Magazine article Czech Music

Jan Novar: Musician and Humanist

Magazine article Czech Music

Jan Novar: Musician and Humanist

Article excerpt


Jan Novak was born on 8 April 1921 in Nova Rise in Moravia. In 1933 he enrolled at the Jesuit Grammar School in Velehrad, which provided a first-class classical education, with emphasis being placed on languages (in addition to Latin and Greek, Russian, German and Esperanto were taught there). Yet owing to his transgressing the strict discipline that reigned at the institution he was expelled. Novak completed his secondary education at the Classical Grammar School in Brno and subsequently attended the Brno Conservatory, where he studied composition (with Vilem Petrzelka), the piano and conducting. After spending two and a half years in Germany as a forced labourer, in 1945 he resumed his studies at the Brno Conservatory and after graduating in 1946 began attending the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, where he studied with Pavel Borkovec, before returning to Brno to enrol at the newly founded Janacek Academy of Music and Performing Arts.

As a recipient of a scholarship from the Jaroslav Jezek Foundation, from June 1947 to February 1948 he studied in the USA, first participating in the summer composition master classes at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood (in the class of Aaron Copland) and subsequently taking private lessons from Bohuslav Martina in New York. The criticism Martina initially levelled against Novak's work (highlighting the somewhat awkward treatment of themes and sloppiness in development of motifs), first acted like a "cold shower" on the fledgling composer. After recovering from the initial shock, however, he experienced a learning curve he would never forget, with the time spent with Martina and their friendship playing a crucial role in his evolution. Novak returned to Czechoslovakia in February 1948, at the time of the Communist coup. He settled in Brno, mainly earning his living by composing music for short and puppet films, radio and theatre plays, and by giving performances in a piano duo with his wife Eliska Novakova. His works dating from the 1950s, revealing a distinct Martina influence, were symbolically ushered in by the Variations on a Bohuslav Marlinu Theme for two pianos (1949) and its arrangement for orchestra (1959). Attention was also gained by his symphonic and concertante pieces (e.g. the Oboe concerto written in 1952).

In the 1960s, Novak further extended his range of genres and compositional means; for a short time he employed elements of dodecaphony and aleatoricism in his compositions, first applying the twelve-tone technique as a thematic material in the middle section of his Capriccio for cello and small orchestra (1958), with the chamber piece Passer Catulli (1962) being considered one of the apices of this phase. In 1963 he co-founded "Creative Group A", made up of Brno-based composers and musicologists. From the end of the 195os, a vital role in his creation was played by his penchant for Latin. The original use of the Latin meter while respecting the proportion between long and short syllables would serve as an impulse for his entire further work.

A liberal-minded composer who always avowed his artistic and civic opinions, Novak ran into trouble with the official authorities and the dogmatism of the Czechoslovak Union of Composers, who with great difficulty tolerated his openness and "commotions";after in 19 61 he refused to participate in the election of lay judges, he was briefly expelled from the organisation, subordinate to the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Paradoxically, however, at that time he received commissions from leading Czech and Slovak film directors and created music for Karel Kachyna (Suffering, Coach to Vienna, Night of the Bride, etc.), Jiri Trnka (The Cybernetic Grandma), Karel Zeman (The Stolen Airship) and Martin Holly (Raven's Road).

Novak's experience with film and incidental music also manifested itself in the extreme dramatic forcibility of his cantata Dido (1967) for mezzo-soprano, narrator, male chorus and orchestra to Book 4 of Virgil's Aeneid, his paramount work prior to emigration. …

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