the humanity of two characters—Mary Magdalene and Judas—and render them sympathetic. In contrast to Bach’s Passions, The Apostles is quite democratic and down to earth, a retelling, designed for mass amateur choral participation as well as mass listening, of a divine mystery. The awe at the mystery of Christ is the Catholic aspect of the work, but the notion that the key servants of Christ were just ordinary, well-intentioned but unremarkable human beings reveals how attuned Elgar was to his ultimately resolutely Protestant and, with regard to religion, increasingly skeptical public.

Elgar’s The Apostles

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert The Apostles, which was performed on May 12, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

In the usual narrative of Edward Elgar’s career, the composer sprang overnight from provincial obscurity to international fame with the 1899 premiere of his Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, now known as the Enigma Variations. Unsurprisingly, the truth is more complicated: Elgar was already becoming well known through a series of acclaimed choral works, such as The Black Knight, Op. 25 (1892), Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, Op. 30 (1896), and Caractacus, Op. 35 (1898). All of these scores were successful at their first performances, and British choral societies took them up rapidly. Singers delighted in the challenges posed by these scores; both audiences and critics relished Elgar’s brilliant orchestration.

Despite its inadequate rehearsed premiere at the 1900 Birmingham Festival, Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38, assumed an honored place in the British choral repertory by the autumn of 1902, thanks to a carefully prepared German performance at Dusseldorf in May of that year. Even before this important performance of The Dream of Gerontius, the Birmingham Festival had commissioned an extended choral work on a sacred theme from Elgar for their 1903 festival. Elgar proposed as his subject the calling of the apostles. This idea had engaged him since his childhood when a schoolmaster had characterized the apostles as “poor men, young men, at the time of their calling; perhaps before the descent of the Holy Ghost not cleverer than some of you here.”

Elgar conceived a grandiose design of which The Apostles would be just the first part: a trilogy of oratorios that would span the calling of the Apostles through the founding of the Early Church and conclude with the Last Judgment. The ambitious scope of this project clearly emulated Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Elgar made a pilgrimage to Bayreuth in 1902 seeking inspiration for The Apostles. There he heard the first three music dramas of Der Ring as well as Parsifal, the music of which would exert a discernable influence upon The Apostles. On July 2, 1902, Elgar wrote exuberantly to a friend, “I am now plotting GIGANTIC WORK.”

Elgar decided to follow Wagner’s example and create his own text for the trilogy. Lacking Wagner’s literary expertise, however, he wisely chose to construct his libretto from selected biblical passages. After choosing episodes from the Gospels, Elgar filled in this frame with various Scriptural verses, sometimes wrenching lines from their original context for his own purposes. Unfortunately, he miscalculated the time that it would take to complete such a massive project. Facing deadlines from the Birmingham Festival, Elgar severely truncated his original plan. In the end, only two oratorios of the projected three were completed: The Apostles and its relatively concise successor, The Kingdom. (The final oratorio, provisionally titled The Last Judgment, was never written; Elgar made only a few jottings for it.)

In The Apostles, Elgar places less emphasis on the sufferings of Christ than on the experiences of His followers. Elgar lavished special attention on the two outcasts, Mary Magdalene and Judas. Both characters are assigned extended scenes during which they express their shame and guilt. The Pre-Raphaelite luxuriousness of Mary Magdalene’s music repelled some high-minded critics. E.A. Baughan, for example, carped that the “repentance of Mary Magdalene, which really has nothing to do with the Apostles . . . is an unessential detail.” Elgar’s compassionate treatment of Judas seemed equally puzzling. Elgar was prone to periods of depression and he clearly particularly identified with Judas to some degree. During the composition of The Apostles, he wrote to a friend: “To my mind, Judas’ crime or sin was despair; not only the betrayal, which was done for a worldly purpose.”

The premiere of The Apostles in Birmingham on October 14, 1903, was greeted with acclaim, despite critical reservations about the flamboyance of the orchestration. In spite of the success of The Apostles, Elgar’s enthusiasm for his Wagnerian project had begun to wane by the time he began to compose the second oratorio, The Kingdom. In addition, his excursions into biblical exegesis had caused his Christian faith to waver and his inspiration to falter. For whatever reason, Elgar’s “gigantic work” was destined to remain a vast torso forever incomplete.

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Joseph Beutel, bass-baritone

Joseph Beutel
Photo by Matt Simpkins Photography

Appearing in the concert The Apostles, which was performed on May 12, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

Indiana native Joseph Beutel has most recently appeared as the Hotel Manager/Duke/Judge in Ades’ Powder Her Face with Skylight Music Theatre. Previously, he has appeared in Martinů’s Alexandre bis/Comedy on the Bridge with Gotham Chamber Opera, as Sulpice in La fille du régiment with Fargo-Moorhead Opera, as Sam in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera with the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras, as der Tod in Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis with Opera Moderne in Vienna, as Nourabad in Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles with Baltimore Concert Opera and Opera Delaware, as the British Major in the world premiere of Kevin Puts’ Silent Night with Minnesota Opera, and as Lamoral in Strauss’ Arabella with the Santa Fe Opera.

Mr. Beutel was a winner of the Sullivan Foundation Career Development Award in 2011 and Encouragement from the Gerda Lissner Foundation in 2012. He performed with the recent New York Philharmonic production of Carousel and American Lyric Theater’s workshops of two new operas, La reina and The Turing Project.

In addition to his operatic endeavors, Mr. Beutel has also been seen in many oratorio and cantata works. He has recently performed the cantatas Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden (BWV 88) and Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (BWV106) in New York. He has also performed the Saint Matthew Passion as Aria soloist, Christ Lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4), Singet dem Herrn (BWV 190), and solo cantata Ich habe Genug (BWV 82). He has sung Handel’s Messiah with the prestigious “Ensemble viii” in Austin, Texas, and performed in recital in various places across the country. He made his debut with the Santa Fe Symphony singing Handel’s Messiah.

Spring 2017

Adrian Rosas, bass-baritone

Adrian Rosas
Photo by Vanessa Rosas Photography

Appearing in the concert The Apostles, which was performed on May 12, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

Adrian Rosas has performed with opera companies such as the Seattle Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Opera Saratoga, Houston’s Opera in the Heights, and the Detroit Opera House. He has most recently appeared as Nick Shadow in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress with the Pacific Opera Project. Previously, he has appeared as Collantinus in Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and as Basilio in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia with LoftOpera; as Rocco in Beethoven’s Fidelio with Grand Harmonie; as Sir Richard Cholmondeley in Andrew Sullivan’s The Yeoman of the Guard and as the title role in Don Giovanni with Winter Opera Saint Louis; as Diego in Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s Frida and as Cascada in Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow with Michigan Opera Theatre; and as Sergeant in Il barbiere di Siviglia and as Procolo in Donizetti’s Viva la Mamma with Seattle Opera.

As a champion of new and modern music, Mr. Rosas has worked on a variety of newly written works, including Peter Ash’s The Golden Ticket, Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s Frida, Petr Kotik’s Master-Pieces, Matt Aucoin’s Whitman, and other newly written operas with the American Lyric Theater in New York and the Ostrava Center for New Music in the Czech Republic. He has also been featured in performances at Carnegie Hall in various concerts, oratorios, and as the Angel Gabriel in the premiere of Marcos Galvany’s Oh My Son, and has performed at the New York Festival of Song as well as in various performances at Merkin Concert Hall and Alice Tully Hall.

Mr. Rosas holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Western Michigan University and a Master of Music degree from The Juilliard School.

Spring 2017

Paul McNamara, tenor

Paul McNamara
Photo by Frances Marshall Photography

Appearing in the concert The Apostles, which was performed on May 12, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

Originally from Ireland and based in Berlin, Paul McNamara has sung in theaters throughout Europe, where his many notable successes have included his recent debut at La Fenice (Venice) as Wagner’s Tannhäuser and his critically-acclaimed performances at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in Braunfels’ Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna. Operatic engagements elsewhere include the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw; Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels; NI Opera; Cape Town Opera; the Opera Lesna in Sopot (Poland); Opera Ireland; the Janáček Festival in Brno; the National Opera in Almaty, Kazakhstan; the Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro; and with the Salzburg Easter Festival in a coproduction with the Beijing Music Festival. Concert appearances have taken him to many of the world’s leading venues, including the Berlin Philharmonie, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, and Carnegie Hall.

In addition to Wagner’s Erik, Loge, Tannhäuser, Tristan, and Parsifal, Mr. McNamara’s extensive repertoire encompasses roles by Monteverdi, Cavalli, Mozart, Weber, Meyerbeer, Tchaikovsky, Leoncavallo, Dvořák, Strauss, Janáček, Zemlinsky, Berg, Britten, and André Previn.

Recent appearances include debuts with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, at the opera in Bonn in Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, and at the Leipzig Opera in Richard Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot and Richard Strauss’ Arabella. Elsewhere, Mr. McNamara reprised his much lauded interpretation of Herodes at the opera in Linz and appeared as Tannhäuser at the Wartburg zu Eisenach, as well as in new productions of this opera in Aachen, Innsbruck, and Venice.

Spring 2017

Alfred Walker, bass-baritone

Alfred Walker
Photo by Walter Hill

Appearing in the concert The Apostles, which was performed on May 12, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

In the 2016–17 season, Alfred Walker has appeared as Wotan in Das Rheingold with North Carolina Opera, Méphistophélès in Berlioz’s La damnation du Faust at the Teatro Municipal de Santiago, Josh Gibson in the world premiere of Sonenberg’s The Summer King with Pittsburgh Opera, Porgy in Porgy and Bess with the Sydney Symphony, and performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Phoenix Symphony. Last season, he joined Oper Köln and Seattle Opera for the title role in Der fliegende Holländer, the Komische Oper Berlin as the Four Villains in Les contes d’Hoffmann, and Utah Opera for Amonasro in Aida. He also joined the New Japan Philharmonic for Bluebeard in Bluebeard’s Castle and the Caramoor International Music Festival as Pizarro in Fidelio, and sang Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and Verdi’s Requiem with the Boston Philharmonic.

Mr. Walker’s other recent operatic engagements include Der fliegende Holländer, Amfortas in Parsifal, and Amonasro in Aida at Theater Basel; Parsi Rustomji in Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera; Orest in Elektra at Teatro alla Scala, Deutsche Opera Berlin, Seattle Opera, and the San Sebastián Festival; Four Villains in Kosky’s new production of Les contes d’Hoffmann at Den Norske Opera; Allazim in Zaide at Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Wiener Festwochen, Barbican Center, and the Mostly Mozart Festival; Der fliegende Holländer at the Geneva Wagner Festival, Théâtre de Caen, and Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg; Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde at Angers Nantes Opera and Opéra de Dijon; Creonte in Medea at Opéra national de Lorraine; Telramund in Lohengrin at Ópera de Oviedo; Porgy in Porgy and Bess with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Philharmonic, and Toronto Symphony Orchestra; and Achilla in Giulio Cesare and Colline in La bohème with San Diego Opera. On the concert stage, he has joined the Boston, Atlanta, and Baltimore Symphony Orchestras, Stuttgarter Philharmoniker, Utah Symphony, Grand Park Music Festival, and Houston Symphony.

Spring 2017

Jennifer Check, soprano

Jennifer Check
Photo by Kristin Hoebermann

Appearing in the concert The Apostles, which was performed on May 12, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

Jennifer Check has most recently appeared in Verdi’s Requiem with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. Previously, she performed in Verdi’s Requiem as a part of the hallmark Defiant Requiem presentation with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Philharmonic. This season, she returned to the Metropolitan Opera roster as the High Priestess in Aida and in its production of Saariaho’s L’amour de loin, and also joined the roster of the Lyric Opera of Chicago for Norma. Last season, she returned to Utah Opera for the title role in Aida, gave her first performances of Desdemona in Otello with Berks Opera, and returned to the Metropolitan Opera for Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda. On the concert stage she joined the Aspen Music Festival for Saariaho’s Cinq reflets.

She recently debuted three other Verdi titles—Macbeth with Palm Beach Opera, Il trovatore with Utah Opera, and Don Carlos at Caramoor—and sang her first Ariadne auf Naxos with Toulon Opera. Other recent performances include Don Giovanni with Metropolitan Opera; Muhly’s Dark Sisters with Gotham Chamber Opera and Opera Philadelphia; Norma with Palm Beach Opera and Opera Philadelphia; Elektra in London, Tokyo, and Detroit; Iphigénie en Tauride in Valencia; Dialogues des Carmélites at Caramoor and with Austin Opera; and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh in Amsterdam. At the Metropolitan Opera, she has sung in previous productions that include Die Frau ohne Schatten, Turandot, Don Carlo, Gianni Schicchi, and Stiffelio.

Concert performances include engagements of Verdi, Strauss, Beethoven, and Mahler with the symphony orchestras of Shanghai, Milwaukee, New Jersey, Boston, Verbier Festival, Spoleto Festival U.S.A., Charlotte, Utah, and Memphis, among others.

Spring 2017

Sara Murphy, mezzo-soprano

Sara Murphy

Appearing in the concert The Apostles, which was performed on May 12, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

Sara Murphy recently made her European debut at Opera Theater of Rome as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. Her current season continues with the role of The Wife in the world premiere of Gisle Kverndokk’s sacred opera Upon this handful of earth. Opera News named the recent release of Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner with the American Symphony Orchestra, in which she portrays Mother Bayard and Ermengarde, one of the “Top Ten Opera Recordings of 2015.”

Past season highlights include Ligeti’s Requiem and Schnittke’s Nagasaki with the American Symphony Orchestra, and Verdi’s Otello, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, and Tchaikovsky’s Ode to Joy at the Cincinnati May Festival. Ms. Murphy’s portrayal of Britten’s Phaedra, Barber’s Dover Beach, and High Priestess in Aida at Ravinia with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra won acclaim from the Chicago Tribune. She enjoys frequent performances of Verdi’s Requiem, Handel’s Messiah, Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, and Elgar’s Sea Pictures.

Ms. Murphy holds degrees from Oberlin College and Catholic University. She is a first-prize winner of the Oratorio Society of New York Solo Vocal Competition, and a grant recipient of Inter-Cities Performing Arts and the Wagner Society of New York.

Spring 2017

After Dvořák and Smetana: Czech Music in the 20th Century

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Prague Central, which was performed on February 10, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

The four composers on this ASO program were major twentieth-century figures in the musical tradition of a region in Central Europe: the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia, famed for contributions to European culture, particularly in music. The historic capital of Bohemia, Prague is now the capital of the Czech Republic. Before this, it was the capital of a nation spliced together after the end of World War I—Czechoslovakia—which existed from 1918 until the fall of the Soviet Empire just over a quarter of a century ago, when it was divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Prior to 1918, both major regions of today’s Czech Republic—Bohemia and Moravia—had been part of the Habsburg Empire. The historic center of gravity in that dynastic and much maligned multi-national Empire was Vienna. Already in the 18th century these regions were centers of German (not Czech) high culture. Mozart’s Don Giovanni was premiered in Prague. Franz Kafka is perhaps the best-known figure from the vital German-speaking Jewish community of Prague into which Erwin Schulhoff was born.

Indeed, from the Baroque era on, music was a distinctive component of Bohemian and Moravian life. In the mid-19th century, two Czech composers rose to international fame: Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana. Dvořák’s career was assisted by support from Vienna through the advocacy of Brahms. Smetana—who wrote both the first famous Czech national opera, The Bartered Bride, and the best-known national cycle of tone poems, Má Vlast—was ironically far more comfortable in German than in the Czech language, and he spent an important part of his career in Sweden.

But despite their affiliation with German culture, both composers became associated with a burgeoning Czech nationalism that blossomed after the Habsburg defeat at the hand of the Prussians in 1866. Once the Habsburg Empire began to crumble, a Prussian-dominated German nation was configured which excluded the Habsburg lands, in which German was spoken, particularly Austria and the lands where these composers were born. Although they were citizens of the same empire as the Germans and Austrians, Dvořák and Smetana came to be seen as Czech nationalists.

It is ironic in the context of the current revival of extreme nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe and the fragility of the European Union that, in retrospect, the multi-national Habsburg Empire may have been a far more promising framework than once thought for the expression of disparate linguistic and cultural autonomy within a tolerant, pluralist governing political structure. But in the late 19th century the Empire, which was centered in Vienna (and after 1867 in Budapest), was seen as archaic and oppressive.

In turn-of-the-century and early twentieth-century Czech musical life, opposing camps emerged: one centered around Smetana (viewed to be the more radical nationalist voice) and one around Dvořák (a figure seen as more loyal, politically, to the Habsburg model). Two of the composers on this program were students of Dvořák: Josef Suk (his son-in-law) and Vítězslav Novák. Like Dvořák, on whose music both Brahms and Wagner exerted influence, Suk and Novák were acutely aware of their leading German-speaking contemporaries, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler (who was born in Moravia). In the cross currents of political ferment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Prague became more than a place in which national sentiment flourished; it became a major center of modernist innovation in literature, art, and music.

Bohuslav Martinů (who spent a great deal of his career in Paris and the United States) was a Czech patriot who felt the trials of exile keenly. He was brilliant and prolific and more of his music deserves to be heard. Schulhoff, who began as an experimental modernist in the Kafka mold, eventually turned to communism. His achievements can be rightly compared to those of his Czech-Jewish German-speaking contemporaries in other fields: Kafka and the writers Egon Erwin Kisch and Max Brod (who played a decisive role in bringing the great original Moravian-Czech composer of the previous generation, Leos Janáček, to international attention during the interwar years). But Schulhoff is now mostly remembered as a victim of the Nazis, and not the major European composer he was.

This concert offers the public an opportunity to sample the achievements of the music that emerged from a tumultuous era of political change. The post-Habsburg development of nationalism, democracy, fascism, anti-Semitism, and socialism all collided in the twenty years of Czechoslovakia after 1918. In 1938, democratic Czechoslovakia was dismembered by the Nazis; after 1945 it fell within the Soviet Empire.

However, the composers on this program all represented a sense of nationalism compatible with a vital cosmopolitan culture, both Czech and German. Their remarkable output is a welcome reminder of the urgent need for an alternative to the narrow xenophobic and provincial nationalisms that have, in recent years, reasserted their allure and power—nationalisms that are unlikely to offer the multi-faceted sources of inspiration that Suk, Novák, Martinů, and Schulhoff drew upon.

On a personal note, I would like to dedicate this concert to the memory of Rudolf Firkušný (1912–94), the consummate musician and phenomenal pianist, student of Janáček’s, and ardent partisan of the democratic Czechoslovakia in which he grew up. It was through Firkušný, a close friend of Martinů’s, that I first became acquainted with the music of the composers on this program, particularly the works of Suk and Novák.


by Michael Beckerman

Written for the concert Prague Central, which was performed on February 10, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

Born December 5, 1870, in Kamenice nad Lipou, Southern Bohemia
Died July 18, 1949, in Skuteč, Czech Republic
Composed in 1902
Premiered on November 25, 1902 in Prague by the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Oskar Nedbal
Performance Time: Approximately 25 minutes

Vítězslav Novák was a gifted and prolific composer who was at the core of Czech musical life in the first decades of the 20th century. Composing in virtually every genre, he has been claimed by both modernists and neo-romantics as a founding figure. He was also at the very center of an ongoing series of artistic feuds about the direction of Czech music, which were a feature of musical life at the time.

In a forthcoming article about the composer, Lenka Krupková refers to his “South Moravian” Suite as a kind of “ethnotourism,” noting that unlike Janáček, Novák had little primary experience with folk culture. Thus according to her, his lovely work is a classic example of a composition by an outsider. Not so with In the Tatras! Novák was deeply familiar with the mountains and had scaled them as a kind of expert climber (he carped that Strauss’ Alpine Symphony was composed from an armchair, and, in fact, three years after composing In the Tatras he was almost killed in a dangerous fall while climbing them).

Mountain music, whether by Strauss or Ralph Vaughan Williams in his Sinfonia Antartica, combines several prototypes or “topics.” First, the music conjures up images of the sublime: a vast, jagged, and open space which dwarfs a human scale and produces wonder and terror. This is readily apparent in Novák’s opening theme with its unison ascent followed by a leap. Second, it involves music of struggle, since such works not only seek to suggest the appearance and nature of mountains, but also engage the relationship of human beings to them. Finally, climbing mountains is not only a matter of engaging the physical challenges of the peak itself, but the kind of weather often encountered by mountaineers reaching toward high summits. So we also have a range of sounds throughout conjuring the music of cold, a kind of vocabulary developed over the centuries, from Purcell through Vivaldi and from Janáček’s “Voice of the Steppe” in House of the Dead to a broad range of cinematic effects associated with icy weather, such as high harmonics, tremolos, and the use of flutes and piccolos.

Michael Beckerman is the Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Music at New York University.