An Introductory Note, in a Darker Tone


One of the great Czech composers, Josef Bohuslav Foerster, wrote at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries that the composer resembles a flower-girl selling her produce in the street: she offers to passersby beauty and relish, and yet most of them walk past her without ever noticing, and the flowers meanwhile keep withering. I fear that today´s composer of the so-called serious or classical music faces an even more frustrating situation. Let´s leave aside for now the question of whether such a composer has only beauty and relish to offer (for I believe this is in most cases not so). What, then, is his or her status?

Surrounded on all sides by an omnipresent pop music whose artistic sights are typically set fairly low and which is characterized by all sorts of wheeling and dealing and by lack of concern with a true depth of expression, the contemporary classical music is languishing on the fringes of public interest, confined to tiny, sorely underfinanced communities. Many professionally trained composers have already resigned themselves to this state of affairs and write only very sparingly, if at all. Others carry on grappling with their condition, striving to break out of the vicious circle. Surprisingly enough, the question why newly composed classical music has got into this situation, is being raised by only few. Some composers – mostly those who tend to regard their output as avant-garde – remain self-assured, notwithstanding the grimness of the whole scene, preferring to explain away the lack of interest in their work by the absence of the audience´s erudition, the conservativeness of interpreters who remain obstinately set in their way of performing over and over again the classic repertoire, and occasionally also by the action of political powers, either those of the past, or present ones. Their attitude towards the section of the public taking to the huge body of classical music, from Palestrina through Britten, is not too far from disdainful.
Now to me personally, this particular section of the audience appears to be quite crucial. Regular symphonic and chamber music concertgoers, customers buying CDs with classical music, listeners of radio and television stations specializing in serious art broadcasts – all of these have accumulated enough auditive experience to recognize safely, even without previous professional training, authentic value in a work of music. To me they are true connoisseurs much rather than being either snobs, as they are often branded by champions of the popular genres in art, or staunch conservatives, as they are labelled, for a change, by diehard proponents of the “avant-garde” movements.
It is exactly this kind of audience that I have aspired all life through to write music for. Myself a listener to music and a hard-working student of sheet music of all periods and styles, I have gradually become acquainted with the complete repertoire of European music – an experience thanks to which I am now perhaps able to compare one thing or another. Therefore today I cannot but identify with the listener who loves the finest works of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and others, while keeping more of a distance from a good deal of 20th-century music. To be sure, works from the above-listed composers happen to be simply better handled, more accomplished, more inventional, down to the last detail. Their musical contents are thoroughly lucid, with each facet in its proper place... What a world of difference from the boundless, essentially improvisational, often ear-plucking mass of sound of indistinct musical content characteristic for so much of contemporary production.
Throughout the 20th century, art kept continually experimenting. This process involved both a noble search for all imaginable innovative approaches to the language of music, and pranks set on sending up the audience, an endless chase after novelty without at the same time consolidating the newly found through an evolutionary step-by-step sequence; as well as a condescending attitude manifested by composers of such music, accompanied by medial massaging of the public in favour of music which was indeed new, yet which was fairly often either watered down at core or not elaborated in depth, in texts penned by writers whose gift to understand music was more often than not bitterly inadequate – with the passage of years, all of this has yielded its inevitable fruits: namely, ever fewer listeners have been ready and willing to accept this kind of experimental music. What more, their mistrust has eventually passed on to all newly composed music, including those works which aspire to deliver a message formulated in an intelligible, accessible idiom.
The question of applied musical language has been the most frequented issue in the course of a substantial part of my professional career as a composer. As will follow from my brief creative biography, I have done my best to deal with this issue with maximum honesty. The clash between my innermost “classical” musical thinking on the one hand, and the demand of a part of the specialist circles for a “modernization” of my musical idiom, has been immense. In my endeavours for a synthesis of the groundwork of my compositional thinking with impulses coming from Musica Nova, I have omitted virtually none of the tendencies associated with the latest innovations in music. In the process, I have accepted more from some of those sources, less from others, and there are things I have not accepted at all... I have seen in my efforts a parallel with that which was exemplified, say, by Shostakovich in his late output (which I have listened to with fascination). Of course I have realized that my attitude places me out of the bounds of many a platform deemed prestigious by most composers. My reward for this has been a number of fine performances of my works in classical music concerts, sympathies of interpreters whom I have respected as the most authoritative professional colleagues, and also, warm reception by the audience.
Today I have ceased to care in the least about how someone or another will judge my music from the viewpoint of style. Personally, I consider the argument that the only correct and viable line of style development to be embraced by the contemporary composer is that charted by Schoenberg – Webern – Darmstadt, and onward, to ignore reality, and to epitomize orthodox intolerance. For where would this kind of reasoning place such composers, ever more copiously performed, as Shostakovich, Poulenc, Britten, Gershwin, Bernstein, and others? Does not the fact of ever more frequent productions of these composers´ works actually document that the much coveted theory of the “only correct avant-garde” line has failed to prove its validity in practice? There exist books, compendiums of music, CD anthologies, wherein the likes of Poulenc, Gershwin or Bernstein are mentioned only marginally or not at all. Here and there they are pigeonholed with contempt as uninteresting, problemmatic, regressive, even possibly harmful to the further development of music.
The above labels have been stuck to my work as well. I cannot say it has always left me unimpressed, and yet eventually I have reached a point where I am able to view this issue with a sense of detachment. In my Requiem of 1991, I set the focus on a quotation from the Ecclesiastes: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. For every deed will be brought into judgement.” In this, I see the manifestation of a standpoint: Here I am, submitting my ideas, my musical imagery, in the belief that at least a handful of minds and hearts will be found who will try sincerely to understand what I have striven to say, and why I have done it in this particular way.