"Hey Master, get up, quickly!" Those are the opening words of the most famous piece of Czech Christmas Music. Composed by a small-town teacher, Jakub Jan Ryba, in 1896, "Ceska mse vanocni" or "Czech Christmas Mass" has the structure of a classic pastoral mass - only it is not located at Jesus Christ's birthplace but somewhere in snow-covered Central Bohemia. The lyrics describe a village scene where a farm hand wakes up his master to tell him about a strange heavenly light. The master is a little morose at first but then he gets up to have a look and sees the Star of Bethlehem.
Jakub Jan Ryba was born in 1765 in the village of Prestice in West Bohemia to the family of a village teacher. Little Jakub received his first music lessons from his father. Seeing his talent, Jakub's uncle, a priest and an outstanding tenor, took his nephew to Prague to further his education. During his studies Jakub Jan Ryba sang with a Gregorian choir, played in a quartet and composed his first pieces. Those years were probably the happiest in Ryba's life. He dreamed of a composer's career but his father's illness made him return home and earn his living as a village teacher.
In 1788, Jakub Jan Ryba got a teacher's position in the small town of Rozmital, where he lived for the rest of his life with his large family. In his free time, Ryba composed over 1,400 pieces, both religious and non-religious. His works included thirty masses as well as songs composed to Czech folk lyrics, arias, sonatas, quartets, concertos and symphonies.
But Jakub Jan Ryba did not live to see his work appreciated. As a champion of educational and social reforms he got into conflict with the local priest and authorities in Rozmital. Jakub Jan Ryba finally could no longer bear the mounting pressure and the struggle to feed his large family and on April 8, 1815, after the morning mass, he took his own life. But the merry tones of Jakub Jan Ryba's Czech Christmas Mass bear no signs of his personal tragedy. After his death the piece spread quickly around the country to become the most popular Christmas mass, one that no Czech Christmas would be complete without.