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)

By Smolka, Jaroslav | Czech Music, April 2005 | Go to article overview

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)


Smolka, Jaroslav, Czech Music


As a child, the Czech composer Zdenek Fibich (21st of December 1850 Vseborice u Dolnich Kralovic-12th of October 1900 Prague) developed a love of the nature that surrounded the family home of his father, a forester, while his mother made sure he acquired a knowledge and love of the arts. He received a general education at gymnasiums in Vienna and in Prague, and also a specialist music education. At fifteen he was for four months a pupil of Bedrich Smetana at his music institute in the Lazansky Palace in Prague. Subsequently he studied with Ignaz Moscheles at the conservatory in Leipzig, where the famous Samuel Jadassohn, for example, taught him music theory. He then continued his studies with periods in Paris and Mannheim. In 1871 he returned to Prague. In the years 1873-74 he studied in Vilnius, but could not get used to the place. From 1871 he lived permanently in Prague, where he privately taught music and worked as choirmaster. For several seasons he was second capelmeister of the Czech opera, and before the end of his life he was programme director of the opera of the National Theatre. He also publicly performed as a pianist, but he regarded composing as his main activity.

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. …

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