10 best Czech composers

Who were the most significant Czech composers of all time?

Published: May 3, 2022 at 1:27 pm
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The contribution of Czech composers to the history of Western classical music has long been widely appreciated. Still, when compiling a list of them, one tends to come up with just a few big names, generally starting with Antonín Dvořák.

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So here is a quick introduction to ten composers, both past and present, who remind us why the Czechs are so highly valued for their musical heritage.

1. Antonín Dvořák (pictured)

Born in a village near Prague, the son of a butcher and innkeeper, Dvořák grew up steeped in the folk traditions of his native Bohemia. As a boy he played the violin in his village band. As an adult he continued to draw on his knowledge of Czech folk melodies and rhythms, following the example of his predecessor Bedřich Smetana, to become one of the most prolific and best known composers in the world.

Although his career took a while to get going - the self-critical composer even burnt some of his early works - Dvořák found a champion in the composer Johannes Brahms. On his recommendation, the publisher Simrock commissioned Dvořák to write some Slavonic Dances, which, with their irrepressible energy and infectious melodies, continue to rank among Dvořák’s most popular works. Brahms’s influence would prove to be a constant thread in the composer’s life and music - you can hear it in particular in his boisterous Sixth Symphony. A stint spent living and working in America, also rubbed off on his music. ‘I know that I would never have written my new symphony, or the String Quartet in F major, or the quintet here in Spillville, if I had never seen America!’ the composer wrote. Nonetheless, Dvořák’s first loyalty was always to the folk idiom of his homeland, which, when combined with a trademark bitter-sweetness, resulted in some of his finest works, among them his opera Rusalka, his Symphony No. 9 ‘From the New World’ and his yearning, nostalgic Cello Concerto in B minor.

Recommended work:

Cello Concerto in B minor (Alisa Weilerstein/Czech Philharmonic/Jiří Bělohlávek)

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2.Bedřich Smetana

Despite growing up under Hapsburg rule, when German - not Czech - was the main language of his household, Smetana came to be widely regarded as the founding father of Czech nationalism. Czech folk music can be found in all his music, and, though he was not the first composer to write operas in the Czech language, the eight that he wrote were the first in the classical repertoire to have survived. His life was marked by tragedies: his first wife died of tuberculosis, three of his four children died at very young ages. For a long time, he fought poverty and a lack of recognition in his own country. At 50, he turned deaf and, later on, was plagued by hallucinations until he was eventually interned in a mental asylum. Yet his output was considerable, with some of his finest works composed when he could no longer hear them. The final movement of his String Quartet in E minor is punctuated by a piercing high E which, the composer explained, represented the effect of his tinnitus. Outside the Czech Republic, he is best known as the composer of Má Vlast (My Fatherland), his six-part cycle of symphonic poems - a work awash with folk music - that pays tribute to Czech nature and history.

Recommended work:

Má Vlast (Czech Philharmonic/Jiří Bělohlávek)

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3. Leoš Janáček

One of the most original, and eccentric, composers of the last two hundred years, Janáček divided his allegiances between the folk-infused aesthetic of Dvořák, and the thornier sound-world of 20th century modernism. He spent almost his whole life in Brno, Moravia, where, for a long time, he worked as a teacher, and remained little known as a composer. Then, in his fifties, came Jenůfa - his gritty, intensely dramatic opera about infanticide, and a work that profiled Janáček’s flair for lyricism and expressiveness, his striking orchestration and his imitation of speech patterns in melody. It was a huge success, and he went on to produce a series of masterpieces in his final decade, including two string quartets, the Sinfonietta and the Glagolitic Mass, and four great operas: Kát’a Kabanová (1921), The Cunning Little Vixen (1924), The Makropulos Case (1926) and From the House of the Dead (1930, performed posthumously) - all four in part inspired by the composer’s passion for Kamila Stösslová, a married woman nearly forty years his junior.

Recommended work:

Jenůfa (Wiener Philharmoniker/Charles Mackerras)

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4.Bohuslav Martinů

The son of a fire watchman and shoemaker, Martinů spent his earliest years in a church tower overlooking the Czech-Moravian highlands. Later in life, Martinů would attribute the cool, objective quality of his music to this early experience, looking at people and places from afar. Though initially a distracted student, he established himself as a composer in both Prague and Paris before the Nazi invasion of France forced him to flee to the United States, where he continued to compose prolifically. Breaking completely with the Czech Romantic tradition embraced by his predecessors Dvořák and Smetana, he drew influence from a wide array of sources, including French modernism, jazz, surrealism and neo-classicism, with key works including his operas Julietta, The Greek Passion and his final symphony Fantaisies symphoniques.

Recommended work:

Julietta (Chorus and Orchestra of the National Theatre Prague, Jaroslav Krombholc)

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5. Josef Suk

The pupil and son-in-law of Dvořák, whose daughter Otýlie he married in 1898, Suk is considered one of the leading composers in Czech modernism. He initially drew heavily on his teacher’s influence before developing a more personal style - one full of harmonic complexity and dissonance that, in a marked departure from Dvořák, steered clear of folk music. His wife died when she was only 27, and morbidity was clearly a preoccupation of Suk’s, providing the theme for major works such as his ‘funeral symphony’ Asrael and his symphonic poem Ripening, whose emotional force, sense of grandeur and striking juxtaposition of moods, have invited comparisons to the works of Mahler and Richard Strauss.

Recommended work:

Asrael Symphony (Sudwestfunkorchester Baden-Baden/Karel Ančerl)

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6. Jan Dismas Zelenka

Bach greatly admired his Czech contemporary Zelenka for his sacred and secular compositions. Raised in central Bohemia, and educated in Prague and Vienna, Zelenka wrote music of harmonic inventiveness and polyphonic complexity, full of unexpected harmonic twists and chromaticism - all showcased in perhaps his best-known masterpiece: Sub olea pacis et palma virtutis, which was performed in the presence of the Emperor Charles VI, shortly after his coronation as king of Bohemia in 1723. Sometimes considered Bach’s Catholic counterpart, Zelenka sank into obscurity after his death, but interest in his music has grown since the Baroque revival of the 1950s.

Recommended work:

Sub olea pacis et palma virtutis (various artists)

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7.Vítězslava Kaprálová

Despite her early death at the age of 25, Kaprálová achieved a lot during her short life, conducting both the Czech Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and composing a substantial body of work ranging from art songs to piano concertos. A child prodigy, she started composing at nine, initially in a generic romantic style reminiscent of Chopin. Later, following studies at the Prague Conservatory and in Paris, where she befriended, and then embarked on an affair with the composer Bohuslav Martinů (who even considered leaving his wife for her), she developed a distinctive voice, distinguished by a flair for orchestral colour and adventurous approach to harmony. Judging by her later works, not least her two piano concertos and the Concertino for Violin, Clarinet and Orchestra, op. 21, which she composed in 1939, she could have gone on to become one of the best known composers of the 20th century, had she not died, in 1940, from what was most likely typhoid fever misdiagnosed as miliary tuberculosis.

Recommended work:

Piano Concerto in D minor (University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Kiesler)

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8. Vítězslav Novák

A pupil of Dvořák in Prague, and one of the young composers, alongside Suk and Janáček, who joined a group of artists and writers to publish a 'Czech manifesto of modernism' in 1895, Novák is highly regarded among his fellow Czechs, even if his name is seldom mentioned elsewhere. Coming from a conservative family in Kamenice nad Lipou, a small town in Southern Bohemia, he took a while to get into his stride as a composer: his early works were folkloristic and heavily indebted to his late Romantic predecessors. Later, he adopted more modernist tendencies, uniquely blending them with a style inherited from Dvořák to create lushly-orchestrated music full of painterly detail, as in his symphonic poems In the Tatra Mountains, and Toman and the Wood Nymph, Pan and De Profundis.

Recommended work:

Toman and the Wood Nymph (Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jakub Hrůša)

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9. Jozef Mysliveček

One of twin sons of a prosperous mill owner, Mysliveček studied philosophy at Charles-Ferdinand University before following in the footsteps of his father. He achieved the rank of master miller in 1761, but gave up the family profession in order to pursue musical studies, eventually becoming one of the foremost Classical composers of his day, and a strong musical influence on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose family he knew well. In his mid-20s, he left Prague for Italy, where he wrote around 45 symphonies, many concertos, a lot of chamber music, and nearly 30 operas - much of it distinguished by its freshness and elegance.

Recommended works:

Symphonies – F26-31 (London Mozart Player/Matthias Bamert)

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10. Petr Cigler

Following in the footsteps of the Russian Romantic composer Alexander Borodin, Petr Cigler - born in 1978 - is both a composer and a chemist, and a pretty eminent one at that: he is currently working on ways of tailoring medical treatments, including MRI vaccines, gene therapy and treatments for cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, to individual needs. His music, which has been played in more that 30 countries, is extremely experimental, incorporating 'instruments' such as anvils and used cars, as well as extended techniques from more traditional instruments. It is bold, complex and inventive, frequently drawing on Cigler's passion as a scientist, not least in his works Entropic Symphony and Daily Patterns.

Recommended work:

Daily Patterns

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Photo: Getty

Authors

Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.

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