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Czech Philharmonic/Semyon Bychkov: Glagolitic Mass

Semyon Bychkov

There's no finer orchestra for these musical pinnacles of the Czech tradition than this one, writes Gordon Kalton Williams.

Dvořák, who conducted the Czech Philharmonic in its first concert on 4 January 1896, conducted his Eighth Symphony in England in April 1890, having premiered it in Prague in February that year. He had sketched the work in summer 1889 at his country retreat, Vysoká, south of Prague. 

The work breathes rural life. Whereas Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony had won the praise of Brahms, the principal exponent of the symphonic tradition after Beethoven, Brahms complained of the Eighth: ‘There is too much that’s fragmentary, incidental, loiters about in the piece…’ This is a different kind of symphony though, characterised by formal freedom and melodic richness as Dvořák sought to shape a symphony in a new manner.

The rich cello melody that introduces the symphony actually serves as a pointer to the first movement’s sections. It marks the beginning of the development and, later, rings out on brass as if to bring the movement’s activity back under formal control. There are many beautiful ideas, among them a skipping melody on the flute, that speaks to the instrument’s importance in this symphony. Even when the flute provides an incidental flourish to a melody elsewhere, one can imagine the birdsong that must have accompanied Dvořák’s writing regimen at Vysoká.

The second movement begins contemplatively, but various ideas – a birdcall-like figure initiated by flutes and a downward tripping figure in violins at first accompanying an elongated melody – will be employed to range from contemplative moods to proud outbursts. The Allegretto grazioso is more like a Brahmsian intermezzo than the customary third-movement scherzo. Its Trio provides a folkdance-like lilt while the Molto vivace coda after the return of the initial material beautifully prepares the Finale. 

This begins with a trumpet fanfare. ‘In Bohemia,’ said the great Czech conductor, Rafael Kubelik, ‘the trumpets never call to battle – they always call to the dance!’ The movement is essentially a theme and variations. But what is perhaps most noticeable is wonderful folkloric energy.

Dvořák’s dispute with his publisher Simrock over a fair fee for this symphony led him to award publication to the British publishers, Novello. The work became known, at least for a time, as ‘the English’. Ironically, it’s a work that justifies Dvořák’s own epithet for himself as a ‘simple Czech musician’.

With Dvořák as a centrepiece, these concerts outline an arc of Czech orchestral repertoire from the music of Smetana, who grew up speaking German, to that of Leoš Janáček who drew on the Czech language to create his unique melodic style. A scholarship holder at Brno monastery in 1869, Janáček had taken part in millenary celebrations for St. Cyril, who, along with St. Methodius, had introduced Christianity into Moravia. When later challenged by an archbishop to write church music, Janáček sought out St. Cyril’s Old Slavonic translation of the Mass. This was in 1921, but it was five years before he wrote his Mass. In the meantime, he composed the operas Kátya Kabanová, Cunning Little Vixen, and The Makropoulos Case, and the Sinfonietta regarded by some as the Mass’s companion piece - works of Janáček’s ‘Indian Summer’.

Why did 72 year-old Janáček compose this work? The reason was as much patriotic – the title ‘Glagolitic’ celebrates the work of those two 9th-century saints, whose alphabet for Old Church Slavonic is called ‘glagolitic’ after the word for ‘word’. As Janáček scholar Paul Wingfield points out, Old Church Slavonic in its earliest form was close to Proto-Slavic and suited Janáček’s Pan-Slavic sympathies better even than Russian which he had once extolled.

This Mass suits the concert hall more than church service. ‘I wanted to perpetuate faith in the immutable permanence of the nation,’ said Janáček. ‘Not on a religious basis but on a rock-bottom ethical basis, which calls God to witness’. The mass is operatic in style and he even characterised the soloists: ‘In the tenor solo I heard a high priest, in the soprano solo a girlish angel, in the chorus our folk’. 

Parts of the work match the Ordinary of the Latin mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) but the work is [usually] book-ended by a fanfare-like ‘Intrada’; there is a formal introduction and, after the Agneče Božij (Agnus Dei), a truly harrowing organ solo in the same key – A flat minor – as the crucifixion described in the Vĕruju (Credo). According to Wingfield, the Mass ‘embodies an essentially human drama of suffering and death’; to a critic who assumed that Janáček was now a believer, the composer replied ‘[not] until I see for myself’. 

Janáček claimed to have written this work in three weeks during a rained-out holiday at Luhačovice, but a long period of revisions resulted in different performing editions (tonight’s is the so-called ‘letzte Hand’ version from 1928). It’s probably more appropriate to consider where this work was sketched – ‘The church was the giant forest canopy, the vast-arched heavens, and the misty reaches beyond…’

© Gordon Kalton Williams

Programme and performers

Antonín Dvořák Symphony No 8
1. Allegro con brio 
2. Adagio 
3. Allegretto grazioso – Molto vivace 
4. Allegro ma non troppo 
Leoš Janáček Glagolitic Mass
1. Úvod – Introduction 
2. Gospodi pomiluj – Kyrie
3. Slava – Gloria
4. Věruju – Credo
5. Svet – Sanctus
6. Agneče Božij – Agnus Dei
7. Varhany sólo (Postludium) – Organ solo
8. Intrada – Exodus


Czech Philharmonic
Semyon Bychkov
Daniela Valtová Kosinová organ
Evelina Dobračeva soprano
Lucie Hislcherová alto
Aleš Briscein tenor
Boris Prýgl bass
CBSO Chorus


Artist biographies