Thursday, February 2, 2012: Meet Mr Foerster

Josef Bohuslav Foerster was a prolific composer noted for his lyrical, optimistic songs

Meet Mr Foerster

Sometimes it seems that popular access to composers goes in rising and falling cycles. Concert offerings are rife, with different venues-same selections by a given composer everywhere. And then suddenly it seems nobody plays compositions by that composer for a while. Until once more …

Such is the case with the Czech composer Josef Bohuslav Foerster (sometimes referred to as JB Förster). So read about him now and you’ll be prepared to enjoy his music when his concerts come up again, as they surely will.

That’s because JB Foerster is becoming more and more recognized and valued as a major influence in classical music, mentioned in the same breath with the late Romantics like Smetana and Dvořák.

JB Foerster was born in Prague in 1859, in a musical family. His father, also Josef, was an organist, composer, and influential teacher at the Prague Conservatory; Dad was the choir director at St Vojtěch when Dvořák was the organist.

So it’s no surprise that his son worked as a choir master and singing teacher, and grew up knowing Smetana and Dvořák; later he befriended Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Jan Neruda. “I think he must have had a nice childhood,” cellist Bledar Zajmi tells Opus Osm following a recent concert in which Foerster’s work was included. “He came from a gentle family, because all his pieces are very lyrical but also very intimate. From his childhood he had good parents and family, and he came from a good musical atmosphere.”

Undoubtedly it must have been an atmosphere in which creativity and expression were encouraged, because JB was adept at so many creative arts. He was a reviewer for several Czech and foreign publications, a talented amateur artist, and he even sang in the chorus of Smetana’s Libuše at The National Theatre.

In 1888 he married a National Theatre soprano and they moved to Hamburg and later Vienna. In both cities he worked as a critic and music teacher, and between about 1890 and 1910 he composed most of his most important works, nearly 200 in all. Among them are many sets or song cycles, six operas, more than 300 choral works, and 26 melodramas.

For fans of such things: Foerster's tomb, Olšanský cemetery, Prague

In addition to his musical lyricism he’s also noted as the first to write a Czech opera portraying village life seriously, without relying on comedy and folk tunes.

Mezzo-soprano Michaela Kapustová also performed at the recent concert, singing Foerster’s Songs for Mezzo-Soprano, Cello, and Piano (Notturno, Měsíčná Noc, Všechny Smutky Pominou). She explains, “All three pieces by Foerster are melancholic and very beautiful. Sometimes their sound has a complicated and rich harmony.”

She adds, “I like the last one, Všechny Smutky Pominou, the best because you can feel the hope there, and a better future. It’s a beautiful ending for the whole cycle.”

Indeed, because the title translates as “All Sorrows Cease.”

Foerster and his wife returned to live in the newly formed Czechoslovakia in 1918, and the Foerster Society (still active today) was formed in 1919. He died in 1951. — oo

– Mary Matz

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