Schnittke / Holst
In association with Forum Karlín
Capturing the entire solar system in a single composition hardly shows a lack of ambition, but the British composer Gustav Holst actually achieved much more than that: his monumental work The Planets, which first saw the light of day approximately a hundred years ago, influenced an entire generation of composers of music for films in the science fiction genre. This includes some of the most famous films of all! If you are a fan of John Williams’ now legendary soundtrack for Star Wars, you will be surprised by the degree to which Williams was inspired by Holst’s Planets. Some of the motifs might even strike you as direct quotations. The thing that is so ingenious about what Holst did is that he was ahead of the era of science fiction films by more than 60 years. His music still sounds modern today, and the current popularity of The Planets is perhaps further enhanced by the fact that even the film music of today owes something to Holst’s wholesomely dramatic grandiosity and powerful orchestration, contrasting the brass with the pleasing lyricism of the strings.
Alfred Schnittke’s Faust Cantata Seid nüchtern und wachet… (Be sober, be vigilant) is equally monumental in many respects. Schnittke’s works include, among other things, music for a number of films. The biblical quote in the cantata’s title acts as a call for prudence, warming that what at first sounds (or seems) attractive and pleasant is not necessarily pure and good. But Schnittke’s music is not cold and moralizing; to the contrary! He does not resist the snares of temptation, and that gives one a sense of how intoxicating temptations can sometimes be. He plays masterfully with confrontations between remote worlds – lascivious tango motifs, sounds of the hardest rock music contrasting with heavenly, lofty tones. The confrontation of these two seemingly remote elements becomes an interesting dramaturgical act, leading one to consider whether life might be too monotonous without the glaring, perhaps even garish shades of color that many might describe as crossing over into kitsch.
The life and works of Alfred Schnittke (1934–1998) are permeated by his constant searching for his own identity. Born in Engels, Russia, to the family of a German Jew, he belonged to three cultural realms at the same time – German, Russian, and Jewish – and this led him to a lifelong feeling of rootlessness. This existence in “no-man’s land”, as Schnittke himself called it, was also reflected in his music, in which he tended towards a polystylistic conception of his own, which he viewed as the simultaneous presence of multiple musical languages and periods. His Faust Cantata “Be Sober, Be Vigilant…” from 1982 is one of his greatest works. Schnittke drew inspiration from Thomas Mann’s great novel Doktor Faustus, in which he found a reference to the collection of folktales Historia von Dr. Johann Fausten (printed in 1587), and he set the final two chapters of it to music in a cantata. Built on the ground plan of a Baroque Passion, the work concludes with a warning in the form of a choral quotation of a passage from the First Epistle of Peter: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”
The English composer Gustav Holst (1875–1934) composed his famous work The Planets between 1914 and 1916. The seven movements of this orchestral suite are named for the individual planets of the solar system, and the musical setting depicts the effect of those planets on the human psyche, reflecting the composer’s interest in astrology. For the music, Holst took inspiration from the works of such composers as Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, who both visited England at that time. Schoenberg performed his Five Pieces for Orchestra there (Holst had even originally considered giving his cycle the title Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra). He also took inspiration from the wild rhythms and daring harmonies of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring.
The first complete performance of The Planets in 1920 made Holst famous virtually overnight, and it made him one of the most frequently performed composers of the twentieth century. This quiet and very modest professor at the Royal Academy in London was caught somewhat off guard by his unexpected success, and although he continued to compose, none of his other works attained similar renown.
The American conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies is a graduate of the famed Juilliard School in New York. At present, he is the principal conductor of the Bruckner Orchestra Linz and director of opera at the Landestheater Linz, and he is known for his broad repertoire ranging from the Baroque to contemporary music. The music of our time holds a place of importance in his artistic career, and he has shared personal friendships with many composers – Luciano Berio, John Cage, Isang Yun, … He even gave the world premieres of two of Philip Glass’s operas. During his career, he has conducted a number of leading American (Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago) and European orchestras (Munich Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic), and he has collaborated with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Vienna State Opera.
The Brno Philharmonic was founded in 1956, and today it is one of the most important Czech orchestras. It has to its credit more than a thousand concerts both in this country and abroad (USA, Latin America, the Far East, and the Near East), collaborating with many world-famous conductors (Jakub Hrůša, Sir Charles Mackerras, Yehudi Menuhin) and performing artists (Radek Baborák, Olga Kern, Fazil Say). The orchestra makes recordings regularly for Czech Radio and Czech Television. In 2012, it became the presenter of the renowned festivals Moravian Autumn, the Easter Festival of Sacred Music, and the Brno International Music Festival-Exposition of New Music. The orchestra has built its reputation for daring programming, opening up new horizons to audiences by presenting contemporary music or unjustly neglected works.
The Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno is one of the most sought-after choral ensembles, as is shown by its regular collaboration with important Czech and foreign orchestras and conductors (Manfred Honeck, Paavo and Kristijan Järvi). Under the leadership of its choirmasters Petr Fiala and Jan Ocetek, the choir is focusing on the oratorio, cantata, and opera repertoire of all periods. It has received numerous awards for its extensive discography, including the prestigious ECHO Klassik Prize (2007 “Recording of the Year” and “Ensemble of the Year”).
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