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Jaroslav Tůma: Moje vlast  [Re-Imagining Smetana]

improvisations on themes from the cycle of symphonic poems 'My Country' by Bedřich Smetana


F10190   [8595017419027]   released 8/2011

play all Moje vlast - Jaroslav Tůma 79:46
Vyšehrad 15:11
Šárka 9:41
Z českých luhův a hájův 14:52
Tábor 10:17
Blaník - Vltava 22:16
Má Vlasta (encore I) 5:06
Bez názvu (encore II) 2:22

Jaroslav Tůma - organ (in Vyšehrad, Hejnice, Žlutice, Litoměřice, Kladruby, Zbraslav, Mikulov, Bezděz)

Show me a person who has no native region. This person, if he is indeed a creature of tangible features, would certainly have been somehow robbed by fate! I would more likely know people who have several native regions, in fact wherever they have spent a little time, since people are adaptable that way. They are always wholly capable of attachment, growth and, of course fanaticism, becoming fond of everything that they have been joined with in life.
Josef Čapek, Native Regions, 1939

Why have I called my organ improvisations CD Re-imagining Smetana?1 I’ve done so because in terms of its music and meaning it is thematically connected with the symphonic poems by Bedřich Smetana. This might offend a few people, since in our part of the world a dim view is often taken when a national classic is treated not with the greatest seriousness and respect but with a touch of exaggeration. In my defence, or rather by way of an explanation, I should mention that I, too, am simply a child of the strange and wonderful Postmodern era. Everything is, in fact, allowed – though possibly too much. An artistic performance, assuming that it aims to be authentic and artistic, is of course defined and determined by external influences and the spirit of its day much more than we are often willing to admit – with all the positives and negatives that arise from this.
     The cycle of improvisations Re-imagining Smetana came about by accident. Some time earlier I had recorded an organ work by the eminent Czech organist Josef Klička; entitled Concert Fantasy No. 2, it was an abridged version of a Smetana piece. I recorded it in the Church of SS Peter and Paul at Vyšehrad, Prague, on an organ built by the Paštik brothers in 1903. Concert Fantasy No. 2 is an almost literal transcription for the organ of the orchestra score for Smetana’s Vyšehrad. In returning to this same organ with the intention of recording an improvisation, I thus found that the theme came of its own accord. In addition to this, the Czech national classics have their resting place at the Slavín Cemetery close by the Vyšehrad church, which can’t be seen as anything other than inspiring and a particularly binding responsibility.
     How should one listen to my creations? How should one deal with them? The individual improvisations are too far removed from the original melody for the listener to perceive them foto: Eva Ociskovaas transcriptions or simple paraphrases. Their resulting form is given by a combination of circumstances, some of which I was able to influence beforehand such as the choice of instrument. All the other attributes, however, are the result of a particular moment and its unique mood. The structural forms, just like the choice of harmonic and stylistic means, stem from the creation of a musical stream in real time. In this respect I have always been in favour of true improvisation in which almost nothing is determined beforehand – simply the group of themes, a roughly estimated length of the planned improvisation and its basic character. All the rest develops out of the specific organ’s possibilities, the acoustics of the space and momentary inspiration. Of course a major role is also played by the improviser’s past experiences. In his mind he has to have at his disposal a sufficient number of building blocks from which to compose his improvisations at the given moment. We all know that it has long been impossible within the framework of our tone system to create something entirely unprecedented. An artistically convincing quality can, however, be created through an unusual viewpoint – by holding up a mirror, even a warped one.
     Improvisation means creating something without preparation. Musicians and singers have long been used to doing it. That’s a shame. It’s an adventurous process. Improvisation has been carried on thanks only to a few organists. It’s been carried on in jazz music as well, of course, in which it is essentially bound up with clear structures of form and content that are predetermined and universally communicated between musicians. Organ improvisers also often embark on a path before which they establish the precise subsequent form of their improvisation. They fill a particular number of bars and phrases, even planning the individual stylisation elements including the harmonic modulations. The resulting form is then a kind of variation on a composition that is almost complete beforehand. This approach can’t be considered illegitimate – it is more a matter of one’s own natural character, in other words what one is personally inclined towards. I personally failed for the most part to keep to an established plan – such improvisation was often too schematic and lacking in impact.
     It is always risky to jump into a deep, cold river. It is even more risky to improvise at a concert where you consciously abandon a carefully prepared plan. One only succeeds about fifty percent of the time. I state this on the basis of long-term statistics concerning my improvisation experiments. It’s not my place to assess fellow organists, except when I’m a juror at an improvisation competition or when I teach improvisation. Despite this, I think that it’s worth continuing to improvise. This activity provides performers and their listeners with experiences that are otherwise inaccessible.
     I’m not content with assessing myself after a concert, nor with the enthusiastic reaction that the public might give, since people often like things that the performer should really be ashamed of. A reliable criterion for me is to listen to my own recordings – not straightaway, but six months later when I have acquired sufficient detachment from a particular performance. Only then am I capable of taking pity on my experiments, sometimes even those that I would, immediately after performing them, have rejected.
     Re-imagining Smetana is not a selection of improvisations recorded at public concerts, which was the essence of the first CD of my improvisations to be released. The individual pieces of Re-imagining Smetana were, however, once again recorded over a longer space of time – on each suitable occasion when professional recording equipment was available on location and a sound engineer was present. My public usually consisted of a small group of friendly listeners. Having recorded Vyšehrad in Hejnice in 2002, I suddenly had the idea of improvising Vltava. I soon rejected that version, though, because it sounded more like the Mississippi. Having already begun thinking about the entire cycle, I recorded Šárka on an essentially unplanned trip to Žlutice. Not all the notes of the organ made by Jan Matěj Guth dating from 1828 were, as each of you will tell, tuned that time. Luckily I managed to avoid the notes that were most out of tune. Which is, by the way, one of the circumstances that represents a great advantage of improvisation. Even if only five notes in an octave play properly, you can still improvise as if you were playing a pentatonic scale. Listening to the Žlutice improvisations later on, I realised of course how convincing, stylistically authentic even, my off-key Šárka is. She’s off-key most likely because of Ctirad.2
     The improvisation From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields was created in the north Bohemian town of Litoměřice at St Stephen’s Cathedral on an organ dating from 1942 that was built by the firm Jemlich in nearby Dresden. The preceding Maidens’ War, including Šárka’s betrayal according to the tale from ancient Czech mythology is, in my musical portrayal, a distinguished and intimate idyll compared with the image of the dramatic, almost insane struggle for survival of north Bohemia’s nature.
     It would undoubtedly have been nice to have recorded Tábor at the Hussite church in Tábor itself. However I came across an inspiring organ in Kladruby in the form of a Baroque instrument dating from 1726 by the Loket organ-maker Leopold Burghardt. The Hussite chorale Ye Who Are Warriors of God was therefore produced at the former Benedictine monastery which, like many others, was desecrated and pillaged by the Hussites. After centuries of gradual secularisation of European society, old religious disputes such as taking communion in one kind or in both kinds seem pretty much pointless and uninteresting. All the same, competition still forms a daily part of humanity; the present-day struggle between soulless consumerism and the values of spirituality and culture, for example, will undoubtedly go on for some time longer, evidently to the inevitable bitter end.
     Thanks to the testimony of Mr Araj Namrmic, reputedly the fellow-traveller of probably the greatest Czech, Jára Cimrman,3 we now know that the original order of Smetana’s cycle was going to be different than it is in the symphonic poems of My Country, in other words Vyšehrad, Vltava, Šárka, From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, Tábor and Blaník. According to Smetana’s original intention, Vltava was due to appear at the end of the cycle. The order of the other symphonic poems was also intended to be different, though it can’t be proved what that order was meant to be. In Re-imagining Smetana, I have respected Smetana’s original idea of having Vltava at the end. Otherwise I have kept to the customary order. Seen in terms of its ideas and themes, the concluding Vltava creates a more appropriate counterpoint to the introductory Vyšehrad than Blaník, which, it’s true, also concludes the cycle in a dignified way, however it is now statistically proven that Vltava as the internationally most often played Smetana composition would have underscored the monumentality of the cycle even more.
     In 1921 Araj Namrmic is reputed to have said in front of reliable witnesses that, together with the genius Jára Cimrman, he visited Bedřich Smetana in Jabkenice on the 1st of April 1883. It is a well-known fact that Smetana composed the music for My Country in complete deafness. Mr Namrmic learned from the ageing maestro that he agreed to what is now the valid order of the symphonic poems at the express wish of the conductor Adolf Čech, who conducted most of the première performances of My Country. It was only after Mr Čech had urged him for some period of time that Smetana heard him out (sic) and granted his wish that Blaník follow Tábor, because that way conductors would, he said, ‘keep in tempo’ better. What caught Smetana’s attention even more was Čech’s claim that, with its battling character, the theme of the Hussite warriors of old was closely connected with the vision of the Blaník knights who will come to the aid of the Czech nation when it is in its hour of greatest need. Čech said that Blaník should thus round the cycle off, since the future logically comes after the present. I find what was probably Smetana’s original order, with Vltava at the end, more appropriate. It ultimately didn’t occur to Čech or Smetana that, once the knights arrive, such a future will become the present, then the past, while the Vltava river will keep on flowing even after that.
     Blaník, the poor relation among Smetana’s symphonic poems, deserves greater media coverage. This is why, in Blaník’s interest, I decided on an innovative solution for Re-imagining Smetana in which I join the pair Blaník and Vltava into a single improvisation. Considering how well-known Vltava is, Blaník’s existence can thus be better highlighted. It is, after all, quite a high hill that should enjoy more attention from hikers and other visitors than it does.
     The organ double poem Blaník-Vltava brings my artistic endeavour to its culmination. It came about in Zbraslav at a chapel of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church. The reason for this choice was partly the interesting organ made by an unknown organ-builder after 1600 and partly so that present-day Hussites don’t feel short-changed on my CD due to Kladruby. The Zbraslav instrument is tuned in the historical midrange system that, although it might in places grate on the ear (in fact due to its imbalanced tuning system the Kladruby organ also grated on the ear), listeners should kindly bear in mind that this is precisely my artistic intention. What’s more, they don’t yet know what is awaiting them a moment later.
     If you now have the feeling that, judging by the lines you’ve just read, I have a kind of disrespect for My Country, then you’re wrong. On the contrary, I feel great pride in the legacy of our classics. Smetana was undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of the Czech nation. The envious or grudging features of the Czech character that, for example, in the past manifested themselves in an absurd debate about Dvořák’s or Smetana’s pre-eminence in the field of national music are even now capable of irritating me. Whoever has enjoyed nothing but the praise of his contemporaries and closest followers in this country must be almost suspicious in the eyes of judicious souls. Why, though, don’t these endless critics of everything and everyone do something proper themselves? Disrespect towards those who have achieved a great deal often takes another form as well. By this I mean the disdain that some people express in saying that there has been enough of this national character in our culture. We should, they tell us, listen to something ‘free’, something that’s possibly ‘cool’ so that we can be ‘in’. These ‘free-cool-in’ folks are in great demand. Is it necessary to continually please people or be eternally young? Although I’ve got nothing against modernity, it’s a shame to sever our umbilical cords. It’s inappropriate in whatever way to devalue the field of a classic in the name of fashion. One can live another way. I like various good forms of musical expression, including contemporary music. What’s more, I like dreaming and imagining – about Smetana, for example. In my estimation one can find inspiration in his ideas and musical language without such attempts being in any way cheap.
     Consumers nowadays are used to ‘special offers’ and ‘bonuses’. That is why I’ve included two additional encore improvisations on my CD. Má Vlasta is especially intended to bring pleasure to South American listeners. Mrs Míla Smetáčková, the lifelong partner of the leading Czech conductor Dr Václav Smetáček, recounted several times how, each time her husband visited Brazil or Argentina, he was requested to conduct Má Vlasta4 again! He said they would already be calling out for it as soon as he arrived at the airport. Since Vlasta is a female name in Czech, I used Smetana’s dance of the water-nymphs from Vltava as the theme for my improvisation. The recording was made on an organ built by the Vienna company Deutschmann at the Dietrichštejn mausoleum in Mikulov, Moravia, not long after the grape harvest there. The unusual organ register is called a physharmonica. Thanks to laws of physics, the pitch of its tuning remains the same in summer and winter while other registers drop uncontrollably after the grape harvest I mentioned. The style of improvisation is thus a kind of tribute to Alois Hába, who was an enthusiastic and tireless propagator of micro-interval music.
     The theme of the water-nymphs’ dance also appears in the second encore piece that I originally wanted to call Můj Vlastík,5 though after consultation with my closest ones I decided that several connotations of this name might be misleading. The recording was made at the church in Bezděz on a portable regal made by Vladimír Šlajch, an organ-builder in Borovany.
     I hope that you enjoy listening to Re-imagining Smetana (for didactic reasons as often as possible), both as a whole and especially its individual improvisations.
                            Jaroslav Tůma

I love this world. I want to be good. I wish for bliss, I wish to help all better things and not to harm anything that is good. I am – although I am not conscious enough. I walk – even though limping as I go! There isn’t much of it, but it’s something at least. And all this is a person’s maturity, its fortune and wisdom.
Josef Čapek: The Lame Pilgrim, 1936

Translator’s notes
1. While meaning the same as Smetana’s original, ‘My Country’, the Czech title of Jaroslav Tůma’s work, ‘Moje vlast’, uses the colloquial form of the word ‘my’ – ‘moje’ – instead of the literary form ‘má’ used by Smetana. This slight shift in meaning evokes informality and immediacy in the Czech mind, representing a gently humorous ‘appropriation’ of a revered title on Tůma’s part.
2. Ctirad and Šárka – a story from traditional Czech myths and legends.
3. Jára Cimrman is a ‘fictitious figure of universal Czech genius’ created by actors and writers Jiří Šebánek and Zdeněk Svěrák. Motifs from his reputed life are the basis for a number of popular plays shown regularly at the Žižkov Theatre in Prague. Cimrman is an embodiment of the Czechs’ innate love of poetic mystification.
4. Má Vlasta – a mispronouncement of the work’s original title ‘Má vlast’ on the part of the Brazilians and Argentinians that creates an unwitting – and, to the Czechs, humorous – shift in meaning. In English as if ‘My Country’ became ‘My Cathy’.
5. Můj Vlastík – here the author takes the joke further and considers using the familiar form of the Czech boy’s name ‘Vlastimil’. In English as if the boy’s name Kent were used to create ‘My Kentry’.
                                                                                          Translation: Richard Drury

Further organ improvisations by Jaroslav Tůma:

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