By Gabriel Prynn, cellist
Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900) is widely recognized by scholars as one of the fathers of Czech music, along with Dvorak and Smetana. So how is it then that he has slowly fallen into obscurity in the eyes of the public?
Fibich lived during the rise of Czech nationalism within the Habsburg Empire. While Smetana and Dvorak were wholly engaged in the national cause by consciously writing Czech music with which the infant nation strongly identified, Fibich’s position was more ambivalent. This was due to his origins and his education. Fibich’s father was a Czech forestry official, and the composer’s early years were devoted to helping his father working in the woodlands of the nobleman who employed him. His mother, however, was a Viennese of German ethnicity. Like almost all boys of his generation (Smetena included), he was first sent to a German-language school. After studying music in Prague, he spent a year in Paris, and finished his studies in Mannheim.
So, we can say that unlike Dvorak or Smetana, Fibich was the product of two cultures, German and Czech.
He received a true bicultural education. In his instrumental works, Fibich generally wrote in the vein of the German Romantics, first falling under the influence of Weber, Mendelssohn and Schumann and then Wagner. It seems that, like Tchaikovsky incidentally, Fibich did not want to write overtly nationalistic music. And that’s why Fibich has never been considered an equal to Dvorak, Smetana or Janacek by his compatriots.
As for his personal life, it was less than happy: at 23 years old, in 1873, he married Ruzena Hanusova and took a position as director of a choir in Vilnius, Lithuania.
We note that his symphonic poem composed that same year surely influenced Smetana’s Má Vlast.
Soon, the newlyweds were expecting twins, but Fibich suffered the loss of his wife, sister and two babies over the next two years. Fibich took a job at the Provisional Theater in Prague and married the sister of his recently deceased wife in 1875. They had a son, Richard, in 1876. The baby survived, but their marriage was not a happy union. In 1881, Fibich devoted himself full time to composition and teaching. Soon, he fell in love with a student, a singer named Anezka Schulzová, and finally abandoned his wife and son for her. Miss Schulzova was an educated young woman who guided Fibich towards feminist-oriented texts. Indeed, of his four operas, three of them feature libretti written by her. Sarka (1897), an opera about a Czech military leader, was Fibich’s most successful work, partly because of its patriotic theme.
The trio for piano in F minor dates back to 1872. It is the first known chamber music piece composed by Fibich and was one of the first works that brought him to the attention of the musical world of Prague. Although it received favorable reviews at the time of its première, Fibich never submitted this surprisingly mature work for publication during his lifetime, and it was not until 1908, eight years after his death, that it was finally published. It’s in three movements.
The Molto con fuoco opening begins with a very powerful and original syncopated theme. Interestingly, almost immediately, the strings bring us echoes of Bohemia. Shortly after, the piano is given a memorable passage with Czech colors. The touching second theme follows without any real development.
Very romantic, lyrical and nostalgic, it contrasts sharply with the main subject.
The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, is a long “Song without words” with the main thematic interest lying with the strings.
In the finale, Vivacissimo, the piano sounds the initial heroic theme. The entrance of the strings adds a lyrical element. The second theme, with its triplets, displays hemiolas in the manner of Brahms.
As we play and listen to this trio of Fibich, we can’t fail to be impressed by the finesse of his work and the originality of his ideas.
We are delighted to be able to give it a place in our repertoire!