Bohemia's claim for freedom/Bohemian music

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WHILE the Bohemians have always endeavoured to contribute their share to the advancement of art and science, it is in the department of music that they have won a most distinguished place in the front rank of civilised nations. In this art Bohemians have been prominent from ancient times. We must content ourselves with giving but a short sketch of musical history from the early part of the sixteenth century.

At this time we meet with the remarkably fine choral compositions of Jan Trojan Turnovsky, whose work, chiefly written for the service of the church, were mainly in the form of sacred songs and anthems for male voices. Some years his junior was Kristof Harant z Polzic, whose works exhibit marks of the influence of Palestrina—particularly in their harmonies. His contemporary was Jan Blahoslav, author of the first book on musical theory published in Bohemia, and one of the Bohemian Brethren under whose auspices so much good work was accomplished. During this period the choral singing of the male voice choirs reached a high standard of excellence.

Religious societies called "Sbory literatske" that numbered amongst them the wealthiest burghers of every town, were warm supporters of musical art, spending large sums in providing hymn-books, existing copies of which works now command a very high price.

In the seventeenth century the use of instrumental music in churches became more general, and Bohemians were to be found in every country where good instrumentalists were in demand. The style of Bohemian music in the eighteenth century has a strongly marked national character both in the melodies and their harmonic treatment, as shown in the compositions of the masters of counterpoint.

To the end of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth, the leadership in all that pertained to art was acknowledged by the musical world to be in the masterly hands of Beethoven and Mozart. Numbered in the ranks of their enthusiastic followers in Bohemia were the leading national composers, such as the refined and poetic pianist Jan Lad. Dusek and Mozart's great admirer, Vaclav Jan Tomasek.

During the reign of the romantic school in Germany the first original Bohemian opera was composed by that excellent musician Frant Skroup.

The earnest study of the beauties of national songs was the source of inspiration which led to the production of some characteristic works. The compositions of Bedrich Smetana exhibit to a marked degree the special beauties of the genuine Bohemian style. Although to a certain extent
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influenced by Wagner, Smetana preferred the lyric and simple melodious form as being more in keeping with the Slavonic spirit. He is the composer of eight operas, of which the most popular are those illustrative of country life. His compositions have a wide range; as in addition to the operatic works referred to, he produced some of the most successful comic operas ever performed in Bohemia. The unquestioned merits of his many and varied works warrant his recognition as the founder of the modern Bohemian School of Composition.

Smetana's heir, as a worthy representative of the purely Slavonic in musical composition, was Antonin Dvorak, whose name is well known in England, where his fame is acknowledged by the frequent performance of many of his best works by the principal choral and orchestral societies.

Dvorak's start in life was very humble; he had more difficulties to overcome in the pursuit of education than the majority even of music's least favoured sons. But at first gradually, then rapidly, he advanced to fame, and the world's verdict was that in him a great master had arisen. The work which won for him the ear of all Europe was his "Stabat Mater," which speedily became a favourite especially in England, where it was first performed by the London Musical Society in 1883. This work rises above the strong influences of national feeling so generally found, as we have before remarked, in Dvorak's writings, and reaches a more cosmopolitan atmosphere challenging comparison with the most universally accepted settings of the Latin Hymn. Other compositions are songs, very spontaneous and delicate, and pianoforte compositions, in all of which he has made very large use of national melodies and dance rhythms; also chamber music of great beauty.

Dvorak is a prominent example of the eagerness with which a certain school turned to folk-song and national dance as a fountain of inspiration. So long accustomed to Teutonic leadership, musical Europe gladly heard the new rhythms and strange harmonic effects of the Slav races. The characteristics of Dvorak's compositions are, first, the strong Czech element which pervades them and displays itself in characteristic rhythmical effects and relations of tonalities peculiar to Western ears; secondly, the economical and often extremely clever use of small thematic material.

Worthy to be associated with the names of Smetana and Dvorak is that of Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900), who ranks high as a composer of symphonies, grand overtures, and chamber music. His songs are very popular, but his most important works are in the form of grand opera, written after the style of Wagner. Fibich shows marked individuality in this art, which is refined and serious but not particularly expressive of Bohemian national feeling.

Other of Smetana's contemporaries and followers are Karel Bendl, Karel Sebor, Richard Rozkosny, Vilem Blodek, Jan Malat, and V. J. Novotny. Of the younger generation we have Dvorak's and Fibich's very promising pupils, Jos. B. Foerster, Karel Weiss, and Karel Kovarovic, now Director of the Opera of the Bohemian National Theatre. All these have produced works of excellent qualities. Amongst those who go on more independent lines are Lud Lostak, Lad. Celansky in Bohemia, Leo Janacek in Moravia.

Orchestral music and works for the piano and stringed instruments by Vitezslav Novak (1870) enjoy a well-deserved reputation for melodiousness and good scoring. With him must be associated Josef Suk, because the two afford an excellent contrast in style. The former is a strong upholder of national music of the Slovaks in Moravia and Northern Hungary and an extreme modernest in his symphonic songs and poems. Josef Suk, on the contrary, has a disposition for classic originals, compositions remarkable for their brilliant harmonic colouring as well as the flow of melody, reminding us strongly of the style of Dvorak.

The theory and history of the art has a growing literature to which have contributed Professor Otakar Hostinsky, Karel Stecker Eman. Chvala, and Karel Knittl. The Prague Conservatoire of Music, the first academy of music established in Austria, will soon complete its first century of beneficial work. The following are the names of violin pupils of the Prague Conservatoire who have won special distinction as artists: Fr. Ondricek, Fl. Zajic, Karel Hoffman (first violin in the famous Bohemian quartetto), V. Kopta, and the pupils of Professor Otakar Sevcik, Jaroslav Kocian and the world-famed Jan Kubelik.

In addition to the National Opera Theatre in Prague, which produces works of the highest class, there are good opera houses in Plzen and Brno. The art has the support of several excellent musical periodicals, journals, and gazettes, among which we would mention "Smetana" and "Dalibor."