Miloš Štědroň: Whatever I did, I did gladly

31 May 2018, 2:00

Miloš Štědroň: Whatever I did, I did gladly

This year Miloš Štědroň is taking part as artist in residence at the festival Concentus Moraviae. This was a welcome pretext for an interview. It covered his musical beginnings, his path to a musical education, his artistic development and his famous teachers, his inclination to the legacy of the musical avant-garde as well as why he suddenly kept a certain distance from it, how he dedicated himself to faithful and successful cooperation with the Theatre Goose on a String as well as how he was affected by the political changes of the period, how he overcame their pressure, how he worked with today’s interviewer a banned playwright, how he wrote for the wonderful Due Boemi di Praga, how he taught music and the history of music and worked as a populariser, how he knowledgably interpreted ancient music, but also Leoš Janáček, how he worked as an editor, how he became a significant and famous cultural figure, and not just in Brno, and how all the tasks he set himself in his varied and rich creative life were and are being fulfilled, and the joy he has had from it all.

M. U.: Miloš, what does the festival Concentus Moraviae mean for you?

M. Š.: Concentus Moraviae is an excellent idea from David Dittrich. Originally it was set up as a festival seemingly of the regional type, where always several centres are chosen for musical productions. Thus on its founding it had the subtitle “Festival of Thirteen Towns”, which were in the South Moravian and Vysočina regions. With the passage of time the number of course changes … In Brno as such there is a big festival tradition. The history of festivals with an international reach goes back for example to Rudolf Pečman. He founded the Brno International Festival. He opened up the works of Bohuslav Martinů, which in that time was an achievement. Later, however, it showed that the regime was able to take over Bohuslav Martinů for self-presentation and in the late period of normalisation they even used the transfer of the composer's remains to his native Polička for what was almost a national celebration.

M. U.: I must admit that when Concentus Moraviae began, I tried to understand his motive, and I asked “why regional”? My original thought was, “for god’s sake why so far from Brno”. Miloš, what is the advantage in the festival taking place in the regions?

M. Š.: The idea is absolutely wonderful! Here the unchanging quality of the given environment plays a huge role. For example Lysice, it is a perfect place, linked with Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, who was a kind of Austrian Božena Němcová. Furthermore there was a chateau theatre there. And we could continue in that vein, since each of these festival venues has its history. The importance of this idea lies in the fact that it is based on a region that seems like the rural countryside. By bringing music to these places excelling in the historicity of the environment it continues a musical life that existed there before. Further the festival Concentus Moraviae often presents artists of world stature. For example Marco Beasley, Magdalena Kožená, Sharon Kam, Reinhard Goebel, Jordi Saval and Christian Gerhaher, who sang for the first time in the Czech Republic at the festival in Náměšť nad Oslavou… It is almost unbelievable. On the other hand exporting culture to the region is also a major risk for the organisers.

M. U.: The theme for this year’s Concentus Moraviae is Humour and Music, Humour in Music. Can absolute music, not arias or music otherwise based on words, be humorous? What makes music funny?

M. Š.: There is probably no answer to that (laughter). In each epoch absolute music means something different, and the relationship between absolute and programme music differs. I hold the view that music is a meta-language which each of us understands in our own way. Humour is a matter of context; if we link it with music the music becomes humorous. And this year’s festival will attempt this more than once.

M. U.: Miloš, where is the composer in all this? For me it is someone who sits in his study, busily composing. Even if I see you as a kind of Brno exception …

M. Š.:Simply I was approached by the festival director David Dittrich and was given a task. Even in composing I do not believe in sudden enlightenment, I consider myself a worker in music, but not a drudge. I am used to working all the time, at the beginning there is doubt, then it gets better and I begin to enjoy it and get into it. I adhere to the principle of Duke Ellington: Inspiration? I don’t know. Give me a deadline... It sounds cynical but there is a lot of truth in it. And no “primary musical humour” strikes me. It is convention, custom, period and environment. Who knows how “humorous” it will be in a year, in five, in a hundred...?!? I enjoy every day work – for me it is at the same time both about knowledge and fun.

M. U.: You have been involved both in the popularisation and organisation of music. How does someone go from being a student and graduate of the faculty of arts to being a co-organiser?

M. Š.: As an organiser I work rather on the amateur level. In the Camerata moravica movement, which I was part of, we had to do it if we wanted our music to be heard. Everything came from the creative group, which in Brno was made up of the composers Miloslav Ištván, Zdeněk Pololáník, Josef Berg, Jan Novák and Alois Piňos. We were their pupils; I was a pupil of Piňos and Ištván.

M. U.: I remember that period as editor of the magazine Host do domu (Guest in the House). I know that the beginnings of New Music here were not easy. Reviews of composers of New Music never got past the editor with us. A certain Josef Burjanek was advisor to editor-in-chief Macák and after his regular visits I was always given an order to cut out everything related to New Music. Including negative reviews … How did you see? Did you feel yourself to be part of the New Music?

M. Š.: Certainly. But it is important to point out that today we see socialist realism completely differently. We have been confronted with many perspectives on this current. Socialist realism has been presented at various congresses, but in practice it was about traditional art, which is encapsulated within and carries an ideological label. Socialist realism was an awful time for art, fear everywhere and nobody knowing what would happen …

M. U.: What were the beginnings of your journey to music?

M. Š.: My first contact with music was through my uncle Bohumír Štědroň, who educated me very thoroughly. He was an excellent pianist and musicologist. He took me at least twice each week to the theatre, so I was kind of a theatre kid. From the age of five I went to all the operas. I remember the whole Brno line-up of the opera then - Jaroslav Stříška, Antonín Jurečka, Géza Fišer, Eduard Hrubeš, Alena Nováková and also Soňa Červená, who I greatly admired. My uncle taught me for about six years. After six years, when he visited us some five times a week, my mum thought I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown (laughs). She then took me to her professor, Anna Holubová, who had been a pupil of Antonín Dvořák and Vítězslav Novák.

M. U.: Wow!

M. Š.: She was brought to Brno by Leoš Janáček himself and she was to prepare me for the conservatory. She set my piano repertoire, I had concerts and we understood each other wonderfully.

M. U.: What do you most remember from her lessons?

M. Š.: Every time I played Janáček, this would happen: I played for example Po zarostlém chodníčku (On an Overgrown Path) and Professor Holubová always said: This Janáček, he is very talented, but he was a bit frantic. Both in his personal life, as I saw myself, and in music. Always everything in the piece is cut down! Master Novák, he would have developed it completely and would have made much more material from it.

M. U.: Which was also Antonín Dvořák’s main reservation concerning Janáček…

M. Š.: Yes, exactly. And I told her that it was exactly this in Janáček’s work that was beautiful. And she always said to me that I am just like Pavel (Pavel Haas, Ed.). She took Pavel to see Janáček… and she cried, because she remembered the terrible fate of Pavel Haas.

M. U.: So there was probably already an avant-gardist dormant in you …

M. Š.: Already at that time, when I was eleven or twelve, I had written various children’s operas and similar. I was attracted by the idea of making an opera from The Three Musketeers and also from various Russian works, because I always loved Russian. For example I wrote an opera on Pushkin’s Tales.

M. U.: At that time you entered the conservatory?

M. Š.: No, in the end I went to eleven-year grammar school. Later I got into musicology at the faculty of arts. But composing still attracted me and I wanted to dedicate myself to it. Privately I started to study harmony and the introduction to counterpoint. At first with Vilém Blažek, who was a pupil of Josef Suk. Blažek was a friend of my uncle the judge, who was removed from the court in 1950 by the communists. Blažek was sympathetic to the church and I think that from him I learned in particular humility. He was my great role model.

M.U.: And another was Jan Novák?

M. Š.: I became acquainted with Jan Novák, the composer who prompted me to compose, in the Moravian Museum, where I worked as an assistant during my studies. Novák, who went there regularly to study the texts of Božan and Vodňanský, recommended that I compose to Latin texts and promised me that he would perform my work. I took the text of Hannibal and made a kind of melodrama. Novák kept his word and really performed it, the text of the work then being recited by the actor Mirek Částek. Latin entered New Music after 1966, when a congress was held on its new pronunciation. There followed several new Latin concerts. But in 1968 Jan Novák emigrated and this line of New Music was buried.

M. U.: Then came Ištvan and Piňos with Berg?

M. Š.: Yes, the three of them invited me to the Varna restaurant, where for three hours they explained to me that I had to do music with them. This was at a time when I already knew Jan Novák and worked in the Music Theatre. In the meantime I got into the conservatory where I studied in parallel musicology. But the conservatory closed the department so I applied to the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts. I passed the differential exam, which was valid for three years, I entered the Janáček Academy only after a year as I had to do my military service... At the Janáček Academy I then began to study composition and musical theory, later graduating from there. Up to the second year I was a pupil of Alois Piňos, but after he left the Czechoslovak Communist Party I had to transfer to Ištvan...

M. U.: Only this was not your only course at the academy …

M. Š.: Exactly, after graduation I continued on to a two-year follow-up course in experimental, electronic and concrete music. After my graduation they cancelled it as an undesirable subject (laughs). But it was an excellent course, highly practical, the teaching was largely from the radio. I was taught for example by the phenomenal soundman Igor Boháček; it was a great education.

M. U.: During your studies New Music grew …

M. Š.: Yes, in the course of the sixties there was here a great flowering of New Music. There was for example Musica Nova, in which the pianist was one of my teachers, Branko Čuberka. I followed all their concerts and I also got to know Josef Horák, who asked me to write something for the bass clarinet. So I wrote a solo piece and Josef Horák performed it at the Warsaw Autumn. He brought back fantastic reviews saying that I was a discovery.

M. U.: Did you start to write more?

M. Š.: I began to get commissions primarily from Due Boemi di Praga, which kept me busy. And it was at that time that Musica Nova peaked and I appeared with Růžička and Parsch as a creative group. At that time were seen as the apprentices of the entire group.

M. U.: Miloš, how did you get on in the flowering of science and art in the seventies?

M. Š.: In that revolutionary period, sometime in 1967 or 1968 I got into the Union of Composers as a candidate. But later we were all expelled … In 1968 Jiří Fukač proposed me for the rehabilitation commission. After 1970 someone published all the material of the rehabilitation commission in the magazine Musicology and it was a big scandal. Poledňák had himself committed to a lunatic asylum for a month, claiming to be mentally deranged. Hudec said that he could not remember and I was there as one of the co-creators … It was an analysis of musical Brno in the fifties, with all its Burjaneks and the like. I found it hard to recover from this event. However the seventies fundamentally influenced my work, if I hadn’t encountered the theatre I would have been only a modernist. What also led me away from one-sided modernism was interpreting ancient music with Parsch, for example Caccini, Monteverdi and Harant.

M. U.: You mentioned Due Boemi di Praga, who else did you start to work with?

M. Š.: A major force was Provázek (Ed.: today’s Theatre Goose on a string). Another inspiration for me was when Miroslav Venhoda, head of the Prague Madrigalists, then already a legendary and frequently touring ensemble, commissioned from me a madrigal cantata on Gesualdo’s epitaph. We were first successfully in action at the legendary concert On the Stairs at the National Museum in Prague, and later on tour. Then there were further commissions – linking the Prague Madrigalists and Due Boemi di Praga – for example in Staročeská kuchařka and even with JOČRem (Czechoslovak Radio Jazz orchestra) under Krautgartner. In this these were all relics of New Music, but also something completely different - minnesang, madrigal, villanella, estempie, etc. Any kind of modernism such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, who I met in person when staying in Darmstadt, was completely unacceptable here.

M. U.: How did you manage in that period to get a grant to go to Darmstadt?

M. Š.: In 1966 several of us from Brno went on a Darmstadt holiday course in the composition and interpretation of New Music - Ištvan, Berg, Piňos, Parsch and I. We went there together on the basis of a grant. We applied to the Institut für Neue Musik in Darmstadt and they gave us a grant on the basis of the submitted project. There were also some people from Prague with us - Zbyněk Vostřák, Eduard Herzog and Marek Kopelent. The concerts were wonderful – all the Stockhausen piano works – all the pieces from I to XI – played by the Kontarsky brothers, as well as premieres of Ligeti, Kagel and many others – at least twenty concerts and a trip to nearby Frankfurt to see Fortner’s opera. There were excellent lecturers - Stockhausen, Adorno, Boulez and Ligeti who gave a detailed analysis of Webern’s Bagatelles. It marked a turning point in the Darmstadt festivals and courses, because apart from the peak of serialism and aleatoric music there were already happenings (Cage, and Ligeti to some extent). The result for me: both a new sonic fascination and realising the dangers of a neo-Pythagorean "belief" in New Music. I grasped that this blind faith is of course wonderful for the believer, but it does not bring invention and originality. For that reason after my return from Darmstadt I more and more sought to counterbalance this enchantment. I found it in the ordinariness of Theatre Goose on a String, where the avant-garde was excluded from the start, as well as in the service of making concert arrangements for Due Boemi di Praga.

M. U.: Miloš, how did you come into contact with Theatre Goose on a String?

M. Š.: In my year at the Janáček Academy were also actors like Laďa Krátký, Bartoška, Heřmánek, Zedníček, Peca and also Eva Tálská, Zdeněk Pospíšil and Peter Scherhaufer. So they provided me with my route. Furthermore I already knew Eva Tálská from Divadlo hudby. On one occasion at the Academy I ran into Scherhaufer, who gave me a piece of paper to sign. And it was a letter Mrs Mahen with a request to use the Mahen name “Goose on a String”. So I am actually signed under the founding document of the theatre.

M. U.: I saw the Theatre Goose on a String from above with Bořivoj Srba telling me that he was setting up a theatre and would like me to be part of it. From spring 1974 I worked with them on the basis of Srba’s invitation. As an author Srba significantly helped me when I couldn’t …

M. Š.: After all you were a banned author … Actually we worked together earlier than we were aware. Our first “unknowing” cooperation was in Romance o lásce (Romance of Love).

M. U.: You did not know it but I worked on The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin, and I had no idea that Částek had asked you for the music. I remember how you came later with the offer to do something together under your name. I had to resist that so as not to reveal that we had already cooperated together for a long time ... My lyrics for the theatre were at that time ascribed to the director Zdeněk Pospíšil. And that we had done also the Fairy Tale May.

M. Š.: The Theatre on a String was then replaced by the Brno City Theatre, and in the end our cooperation has continued until now. Our last joint effort was the musical Viki kráčí za štěstím, which we put on only last year in the City Theatre.

M. U.: So it could be said that as a composer you always had someone to write for?

M. Š.: Certainly, mainly thanks to Theatre Goose on a String. I was glad to go there, I always unwound there. Everything I brought there was welcomed and somehow they worked with it.

M. U.: As a composer with such a musical education how do you react when a director comes to you and wants music of a particular type or tells you that what you have written is not good. Are you adaptable?

M. Š.: I probably am, yes. It is about parallel communication. I am trying to somehow understand the idea and accept that at that moment the director is smarter than I am. The theatre is not a democracy, it requires humility. There always has to be someone to yell and tell you what to do.

M.U.: Sometimes I heard that a composer has to spontaneously make music and not think about it too much. So how is your creative work compatible with your activities as a music educator, theorist, historian, researcher and interpreter?

M. Š..: It is a daily struggle – sometimes more, sometimes less - I live with it and do not think about it too much. Trying to compensate for the inconsistency through work ... I always determine when I'm more a historian, interpreter and theorist and best of all a “creator” – least enthusiastically and only when forced to am I a teacher ....

M. U.: Miloš Štědroň, as a contemporary composer – do you still enjoy composing? I slightly suspect not …

M. Š.: I enjoy it I do! I enjoy it in itself, I no longer see a future of recordings and big concert halls. I enjoy it, especially in relation to the fact that I'm analysing, doing a lot of listening and I'm learning ... by constantly analysing a person is aware of the things we earlier completely missed. Once I asked Arnost Parsch, a few years before his death, if he still composed. And he told me, “I compose, daily two or three hours, and in the evening I throw it away.” And from that made me very sad. But it is possible that this also is coming ...

Photo Jiří Sláma

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