A Fresh Take on Fibich

fibich-symphony1-impressions 

Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900) fell into the interstices of music history: born just after Dvorak, just before Janacek, and ultimately overshadowed by them both. Unlike the Czech nationalists, his music looked more broadly towards Western-European late Romanticism, which is probably why he lacked enduring advocates at home. It is thus interesting to listen to Fibich’s Symphony No. 1 in F, Op. 17, and his Op. 54 symphonic suite Impressions from the Countryside, nicely performed by the Czech National Symphony. In both works Fibich displays a pleasant, mild Romanticism; the symphony has placid pastoral gestures and plenty of easygoing lyricism, and it concludes with a rousing finale. Impressions has some charming rustic dances that hint at Dvorak. —WQXR.org

‘…relentlessly optimistic…’

This marks the start of Naxos’s complete survey of Czech composer Zdeněk Fibich(1850-1900), whose work is much in need of reassessment. Standing in the shadow of Smetana and Dvořák, he has a reputation as a tragedy merchant whose fondness for Wagner was deemed excessive by his nationalist contemporaries. The two works here, however, are relentlessly optimistic and unmistakably rooted in Czech folk idioms. The First Symphony (1883) is both classical in structure and warmly attractive, though the fugue in the middle of the scherzo strikes a false note. Impressions from the Countryside is effectively a dance suite of immense charm. The only flaw in both is a tendency to over-repetition in their finales. Marek Štilec conducts performances that could do with more panache and swagger. The Czech National Symphony’s string tone is thin in places, which is a shame. –Tim Ashley, The Guardian

 

Symphony No. 1–“The voice of the forest”

In 1883 Fibich finished his Symphony No. 1 in F Major, Op. 17. By this time he had already written a number of orchestral works (first and foremost all of his symphonic poems, except V podvečer–At Twilight, Op. 39). He was also working on his opera The Bride of Messina. The music of the First Symphony is redolent of the atmosphere of Fibich’s childhood when as a small boy he used to spend time at gamekeepers’ cottages at Všebořice, Libáň and Žáky amidst the deep forests.

Really the First Symphony?

The Symphony in F, Op. 17 was, however, not the composer’s first attempt at writing a work of this type. In his youth he made at least two attempts at composing a symphony. The latest thematic catalogue by Vladimír Hudec brings out the fact that the F Major Symphony–though listed as No. 1–had its forerunners. There were two: a Symphony in E flat major (without an opus number) and another one in G minor. The E flat Symphony is listed in the Moser catalogue, as well as the catalogue by C. L. Richter (a pseudonym of Anežka Schulzová). According to Moser, Fibich composed it in the spring of 1865 and it was first heard at a Slavoj Society concert at the Měšťanská beseda (Civic Hall) in Chrudim on 12th April 1865. Interestingly enough, two movements were allegedly scored by the notable composer and moving spirit of Chrudim’s musical life, Alois Hnilička. The next symphony, in G minor, written a year later, had its première once again in Chrudim on 6th October 1867. This performance took place at the theatre in Chrudim and was conducted by the composer. The MSS of both the symphonies are missing.

Zdeněk Fibich, Symphony No. 1 & Impressions from the Countryside, an excerpt from the new CD featuring the Czech National Symphony Orchestra (Marek Štilec, conductor), the latest in the Naxos label’s eight-volume release of the composer’s complete orchestral works.

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Symphony No. 1 in F Major, Op. 17–composition and première

The F Major Symphony, Op. 17 was finished on 10th April 1883, but Fibich had begun composing it probably as early as 1877. This is borne out by the date of the completion of the first movement (10. 2. 1877 in the score). The other movements are not dated. Having been able to study the “hand” in which the MS is written, I agree with previous researchers who think that the movements were composed in proximity to the opening movement. However, the strikingly different “hand” and music paper of the fourth movement confirm the hypothesis that Fibich adopted it from his earlier symphony. Leaving aside the contention about the date of the last movement (Anežka Schulzová and then Josef Bartoš give 1868, while Otakar Zich argues against it), the finale contains a reminiscence of the opening movement, making it possible to surmise that Fibich might not have taken over the movement as a whole but used the earlier thematic material to mold it into the new fourth movement.

Première 

Symphony No. 1 had two premières, in fact. To begin with, only the first two movements were performed at a Czech Journalists Association concert on 16th May 1879. The whole symphony was first performed at a Grand Jubilee Concert of the Umělecká beseda (Arts Society) on 3 May 1883, conducted by Adolf Čech.

Fibich’s forest world

Although there is no programme attached to the First Symphony, it is difficult with a composer like Fibich to suppose that he did not have an actual picture or atmosphere in mind while composing it. This is attested to by the reaction of Fibich experts, such as Zdeněk Nejedlý. He speaks about the forest mood and the neo-romantic spirit of the symphony. The vision of a forest and woods generally were in any case the focus of not just romantic writers and poets at the time, but clearly of composers also, and Fibich was in that sense a true romantic. A very colourful description of how his First Symphony was received came from Václav J. Novotný who wrote in the magazine Dalibor (Vol.1, p.177, dated 20. 5. 1879) that “Fibich was in his work exalted by many visions and phenomena of the romantic spirit, shady groves and oak woods with will-o’-the-wisps and wood-nymphs, ancient castles, hunting parties, merrymaking and feasting,…the splendour of knightly jousting, of games and diversions, and other images of the romantic Middle Ages were all a spur to his creativity…”

Courtesy and copyright 2013 by Fibich.cz

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFNgzRYBul4

The complete Symphony No. 1 as performed by the Razumovsky Symphony Orchestra as conducted by Andrew Mogrella. Released on the 1999 Naxos CD, Fibich: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2

The first movement begins arrestingly on tremolo strings, before easing into a pastoral dialogue for woodwind and strings that soon takes on a greater impetus as the whole orchestra is brought into play. Following a lively transition the second theme unfolds in much the same expressive vein, and with some evocative writing for harp, before heading to a vigorous codetta with a repeated-note brass motif to the fore. This exposition is duly repeated, after which the development opens pensively with ruminative gestures from horn that initiate a methodical interplay on the themes already heard and which only gradually becomes more agitated in manner. It presently dies down on lower strings and timpani, the horn providing an understated link into the reprise, which unfolds much as before but now with a greater emotional fervor that makes possible the main theme’s restatement in a surging peroration—the repeated note motif now heard decisively on timpani.

The second movement is a scherzo whose outer sections are propelled along by its engaging polka rhythm, as woodwind and strings trade exchanges with no mean abandon. The trio section is more relaxed in its underlying manner, with some deftly contrapuntal writing for the strings along with a delectable transition on woodwind through to the scherzo music.

fibish-1-2-1999

The third movement is marked “alla romanza,” which no doubt explains the song-like quality of the initial theme on upper woodwind that assumes a greater expressive gravity when it is taken up by strings and brass. Clarinets introduce a more flowing and folk-inflected idea, made more evocative when heard against divided strings, which leads into a heightened recall of the first theme then on to a poignant coda where the theme’s main motif can be heard on cor anglais and pizzicato strings.

The fourth movement is launched with rushing strings, over which a festive theme is expounded on brass. This comes to an abrupt halt, whereon a contrastingly rhapsodic theme emerges on woodwind and strings before itself gaining in energy as the first theme is excitedly recalled at the start of an intensive development. This still makes space for its more relaxed successor, besides featuring some resourceful orchestration and duly heads into the climactic return of the main theme, now with a slightly smoother transition into the rhapsodic theme. This is also unfolded at greater length, making way for an arresting recall of the work’s opening bars prior to the return of the main theme in a resounding apotheosis.

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The Naxos Recording Project

The complete recording of the orchestral works of Zdeněk Fibich is an entirely exceptional project. From 2012 to 2015 a total of 8 CDs will be produced on the NAXOS label, recorded by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Štilec. It will be the first-ever complete recording of Fibich’s orchestral output. The production will take into account historical sources, including manuscripts and contemporary copies of the musical material often used by Fibich himself or heard by him at performances he attended at the time. The recordings will be made using the most modern technology in the 24 Bit, 96 Khz format. The recording project is linked in co-operation with The Zdeněk Fibich Society to a campaign of further activities and popularization of Fibich’s music. -–Fibich.cz