Vitezslav Novak

Vitezslav Novak is considered one of the best Czech classical music composers of the first half of the 20th century. As an old man, he described his own works in the following words: "...my music has always been a reflection of my life."

Professor Jarmila Gabrielova from the Music Department of the Faculty of Arts at Charles University is a specialist in 20th century music, and she says Novak was one of the most outstanding personalities in the history of Czech music:

"Vitezslav Novak was one of the most important Czech composers at the early 20th century. He was born in 1870 in a small town of Kamenice nad Lipou and he came from a very narrow family. He studied at home and he studied in the Southern Bohemian town of Jindrichuv Hradec, where he studied gymnazium and then he decided to study music in Prague - at the Conservatoire of Prague."

Novak's father was a physician, but he died very soon and young Vitezslav had to take care not just of himself but his mother as well, by giving private music lessons. Then the family moved to Prague where Vitezslav started his studies:

"In fact he began to study law as well, and he studied at the conservatory and studied with Antonin Dvorak - composition and piano. In fact first he wanted to become a piano virtuoso and only later on, although he tried to write songs and small piano pieces, even as a student of gymnazium, he then decided to be a composer. He then was active in Prague at the end of the 19th century, in 1890s, as a pianist and as a composer. His early compositions are very romantic - in a Romantic or late Romantic style, it's small piano pieces, songs, but also larger pieces, such as a piano concerto which he played at the end of his piano studies at the conservatoire."

Being a student of Antonin Dvorak, Novak composed his early works under the strong influence of his famous teacher:

"Together with Josef Suk, Novak was the best known pupil of Antonin Dvorak, and in his early years he was definitely influenced by Dvorak, and even by that old, romantic style of music and by such composers as Johannes Brahms or Edvard Grieg and similar kind of music."

Vitezslav Novak liked folklore, and this passion is clearly traceable in his music. To find out more about local folklore traditions, he traveled a lot in Moravia and in Slovakia:

"In fact he discovered for himself folk music only later on, it was in the late 1890s and around 1900, and he travelled to southern Moravia and to Slovakia, where he discovered southern and eastern Moravian and Slovak folklore for himself."

He started to make his own renditions of folk songs, but with a musicality typical of his later works. In the highest Slovak mountains, the Tatras, he is said to have practiced mountaineering as well, and he honoured the giant peaks in one of his famous pieces:

"Among those folkloristic works we can mention his folk ballads like Renosa or other ballads for chorus and orchestra, and also arrangements of folk songs, of Moravian and Slovakian folk songs for voice and piano. Among other works influenced by all those surroundings, not only by folklore and village life, but also by Slovak nature, Slovak mountains for instance, we can mention his symphonic poem 'In the Tatra Mountains' - 'V Tatrach' in Czech, and we can mention his sonata Eroica for piano, in fact a long virtuoso sonata for piano solo, influenced in its motive shape and in its style by some folkloristic elements."

As we hear from Professor Gabrielova, Novak also wrote larger compositions, including several operas, but they have never won much fame:

"He wrote operas, but also later on, late in his life. We should also say - his splendid, or best period of composition are the years, say, until 1910 or 1914, until the First World War, there are those folkloristic works and there are also some other works that I could mention, for instance his piano cycle and later on orchestra cycle called 'Pan', and also his cantata 'Boure' - 'The Storm' and other works. As far as his operas are concerned, he wrote them only later on in his life, for instance during WWII he wrote his historic opera 'Karlstejn', and then other operas, for instance after a play by Alois Jirasek, 'Lucerna' or 'The Lantern' and 'Deduv odkaz" whose English translation is 'Grandfather's Legacy', but none of them was a big success."

With his most fruitful years in the first decade of the 20th century, I asked Professor Gabrielova how popular Novak was later on, in what we call 'the First Republic', that's Czechoslovakia between the two world wars:

"He was a highly appreciated composer. Another important thing about him was that he succeeded Dvorak as a professor of composition at Prague conservatoire, and he was a marvelous teacher. He had hundreds of students and he followed this career, his teaching career until the late 1930s and in this time of the First Republic, he had many students not only from Czechoslovakia, but also from many other European countries, especially from other Slavonic countries, from Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and so on. I guess his last student who is still alive is Czech composer Ilja Hurnik."

Finally I asked Professor Gabrielova if Vitezslav Novak had a family:

"He married at the age of forty, quite late in his life, and he had one son, Jaroslav Novak, who became a painter."