Obituary: Lubos Fiser

LUBOS FISER was one of the most talented Czech composers of the present middle generation; his death will be deeply felt in his homeland as well as abroad where his music was becoming increasingly performed. He was best known to the wider public for his many film scores, but it is his finely honed other compositions often written under difficult political conditions in the Communist years, and later dominated by personal stresses, that mark him out as a composer of significance.

He was born and lived all his life in Prague, where he was a student at the Prague Conservatoire from 1952 to 1956 and subsequently at the Academy of Music, from which he graduated in 1960. His composition teachers were Emil Hlobil and Pavel Borkovec but it was from Hlobil that he learnt creative discipline and self-criticism and about whom he would speak most appreciatively in later years. He remembered presenting a fugal exercise to his teacher on one occasion, only to be asked: "Do you have a stove?" "Then use it!"

Already from his student years his early compositions were beginning to attract public notice, all works then written in traditional forms such as his Piano Sonata No 1 of 1955, as well as two symphonies from the later 1950s. His graduation work was a one-act opera, Lancelot, which gave the first indication of his many later successes in music for the theatre, film and television.

From 1963 he was to write music for over 300 dramatic productions, working with such famous stage and film directors as Peter Weigl, Jaromil Jires, Karel Kachyna, Juraj Herz and Oldrich Lipsky. With Weigl he won the 1979 Premio Italia for Bludiste moci ("Labyrinth of Power") and in 1980 he received the Prix Italia for Zlat hori ("Golden Eels") with Kachyna. Many other such national and international prizes were to follow and in the last years of his life he received Czech Lion awards for Golet v doli ("Golet in the Valley") with Zeno Dostl and Krle Ubu ("King Ubu") with Frantisek Brabec.

For all his successful and prolific writing for film and television, it was in the field of concert music that his principal compositional activity lay and into these works he poured the best of his remarkably fertile imagination and skill. Between 1955 and his death he wrote a fine series of eight Piano Sonatas, of which No 8 remains unperformed and in manuscript. Like his Piano Sonata No 7, it is dedicated to his friend the Czech pianist Frantisek Maxin.

Perhaps the most significant of his works from the 1960s was his Patnct listu podle Durerovy Apokalypsy ("Fifteen Pages After Durer's Apocalypse") written in 1965 and winning the 1967 Unesco award, which brought him a wider international audience, including British performances with the London Symphony Orchestra and later with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jir Belohlvek. It was the 1960s which saw the emergence of Lubos Fiser's original style, in such works as the choral Caprichos of 1966, his Requiem of 1968 and the Double for orchestra of 1969.

Fiser's deeply personal and privately protected intellect caused him to turn to the past for some of his inspirational sources, seen in works like the Nrek nad zkzou mesta Ur ("Lament over the Destruction of the City of Ur") of 1970 or the use of texts from the Middle Ages in Pisne pro slepeho Krle Jana Lucemburskeho ("Songs for the Blind King of Luxemburg"), Renaissance texts for Rze ("The Rose") of 1977, and Sumerian texts for the melodrama Istanu. Salzburg has turned occasionally to Czech composers for new works, most recently twice commissioning works from Fiser's older contemporary Petr Eben. In 1978 Fiser wrote his Serenade for Salzburg for chamber orchestra. His Piano Concerto dates from 1980, the same year as his Meridian for orchestra and a further significant orchestral work, Centaures, followed three years later.

Chamber music remained central to Fiser's output, with the Sonata for solo violin of 1981 being commissioned by Gideon Kremer and receiving many performances since that time. An equally fine Sonata for solo violoncello followed in 1986. His String Quartet of 1955, Testis for string quartet, written in 1980, and the Piano Trio of 1978 are all works which have had an international impact and have been heard in British concert halls, as well as broadcast by the BBC, in recent years. The Piano Sonata No 3 of 1960 and Violoncello Sonata of 1970 were performed at this year's Warwick and Leamington Festival. His last orchestral work, Sonata for Orchestra, received its premiere with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimr Vlek in Prague in February of this year.

Lubos Fiser's highly individual style was created out of his personal critical distillation of all the 20th-century compositional techniques, most of which he discarded. Of the mainstream European influences, he would acknowledge Stravinsky and Prokofiev, as well as his fellow countryman Martinu. Although very different in both personality and compositional styles, he shared a place with Petr Eben as being the Czech Republic's most successfully distinctive, individual and original contemporary composer. He was a strong personality with firmly held opinions yet he did not talk much. He could make his views clear in a very few words and by his very presence, his strength being best expressed through his music. When asked by performers for some guidance or comment about a work, he would reply: "Play what is there - it is all in the notes."

At times in his life he had been a lonely person and was always incredibly super-sensitive, traits that he did his best to hide. This would manifest itself in a number of ways, sometimes with eccentric if not outrageous public behaviour but more often through solace in his fondness for wine. As a politically unacceptable composer, he suffered throughout the Communist years but was equally disillusioned by the situation after 1989, turning increasingly to reliance upon the alcohol which was to hasten his premature death.

Like many of his compatriots after the Velvet Revolution, he felt that he should contribute to the restoration of democracy in some way and so he unwisely accepted the directorship of the music publishing house Panton, for which he was quite unsuited and which was to put enormous pressure upon him. Added to that, he was named in an unsubstantiated list of so- called collaborators with the former secret police, which included names of many upright Czech public figures including Vclav Havel and the composers Petr Eben and Jarmil Burghauser.

Unlike many falsely listed, he found this difficult to ignore. A further factor which depressed him was the reaction of Czech musicians, particularly in the orchestras, after 1989 towards performing contemporary music. Understandably, for 40 years they had to play a lot of music by politically acceptable Czech composers, much of which was of poor quality. Now, in the new democratic life, they turned against all contemporary music and even fine composers like Fiser found it hard to get performances in the immediate post-1989 period.

Lubos Fiser was never happier than when composing in his summer house at Cesk Lpa in North Bohemia, with his dog lying by his desk. Throughout the difficult last years he received enormous support from his wife and from his composer colleagues. In 1996 he joined with Sylvie Bodorov, Zdenek Luks and Otmar Mcha to form the group Quatro, whose aim was to write music of quality but which would be accessible to an informed concert- going public and a counter to much of the indifferent and uninteresting music they felt was coming from many of the so-called Czech avant-garde.

From this last period and association came his Guitar Concerto and the Violin Concerto which was given its premiere at Karlovy Vary in 1998. It was from these three friends that he drew greatest support and comfort in the closing days of what became a tragically wasted life of one so talented and so needed in his country's culture.

Lubos Fiser, composer: born Prague 30 September 1935; married first Marie Kulijevycov (marriage dissolved), second Zdenka Sedlckov (one son; marriage dissolved), third 1992 Mahulena Hosnedlov; died Prague 22 June 1999.

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