Jaroslav Jezek: co-creator of the Czech inter-war modern movement.


At the beginning of autumn last year a hundred years had passed since the birth of the remarkable Czech composer, phenomenal pianist and elemental musician Jaroslav Jezek (25th September 1906-1st January 1942). 2006 was generally a year in which great musical anniversaries were celebrated, with concerts commemorating Mozart, Schumann, and Shostakovich taking place throughout the world, but Jezek seems to have been rather forgotten in his homeland, the Czech Republic, even though he was part of an important chapter in modern Czech history, and not only in the field of music.

The 1920s in Czechoslovakia

Jezek was very much a representative of inter-war Czechoslovakia--the first independent republic, born on the 28th of October 1918, in which Czechs invested so many hopes after four years of devastating war. His personality resonated perfectly with the spirit of the time, the spirit of inter-war Europe, which the 1st World War had definitively severed from the last offshoots of Late Romanticism. Jezek belonged to the generation born soon after 1900, which not yet had time to make its mark before the war. In 1918, however, it entered the scene with enormous energy, welling from the desire to survive, to enjoy life at full tilt and with the new jazz rhythms and wild dancing to drown out the disillusion produced by the corrosive experience of war. The twenties were a time of intoxication with jazz and the American dance rhythms of the foxtrot and charleston, the time of the first films, when people were fascinated by the speed of automobiles and aeroplanes, and the telephone and radio were ceasing to be rarities. The first post-war decade was building its own new world from scratch, without anyone realising how short its life would be. Over the period 1920-1949 the dominant style in the arts was Art Deco, which with its orientation to the applied arts spread to all fields of human activity. The different branches of the arts were characterised by a succession of -isms, some of them ephemeral. There was an inexhaustible number of models and inspirations for creative artists.


Even between the wars there were plenty of traditionalists defending academicism, but these were ever more often confronted with the innovative spirit of their younger colleagues. Experienced teachers at the Prague Conservatory recognised the talent of the young student Jezek and understood that for him classical education and academic grounding were only a springboard to a new life, but they nonetheless were prepared to meet him halfway. Even strict authorities in the mould of K. B. Jirak were of help to the young Jezek, and another important Czech composer, Josef Suk, was generous in his praise.


Jaroslav Jezek was born on the 25th of September 1906 in the Prague district of Zizkov as the son of a ladies' tailor Adolf Jezek and his wife, who was to give birth two years later to his sister Jarmila. Jaroslav started to attend general school, but after two years his teacher recommended that his parents send him to an institute for children with poor sight, since at three he had lost his right eye after a third unsuccessful operation and he had only minimal sight in his left eye. To make matters worse, scarlet fever had left him with a festering infection in both ears which had failed to heal and permanently impaired in his hearing. As we know from the example of many other composers, nature often compensates for physical handicap by endowing the afflicted man or woman with an inner life of unusual perceptiveness, imagination and acuity, which when combined with an enormously strong will, zest for life and heightened intensity of experience becomes fertile soil for the growth of an artist of genius.

After the outbreak of the 1st World War Jezek's father was called up and so committed his son to the Hradcany Institute for the Education and Treatment of Blind and Poorly Sighted Children. Here Jaroslav was to remain from September 1914 to February 1921 and to learn, among other things, to play the piano, cello, clarinet and guitar, a certain amount of harmony and experience in choral singing. When the war ended his sick father returned home and in 1921 the family moved into a new flat in Kaprova Street no. 10 in the Old Town, where today you can visit the Jaroslav Jezek Museum and the famous "Blue Room" with Jezek's original piano (a Steinway, model M, New York 1927-28).

By now the young Jezek was set on pursuing a career in music and initially planned to study musicology at Prague's Charles University. He was not admitted, however, because he lacked the prescribed education, and so applied to the Prague Conservatory instead. The history of Jezek as composer started in 1924, i.e. before the starry epoch of the Liberated Theatre (Osvobozene Theatre) that we shall be talking about below. In 1924 the eighteen-year-old Jezek went to audition at the piano department of the Prague Conservatory and surprised the committee by the unusual choice of pieces that he intended to play. He avoided chronically well-known "classics" and played Maurice Ravel's three-movement Sonatina in F sharp major (1905) and Hindemith's Boston from the "1922" Piano Suite. But while the young pianist amazed the committee with his skill and choice of modern pieces, he was not accepted for piano studies on account of his blindness. He was therefore offered the alternative of composition studies and his abilities in this respect were tested at the entrance examination by the composers K. B. Jirak and Alois Haba. Jezek started studying composition in the department headed by the strict Professor Jirak, and in 1925 he was finally accepted into the piano department as well, under Prof. Albin Sima. He also attended Haba's course in quarter-tone music, and as a result wrote a Suite for Quarter-tone Piano in 1927.

This was merely an experiment and part of a search for new ways of composing, however, and he did not go further along the quarter-tone road in his subsequent work. Following all the new international developments in composing as he did, Jezek naturally also encountered the twelvetone technique of Arnold Schoenberg. What most appealed to him, however, were the dance rhythms that were filling inter-war Europe at the time and were an expression of joy at the end of the 1st World War and the desire to live at full throttle

Jaroslav Jezek was drawn to older classical dances (the waltz and polka) but above all to the modern dances that were often imports from the American continent (charleston, foxtrot, etc). He never drew a very precise line between these popular dances with their rhythms and jazz elements and the fields of serious classical music and their musical forms that he studied intensively under the exacting supervision of K. B. Jirak. As a result, even his early graduation piece Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (first performed on the 23rd of June 1927 in Prague, by the Czech Philharmonic conducted by K. B. Jirak) is a kind of prototype of "symphonic jazz", as it was perceptively called by the music journalist, pianist, frequent performer of Jezek's pieces and his friend of many years Vaclav Holzknecht (1904-88) in one of Holzknecht's Jezek monographs. This piano concerto is divided into three movements, but the 1st movement is written as a foxtrot, the 2nd movement as a tango and the 3rd movement as a charleston. This method of synthesising a major three-part symphonic musical form with the most modern dance rhythms and the attempt to stylise original jazz into something on a higher level and so create a new type of concert music was in itself a very audacious innovative move in the Czech environment.


The Spell of Gershwin

In the composition of his graduation concerto Jaroslav Jezek was evidently already following in the footsteps of his beloved George Gershwin (1898-1937), whose works he had got to know during studies at the Prague Conservatory (affected by a wave of modernism) and whom he hugely admired. He was absolutely dazzled by Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, as he himself testified, "It was in this environment that I first heard Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and even today I would not be able to find words for the dizzy intoxication with the record produced in me. What I had been unconsciously moving towards and what I had looked for in dance albums and in the poor piano arrangements of unknown piano composers stood before me unexpectedly in the utmost splendour, in complete perfection of form, in sensual seductiveness of content, in the exoticism of colours, sounds and rhythms. I tried to write something similar, but I lost courage at the first attempt and left my first composition unfinished--it was already a foxtrot for piano with orchestra. I began to master jazz in stylised form, composing songs on texts by Nezval 1), Seifert 2) and the contemporary French poets, and tested the ground in small works for the Liberated Theatre ... I spent my apprentice years over a gramophone and I needed very good ears to be able to make out from the final sound of the record all the instruments and all the finesses of sound and rhythm that I had to get to know. Let me assure people who classify jazz under light music that I learned at first hand just what unusually hard music it is ..."

These are words that underline Jezek's refusal to draw a distinction between the serious music taught at conservatories and all the rest--light or even decadent music, and the fact that unlike many academics he was afflicted with no prejudices. Thanks to his classical training he could identify the complex harmonic techniques in jazz and in Gershwin, for example, the complexity of form filled with a new contemporary content. Probably what most attracted him to jazz were the wild rhythms and syncopation that were otherwise unusual on Czech terrain. He was brilliant in his ability to combine jazz techniques with charming Czech melody, in the same way that Gershwin, from a Russian Jewish family, saturated his jazz pieces with East European inspirations. Indeed, the combination of strong rhythmic elements with lyrical cantilena was a major element of music by the Russian composers, such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich.

The synthesis of classical techniques of composition and jazz breakthroughs often involved audacious constructs that could not easily be classified either as classical music or popular music. From the beginning Jezek's work therefore encountered a lack of sympathy and comprehension in conservative Prague circles, but fortunately he found full support among his closest friends and in avant-garde circles. Moreover, not only could he rely on many members of his own generation (friends and fellow-students from the Prague conservatory), but his piano teacher Albin Sima (1886-1951), and the traditionally minded K. B. Jirak stood behind him, and even the great Czech composer Josef Suk (1874-1935), under whom Jezek obtained his diploma in the master composition class in 1929, was full of praise.

Stay in Paris

Apart from his traditional training at the Prague Conservatory Jezek gained valuable experience during a six-month stay in Paris (January to June 1928), and it was evidently in Paris that he conceived his admiration for Prokofiev and above all for Stravinsky, whose music he heard for example at performances by the legendary Diaghilev Ballet. As we know from his diary, he also attended a lot of operas, but could afford to go to only a few large concerts. He got to know some of the music of the composers of " Les Six" and alongside the predominantly cabaret aesthetic of the Six also noticed serious major works, such as Honegger's opera-oratorio Judita on a biblical theme. In terms of impact on his musical imagination, the deepest traces left by his months in Paris were probably those of the works of Igor Stravinsky, the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu who was living in Paris at the time, and, unconsciously, impressionist compositional elements from Claude Debussy (above all work with the colour of keys and harmonies in some piano pieces, whole-tone sequences and suchlike), about whom he wrote in depth as part of his journalistic activity for Czech periodicals (Cesky svet, Rozpravy Aventina and others). In the 1920s Jezek also collaborated with the poet Vitezslav Nezval and the Devetsil Group of artists, one result being Jezek's stage music (1927) for Jean Cocteau's play The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party (by coincidence a piece of the same name had been jointly produced by members of the Six in 1919). The arts group Devetsil was active in the years 1920-31 and was one of the main centres of the Czech avant-garde in the 1920s.


Jezek and the Liberated Theatre

Among Czechs, Jezek is associated above all with the legendary Liberated Theatre and the many popular songs that interlarded the plays by the theatre's writer-performer duo Jiri Voskovec (real name Wachsmann) and Jan Werich (both cult figures who enriched the Czech scene with their distinctive intellectual humour that developed from dadaist jokes to political satire). In brief encyclopaedia entries Jaroslav Jezek appears as the "hitmaker" and member of the theatrical authorial trio Voskovec-Werich-Jezek. This characterisation is, however, rather one-sided, because the classically trained Jezek also composed music in major forms and wrote a number of commissioned works that were performed at concerts of the Society for Modern Music in Prague or at the Manes Society (in the 1930s).


The Manes Music Group was another important Prague avant-garde grouping and existed as an element of the Manes Fine Art Society (founded by students of art school in 1887). In the 1930s it carried on the legacy of the Devetsil group in many respects. The musical chapter of the history of Manes opened on the 16th of December 1932 with an evening of music to verses by Vitezslav Nezval. The society, whose members were the composers F. Bartos, P. Borkovec, J. Jezek, I. Krejci and V. Holzknecht, focused on the presentation of Czech and European music (above all French and Russian). The artist Adolf Hoffmeister has left us testimony of how Jezek loved art as well as music and how comfortable he felt in the company of the "Manes" painters. At a time when he was constantly coming up against ossified academicism and a failure to understand his works in conservative music circles, the open minds of the artists of the Manes circle was a great stimulus for him.


Let us go back, however, to the history of Jezek's collaboration with the Liberated Theatre. Jezek got together with Voskovec and Werich and their Liberated Theatre (it existed from 1927) after his return from Paris (where by the way he wrote his remarkable five-part Petite Suite for piano) in 1928. The revue Premiera Skafandr [Diving Suit Premiere], the first joint work of the three authors, was premiered in the spring of 1929. It included one of Jezek's most popular hits--the foxtrot Tri straznici [The Three Policemen] which was later incorporated into the play Ostrov Dynamit [Dynamite Island] of 1930.

In addition to intensive work with Voskovec and Werich, Jezek continued to compose songs on texts by Czech and French poets and was also busy with piano music, while in 1928 he also wrote a two-part ballet, Nervy [Nerves] with short vocal finale. Nor did Jezek avoid chamber music; in 1927 he wrote a Wind Quartet for Flute, Two Clarinets and Bassoon and four years later a Wind Quintet. In the 1930s he inclined more to stringed instruments, writing his 1st String Quartet (1932), the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1933), and Duet for Two Violins (1934). Jezek was well able to cope with a large symphonic orchestra, as well. In 1930 he composed his Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra which developed the line marked out by his graduation piano concerto of 1927. In 1930 he wrote a Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra which was performed in the same year in Prague by the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Vaclav Talich. In 1936 Jezek set to work on his Symphonic Poem.

The 1930s was also a very fertile period for his film music. Apart from the film Ze soboty na nedeli [From Saturday to Sunday] by director Gustav Machaty (1931), there were all the films from the Voskovec and Werich studio: Pudr a benzin [Powder and Petrol] (1931), Penize nebo zivot [Your Money or Your Life] (1932), Hej rup [Heave Ho] (1934), Svet patri nam [The World Belongs to Us] (1937). In 1933 Jaroslav Jezek added to his piano work with ten Bagatelles, later arranged into a single cycle. 1933 was also the year when he wrote the piano Etude, which was premiered with the bagatelles by V. Holzknecht at a concert on the 26th of January 1933 at Manes. The last piano piece that he composed in Bohemia is the Rhapsody of 1938.

During the 1930s, however, Jezek gave precedence to intensive work for the Liberated Theatre, helping to create a long series of legendary theatrical productions full of distinctive humour and political satire with a relevance that was to endure into later periods of Czech history. The verbal acrobatics of the scripts were brilliantly complemented by the immanent wit of Jezek's music, and the result was a quite extraordinary symbiosis of a kind seen only in a very few other cases (for example the collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, whose Threepenny Opera of 1928 is among the most successful attempts at synthesising jazz and classical music). The most famous plays of the Liberated Theatre include Fata Morgana [The Mirage] (1929), Ostrov dynamit [Dynamite Island] (1930), Sever proti Jihu [North against South] (1930), and Don Juan a comp. [Don Juan & Co.] (1931), featuring the today celebrated Bugatti step, written in honour of the Czech female racing driver Eliska Junkova, the star of many automobile races of the 1930s in her Bugatti. The Bugatti step became popular both in piano and orchestral form. Among other Liberated Theatre cult plays we should mention: Golem (1931), Caesar (1932), Robin Zbojnik [Robin Hood] (1932), Svet za mrizemi [World behind Bars] (1933)--containing the famous blues number Zivot je jen nahoda [Life is Just Chance], Osel a stin [The Donkey and the Shadow] (1933), Slameny klobouk [The Straw Hat] (1934), Kat a blazen [The Hangman and the Fool] (1934), Vzdy s usmevem [Always with a Smile] (1935), Panoptikum (1935), Balada z hadru [ Ragtag Ballad] (1935), Nebe na zemi [Heaven and Earth] (1936), Rub a lic [Front and Back] (1936), Tezka Barbora [Heavy Barbara] (1937), and Pest na oko [A Sore Thumb] (1938). This huge output and the innovative creative technique of the authorial trio of Voskovec-Werich-Jezek makes it clear that the 1930s witnessed a whole new chapter in Czech theatre. A number of later performers tried to imitate and develop the tradition, but the central clown duo of Voskovec and Werich remained matchless. The Liberated Theatre existed in the years 1927-38, and after its forced closure in 1939 Voskovec, Werich and Jaroslav Jezek all emigrated to the USA.


Last Years in the USA

In America a new, if rather sad and short chapter, opened in the life of Jaroslav Jezek. Jezek performed with Voskovec and Werich for Czech Americans and expatriates, and the three were given a warm welcome because everyone was interested in the fate of the first Czech emigrants and felt for them. In the USA Jezek managed to put together a Czechoslovak Choir, which he conducted himself. Work was the only activity that could distract Jezek from depression and homesickness for his country, for Prague, and for his mother. He suffered from pain in the inner ear and kidney disease, but he still went on composing. In 1939 he wrote a piano Toccata, reminiscent of Sergei Prokofiev in its rhythmical energy. His concerts with the choir meant that he did not complete his Piano Sonata until March 1941. Jaroslav Jezek finally succumbed to ill-health at the tragically early age of thirty-five, dying of kidney failure on the 1st of January 1942 in the Cornell University Hospital in New York. His funeral on the 4th of January was attended by his friends, members of the choir and other figures from the world of the arts. After the war, on the 5th of January 1947, the government of the Czechoslovak Republic held a memorial ceremony in the House of Artists in Prague, followed by the interment of his remains in the cemetery at Olsany.


Yet if Jaroslav Jezek died more than half a century ago, his music lives on and the dynamic and multifaceted development of jazz in the 20th century has shown how right he was, when with enormous intuition he sensed the durability and authenticity of this kind of music. Although he had a great fondness for composing stage music and a masterly ability to characterise different people and situations, he was never tempted, for example, to venture into the world of opera. His intuition seems to have told him that new branches of music theatre and film would shift the main interests of the public and composers elsewhere. Inter-war revue and cabaret were reborn as musical in the later 20th century, and today musicals are very much the fashion. Few people are aware, however, of the roots of today's trends. In this sense the inter-war Czech musical avant-garde should be seen as the preface to the development of Czech popular music from 1945 to the present day. This is yet another reason why Jaroslav Jezek has a unique and essential place in the history of Czech music.

1 Vitezslav Nezval (1900-1958) -- Czech poet, writer, and translator, in the 1920s he was one of the founders of the poetist movement and in the 1930s he turned to surrealism.
2 Jaroslav Seifert (1901-1986) -- Czech poet and translator, in 1984 he became so far the only Czech to win the Nobel Prize for literature.




February 27, 2007 | Tue., Dvorak Hall of Rudolfinum, 7:30 p.m.
February 28, 2007 | Wed., Smetana Hall of Municipal House, 7:30 p.m.
Soloist: EUGEN INDJIC | piano

March 21, 2007 | Wed., Smetana Hall of Municipal House, 7:30 p.m.

April 12, 2007 | Thr., Smetana Hall of Municipal House, 7:30 p.m.
Conductor: JIRI KOUT

PRAGUE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA was founded in 1934 by the conductor and organizer of musical events Rudolf Pekarek. Along with the repertoire of a regular symphony orchestra, the Prague Symphony Orchestra's pursuits, during the first years of its existence, included the promotion and performance of film and operatic music. That accounts for part of its Czech title, FOK, which stands for the words Film--Opera--Koncert.

The Orchestra's artistic development and interpretative style were influenced and shaped to a large extent by two conductors, each of whom led the Prague Symphony Orchestra for a long period of time. They were Vaclav Smetacek, Chief Conductor in 1942-1972, and Jiri Belohlavek, Chief Conductor in 1977-1989. Besides Smetacek and Belohlavek, there were also other distinguished conductors bringing their personal stamp to the Prague Symphony Orchestra: Chief Conductors Ladislav Slovak, Petr Altrichter, Martin Turnovsky, and Gaetano Delogu, assisted by conductors Vaclav Neumann, Zdenek Kosler, and Vladimir Valek, who all collaborated with the Orchestra over long periods of time.

From the 2006/2007 concert season on, JIRI KOUT has been holding the position of Chief Conductor of the Orchestra. Serge Baudo is the Conductor Laureate, Petr Altrichter is Guest Conductor and Libor Pesek is the Principal Guest Conductor.

Each season, the Prague Symphony Orchestra undertakes major tours to share its music with audiences around the world, and performs at renowned international music.

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