Thursday, March 1, 2012: Intrigue

Vladimir Sommer

In happier times: Gottwald banner (left), Children's Day Parade, 1949

The Intrigue of Mr Sommer

As we continue to research Czech composers, we’re struck by how many of their biographies share common phrases: “Little is known of his childhood,” or “After this period he apparently stopped composing, and many of his pieces have been lost … .”

So it’s intriguing that the biography of today’s composer contains similar mysteries – especially since he lived and worked in our own lifetime. You can find out more about him at the Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK) concert Mar 7 and 8, where his (some say) principle work will be performed.

For those of us who are not native-born Czechs, Vladimír Sommer may be a mystery.

His works are characterized as being amongst the weightiest produced by Czechs after 1945. In spite of a relatively long career, his list of works seems a trifle abbreviated. The apparent reason is perfectionism, a.k.a. self-censorship, meaning that few of his compositions were ever made public.

Born in Dolní Jiřetín in 1921, Mr Sommer passed away only recently (in Prague in 1997) compared to his fellow composers in next week’s concert – Beethoven and Mussorgsky.

After his studies at the Prague Conservatory and the Academy of Arts and Music, Mr Sommer became a composition teacher and then a professor of music theory at Charles University in Prague. As a communist-era composer, a number of his works were politically commissioned. His Cantata about Gottwald for Solo Bass, Choir and Orchestra earned him a state prize. From today’s perspective, this work is considered marginal by contemporary critics.

However, other critics claim he won a state prize for a different work, one currently considered his most significant. And this is the one that will be performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK) – his Vocal Symphony for Mezzo-soprano, Speaker, Choir and Orchestra (1958). In fact, its premiere by this orchestra occurred in 1963.

The Vocal Symphony is described as representing the conflict of human consciousness, from anguished night through dreams of cruelty, leading into a conciliatory look at death. It’s little wonder, then, that critics describe the dominant feature as “extreme emotions.”

Dagmar Pecková is the mezzo-soprano at next week’s performance, appearing with the Prague Philharmonic Choir, Lukáš Vasilek, choirmaster. Petr Altrichter conducts. — oo

– Hana Škrdlová

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