Monday, March 12, 2012: Blissful Peace

Opus Osm Cukrova

Mahan Esfahani and Markéta Cukrová perform selections from Tomášek's setting of Goethe's poems

Blissful Peace and Prickly Personalities

Meet yet another Czech composer obscure outside the nation’s borders, but one who contributed immensely to the development of classical music.

Like many other composers introduced on Opus Osm, this one has multiple names, led a fascinating if somewhat mysterious personal life, and would have been an intriguing person to know.

If you could put up with his personality.

Because Václav Jan Křtitel Tomášek (also known as Tomasek, Tomaschek, and rarely, Křtitel) was described as “a stout, large figure of a man … pleased with himself, not very friendly, fixing other people with a proud stare, shouting at them, tearing them to pieces with his sarcasm … .”

Yet he was a highly successful and appreciated piano teacher, composer, and host at his Malá Strana home for evening salon concerts and lively discussions about the arts. Despite his prickly personality, he ultimately was described as “at bottom an upright and honest man.” Apparently, visits from Clara Schumann, Wagner, Paganini, and others, and meetings with Haydn and Bach, went off well and contributed further to his reputation as someone to know in the musical and arts world.

Born into poverty in 1774, he was largely self-educated (or non-professionally) musically. At 16 he moved from Jihlava, attended a gymnazium in Malá Strana in Prague, and studied math, history, philosophy, aesthetics, and law at Charles University.

Opus Osm Mahan Esfahani

Mahan Esfahani

It was while at the university that he began to compose and perform his keyboard songs and dances; attending a 1790 performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni seemed to have a lasting effect, and set him firmly on the path to music as a lifestyle and career.

Although he wrote three symphonies, an opera, mass, and requiem, and several sonatas, his still-famous piano miniatures – almost 60 short works or songs — were his attempt to put blissful, peaceful poetic forms into music: “I imagined shepherds who live a simple life that, like all humans, are subject to fate,” he wrote.

He also set 41 of Goethe’s poems to music in 1815 and published them privately. However, in 1822 and 1823 he met Goethe at the Czech spas (still operating today) at Cheb and Mariánské Lazně, and played some for the great German poet. Apparently, the poet approved.

You can hear a short sample of one, Wandrers Nachtlied (The Wanderer’s Night-Song) by Tomášek by clicking on the concert video below, and easily imagine yourself in a parlor in 19th-century Malá Strana, listening. The modern concert was part of the Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK) series for organ, harpsichord, and pianoforte, Feb 28. It features the superlative combination of Mahan Esfahani on pianoforte, accompanying mezzo-soprano Markěta Cukrová. She performs frequently with Czech Early Music groups and as a guest of the National Theatre; and as a soloist throughout Europe and many other countries. You can find the original German text and English translation below the video.


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The Wanderer’s Night-Song
Wandrers Nachtlied
Der du von dem Himmel bist, Thou who comest from on high,
Alles Leid und Schmerzen stillest, Who all woes and sorrows stillest,
Den, der doppelt elend ist, Who, for twofold misery,
Doppelt mit Erquickung fűllest, Hearts with twofold balsam fillest,
Ach, ich bin des Treibens műde! Would this constant strife would cease!
Was soll all’ der Schmerz und Lust? What are pain and rapture now?
Sűβer Friede, Blissful Peace,
Komm’, ach komm’ in meine Brust. To my bosom hasten thou!

–Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Miroslav Setnička

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