Thursday, May 19, 2011: Under the Spell

Composer Pavel Blatný at his piano

Dead at night and living in the daylight.

A man wants to undo a spell cast over his wife’s life. When he discovers that her soul resides in a willow, he cuts the tree down and ends up killing her.

This is a brief summary of the ballad Vrba (The Willow Tree) from the collection Kytice (Bouquet) by a major figure of the Czech national revival, Karel Jaromír Erben. He worked as an archivist and collected many fairy tales and legends. Bouquet was the only collection of poetry he ever wrote. His scary ballads drawing on the Czech legends and fables still make students shiver in Czech literature classes.

The Willow Tree (1980) was also the first in the series of ballads that the Brno based composer, Pavel Blatný, set to music. He didn’t produce an orchestral piece inspired by the powerful poetry like many of his predecessors (Antonín Dvořák, Vítězslav Novák or the emigrant Jan Novák), but decided to keep the verse as an integral part of the work. The resulting form was a cantata.

The Willow Tree brought Mr Blatný a lot of popularity at home, so he composed another three Erben cantatas: Christmas Eve (1982), The Noonday Witch (1982), and The Water Goblin (1988). They were all very successful and were performed by FOK and the Czech Philharmonic.

Mr Blatný at Prague Spring

On May 23 Mr Blatný is coming Prague to present the screenings of his Erben cantatas in the Evald cinema as part of the Prague Spring festival. The screenings will honour the 200th anniversary of the birth of author Erben. In a telephone interview with Opus Osm Mr Blatný comments jokingly, “My lyric writer has a birthday, so we’d like to celebrate the occasion.”

Erben, the poet who inspired the composer

When asked what pulled him so strongly to the 19th century writer, Mr Blatný explains without hesitation: “Erben has fascinated me since childhood. I remember my grandmother reading me from Bouquet.” He even recollects a clear, childhood image from the ballad — a man and woman sitting at a big table.

The Erben series represented a return to traditional, classical music for the Moravian composer. Pavel Blatný started out as a classical composer, influenced by the Russian neoclassical music of Prokofjev and Stravinsky. But then “the 60s came,” he tells Opus Osm, “and I started work with techniques such as dodecaphony [the twelve-tone scale] and alaetorics [using chance, such as a roll of the dice, to choose which measures to play].”

Looking for a more creative composition expression, Mr Blatný built up a new type of music, third stream music, which fuses classical music and jazz. He developed it independently of the geographical center of this music, the USA.

The time for composing the Erben cantatas came in the 1980s when the interest in new music faded. On a personal level, Mr Blatný notes, the Willow was homage to his father, Josef Blatný, also a classical music composer. His 90-year-old father lived to hear the first cantata, but died shortly after.

“When in 1980 my father fell really sick, I realized I hadn’t pleased him with my music since my school years in the 1950s,” his son explains.

“I simply wanted to make him happy.” — oo

– Zuzana Sklenková

About Pavel Blatný
His father was a composer and student of Leoš Janáček. Pavel Blatný studied the piano, conducting, and composition at the Brno Conservatory and in Prague. In the 1960s and 70s he experimented with third stream music. 10’30 is his most famous new-music work. In the 1980s he returned to classical form.

This year he’ll be celebrating his 80th birthday. His age doesn’t stop him from creating music. He just won first prize in Vienna’s Harmonia Classica Kompositionswettbewerbs for the best composition for violin and piano, called “The Letter.”

Photo Credits: Pavel Blatný, Prague Spring Festival

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