Facing the Music

Opus Osm

The opera 'Toufar' revives the history of the innocent, persecuted small-town priest Josef Toufar.

Composer Aleš Březina (Toufar, Tomorrow There Will Be) says Czechs are now ready to confront some of the difficult questions of their Communist past.

It seems a surge of artistic performances about the darker side of Communism in Czechoslovakia has surfaced in the past few years. The HBO film The Burning Bush recounts Jan Palach’s self-immolation in a 1969 protest. The Prague Symphony Orchestra chose the opening concert of their current season to offer Music for Prague 1968 (see below).

And Mr Březina’s opera Tomorrow There Will Be … presented the life, show trial, and 1950 death sentence of defense lawyer Milada Horaková. Currently, his opera Toufar, about another ’50s show trial and death – this time of Josef Toufar, an innocent Catholic priest accused of faking a miracle – is selling out at the National Theatre’s smaller Divadlo Kolowrat.

To Face the Music, idiom, to undergo a difficult situation with courage

Opus Osm caught up with Mr Březina at the press launch of his next work, 1914, a theatre piece with music, slated for its world premiere in April 2014. We asked the composer/musicologist if he thought Czechs are now ready to face the music and examine the Communist years.

“I think so,” he replies, emphasizing the word “so.” He continues, “They are ready to rediscover their past, to re-think it again. They’re ready to face [the actors] singing in a stylized form, and to think about it.”

Opus Osm

Aleš Březina

He says that five years ago, when he wrote Tomorrow There Will Be…, “people told my friends – not directly to me – that ‘Oh, a political party must be paying him to do it.’ This time [with Toufar], no one is saying that. People are realizing that art is political. Art is activist.”

He makes a point which the strength in his voice clearly emphasizes is close to his heart. “Theoretically, we are responsible for what happens. It’s not enough to just go to the theatre and let something wash over us, to have an emotional reaction and then go home. It’s up to us to do something.”

He says it’s important that people “recognize the challenges which today are not so obvious as before.” He believes today, lethargy rather than war is the main challenge – the attitude that with the demise of communism, “Paradise is here so just enjoy it”; or, conversely, people’s willingness to give up on political activism just because their favored party lost one election.

“Today the enemy isn’t only something outside of us. It could also be inside,” Mr Březina warns.

“This is the idea that I’d like to support with my music.”

Performances of Toufar in Oct, Nov, and Dec are sold out, according to the National Theatre’s website, so it’s a good idea to reserve tickets now for the Jan 28 or Feb 25 performances. So far, one additional performance is also scheduled for March.

Prague Symphony Orchestra Performs Historic 1968 Composition

If you want further evidence of this trend employing art to face a difficult past, consider Music for Prague 1968 by Karel Husa (b 1921). It was performed beautifully and movingly at the Symphony’s season opening in mid September.

You can borrow dozens of Karel Husa’s works, including Music for Prague 1968, from the Municipal Library of Prague. Their collection includes his music scores, CDs, and cassettes.

The 20-minute orchestral version opens with the sweet, innocent twittering of “bird song,” according to the composer (it’s also reminiscent of Bernstein’s ominous opening for the classic West Side Story). Soon the tranquillity is rudely interrupted by blasts from a militant snare drum.

Fragments of the 15th-century Hussite hymn, “Ye Warriors of God and His Law” (Ktož Jsú Boží Bojovnící) weave in and under the main themes, most stirringly by the timpani, an instrument also featured prominently in Copeland’s World War II Fanfare for the Common Man.

Composer Husa does have an American connection. Although he was born in Prague and studied at the Prague Conservatory, he became a US citizen in 1959 and still lives there today. His Music for Prague 1968 premiered in the US shortly after the events of the fatal Prague Spring.

Ultimately, Music for Prague 1968 is a truly Czech masterpiece, and one with a world-wide resonance. — oo

–Mary Matz, editor of Opus Osm

Photo Credits: Top: National Theatre website; center, The National Theatre; audio, Miroslav Setnička

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