Jan Hanus

Prolific composer and hard worker for Czech music
Click to follow

The Czech composer and editor Jan Hanus was in his 90th year when he died. His life spanned T.G. Masaryk and the First Czechoslovak Republic, the dark days of Nazi occupation and the succeeding totalitarian Communist years, and then the heady days of Václav Havel and the Velvet Revolution.

Jan Adolf Josef Hanus, composer and music editor: born Prague 2 May 1915; married 1939 Anna Morávková (one son, two daughters, and one son deceased); died Prague 30 July 2004.

The Czech composer and editor Jan Hanus was in his 90th year when he died. His life spanned T.G. Masaryk and the First Czechoslovak Republic, the dark days of Nazi occupation and the succeeding totalitarian Communist years, and then the heady days of Václav Havel and the Velvet Revolution.

Born in Prague in 1915, he came into a musical family where his mother had been a piano pupil of Zdenek Fibich and his grandfather was Frantisek Urbánek, the leading Czech music publisher of his day and personal friend of Dvorák, whose office next to the National Theatre was the meeting place for all leading Czech composers and musicians.

Jan Hanus's early years from the age of seven were spent in the countryside around Jílové, south of Prague, where his only musical contacts were through amateur theatricals. After schooling he entered the Prague business academy from 1930 to 1934. On the recommendation of his piano teacher, he also began composition lessons with Otakar Jeremiás and entered the Prague Conservatory to study conducting under Pavel Dedecek. On graduation, he joined the Urbánek family music publishing business but served for three years, until the fall of his country, in the Czechoslovak army. He continued to manage the family business through the occupation, up until 1949 and the Communist takeover.

Through his own musical involvement, as well as publishing, he took an early interest in the work of his contemporaries and from 1939 was a member of the committee of Prítomnost ("The Present"), the leading Czech society for contemporary music. He was also an active member of the Fibich, Foerster and Ostrcil Societies. With the political changes, his editorial talents were pressed into service in 1949, first with Orbis and later KLHU, including the Musica Antiqua Bohemica series until 1955.

Hanus was the last surviving member of the original editorial board of the important Dvorák Complete Critical Edition, set up in 1955, as well as being a member of the publishing commission for the complete works of Zdenek Fibich and Leos Janácek. He was founder Secretary of the Union of Czech Composers from 1955 to 1959, becoming its Honorary President in 1990. His enormous capacity for work for his colleagues and the young, often to his own detriment, continued with his chairmanship of the Czech Society for Music Education and his membership of the committee of the International Society for Music Education. In 1963 he was recalled to editorial duties as director of the Panton music publishing house, only retiring in 1975.

Hanus's career as a composer began in 1936 with a setting for men's chorus of Josef Sládek's Otci ("To Father") but his public recognition began with the performance in 1939 of his Meditace for piano, written in the previous year. During the years of occupation his writing developed and he produced a number of works which were essentially anti-Fascist in tone. Meditace dates from the time of the occupation of the Sudetenland but his Fantasie of 1939 was a direct response to the general invasion of the country on 15 March that year.

He was further moved by the execution of the Czech students by the Nazis in November 1939, writing his cantata Zeme mluví ("The Land Speaks"), quoting from the Czech National Anthem and the Hussite Chorale. In 1941 came his Violoncello Sonata, a work which was significant in his progress to a composer in symphonic forms and for the stage. The first of his seven symphonies was written in the following year but, because of its references to the Stabat Mater, it did not get past the German censors to performance. He celebrated the liberation in 1945 with his Chvalozpev ("Hymn of Praise") for soprano and orchestra.

The 1950s and 1960s saw substantial works flowing from his pen, including the next four symphonies, the important Concertante Symphony (1953-54) for organ, harp, timpani and strings, Symphonic Fantasy: Petr a Lucie (1955) and Prazská nokturna ("Prague Nocturnes") (1972-73), plus significant stage works such as the anti-Fascist opera Plameny ("The Flames", 1944), not performed until 1956, the ballets Sul nad zlato ("Salt above Gold", 1953) and Othello (1955-56) - for both of which he won the Gottwald State Prize in 1960 - and then eventually Labyrint (1980-82).

After the performances of this period, in which his symphonic works began to be taken up by conductors such as Jaroslav Krombholc, Karel Ancerl and Václav Neumann, came 1968 and the post-Dubcek era of further political oppression and Hanus's music was little heard for the next 10 years, except for some of his music for children. He was strongly anti-Communist and an openly practising Catholic, so public performance of his religious works had been discouraged.

He was spared further political persecution, it seems, by the intervention of the Minister of Education, Zdenek Nejedly, whose composer son Vít had been a friend of Hanus before the Second World War and who had died while serving with the Red Army. Hanus completed Vít Nejedly's unfinished opera as a gesture of friendship, which the father never forgot. Hanus's strong beliefs meant that he never ignored those who were Party members (unless overtly evil). Among his closest friends and a near neighbour was the Nobel prizewinning Jaroslav Seifert, some of whose texts he set to music, including Destník z Piccadilly ("The Umbrella of Piccadilly", 1983-84).

His loyalty to friends meant that he was prepared to take risks during the Communist years. Notably, after his friend Rudolf Margolius was among those executed at the time of the notorious Slánsky trials in 1952 and Heda Margolius was left very ill but deserted by friends and neighbours, the first person to come to her door offering friendship and help was Jan Hanus - a story she vividly recounts in her autobiography Prague Farewell (1988). Again, when his composer friend Karel Husa decided to emigrate to America after 1968, he tells how, for a long time, Hanus was the only one to risk writing to him regularly from home.

Up until 1968, Hanus's ballet Othello had received 137 performances in Prague and had been staged in 16 countries outside Czechoslovakia. In 1965 he was made an Artist of Merit and, in 1988, a National Artist. However, in 1989 he relinquished these titles in protest at the political persecution of the students.

In 1985 he was made a Vice-President of the British Dvorák Society for Czech and Slovak Music, taking great pride in wearing its tie whenever attending concerts in Prague. In 1996 he published an autobiographical volume, Labyrint svet: svedectví z konce casu ("The Labyrinth of the World: testimony from the end of time"), which is a charming and illuminating study of events in his long life and documenting many not recorded elsewhere.

After 1989, his capacity for hard work undiminished, Hanus became a member of the Artistic Board of the Prague Spring Festival. When news of the Velvet Revolution was being spread into remote areas of the country by groups from Prague, Hanus worked with them well into the evenings, as the composer Milan Slavicky recalled, "putting many of us half his age and exhausted to shame".

A devoted family man, with them throughout the dark years Jan Hanus continued to attend the monastery church of St Markéta in the Brevnov district of Prague. Here, together with four friends - the conductor Václav Smetácek, musicologist Jarmil Burghauser, composer and timpanist Karel Cernicky and the organist and choirmaster Jirí Vyskocil - he organised and maintained a high standard of church music.

Unlike many of his contemporaries who take a pessimistic view of the current musical scene, Hanus was a man of optimism. Having felt that his Symphony No 6 (1978) was a bit too sombre in tone, he was determined to write a seventh whose tone was to be essentially positive. This was performed at this year's Prague Spring Festival in the cathedral of St Vitus within Prague Castle.

Although in failing health and accompanied by his family, with typical determination and old-fashioned courtesy he insisted on going forward unaided to thank the artists while duly receiving the prolonged and heartfelt applause of a packed cathedral. Sadly, he did not live to hear his last major work, his Requiem (Op 121, 1991-95), the première of which under Libor Pesek was cancelled due to influenza decimating the large forces involved.

On Czech National Day in 1999, from the hands of Václav Havel, Hanus received the country's highest award for artists, Za zásluhy udeleni. He was active in his last years in setting up the Frantisek Augustin Urbánek Trust for young composers and said on his 85th birthday that, given time and money, his remaining ambition was to restore Czech music publishing to what it had been a century ago in the hands of his grandfather and uncle.

In all his life's work he enjoyed the devoted love and support of his wife Anna, with whom he marked their 65th wedding anniversary on the day before he died.

Graham Melville-Mason