Petr Eben

Composer sustained in Buchenwald and through 40 years of political oppression by his Catholic faith
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The Independent Online

Petr Eben, composer and organist: born Žamberk, Czechoslovakia 22 January 1929; married 1953 Šárka Hurníková (three sons); died Prague 24 October 2007.

Petr Eben was the most loved and respected figure in Czech cultural life and his country's internationally best-known contemporary composer. In Great Britain his reputation also stood high: he was well-known as a composer and organist, as well as a master of the art of improvisation. For the academic year of 1977-78 he was a visiting professor of composition at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, of which he was made a Fellow, also being composer-in-residence at the Dartington International Summer School for the first Czech Week there in 1993 and at Aldeburgh in 1997. In 2000 he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Organists and of the Royal Academy of Music, as well as being a Patron of the British Dvorák Society for Czech and Slovak Music since 1995.

He was born in Žamberk in north-eastern Bohemia but his childhood years were spent in the south Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov. Here his early keyboard talents were pressed into service during the Second World War, as organist of the church of St Vitus, even though initially his feet could not reach the pedal-board. Early experience of chamber music also came at this time, when he learnt much repertoire as the violoncellist in a piano trio with his father (violin) and brother (piano). Although the family embraced the Catholic faith, the fact that his father was a Jew meant that, in 1943, Petr was expelled from school and spent the rest of the war years in the concentration camp at Buchenwald.

These years, which brought him face to face with life and death, man's inhumanity to man, and human beings' capacity for faith and sacrifice, brought an early maturity of thought and conscience. He later described the experience of arriving at Buchenwald as a teenager with his older brother Bedrich, and being taken to a "shower room". He was already aware of what that might mean and held his brother's hand, expecting lethal gas to come from the spray heads. While there was relief when water fell on them, that moment was to colour Eben's life and the human, Christian attitude by which he was to live out his days. In one of his early works, the Suita balladica for cello and piano of 1955, he reflected on this period and said of the work that:

It is a remembrance of the dead in the mass graves and . . . a testimony of the wonderful faith of human beings. Faith and hope cannot be killed, the spirit cannot be defeated by external events.

It was this same philosophy, this same faith and inner strength that sustained him through a further 40 years of political oppression under the Soviet rule.

After the war Eben resumed his schooling and entered the Prague Academy of Music in 1948, studying piano with František Rauch. In 1950 he commenced composition classes there under Pavel Borkovec, graduating in 1954. Both teachers were to exert a significant influence upon the young Eben.

In 1955 he was appointed a lecturer in the history of music at Charles University where he remained until 1990. Although he clearly deserved promotion, it was denied him because of his refusal to join the Communist Party and his open and continuing church attendance with his family.

After the 1989 Velvet Revolution he was appointed Professor of Composition and president of the Prague Spring Music Festival, among other important positions in Czech musical life. While holding the presidency, with typical modesty he refused to allow his own music to be played at the festival. Awarded his country's highest honour for artists by President Václav Havel, following his retirement and in spite of the onset of debilitating illness, he continued for many years to travel abroad to festivals in his honour. He went on composing, mainly organ and choral pieces for church festivals, while living quietly in Prague.

While the name of Petr Eben is best known in Britain for his fine works for the organ, his output embraced many other forms. He wrote a number of short piano pieces, plus substantial works for that instrument, notably the Piano Sonata in D flat of 1951, the piano cycle Letters to Milena of 1991 and the Veni Creator (1992). With orchestra there is the Piano Concerto written in 1961 and dedicated to his teacher Rauch, first performed the following year by the dedicatee with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Karel Ancerl.

In spite of the politically difficult post-war years, Eben continued to develop his individual style, staying true to his beliefs, and slowly he gained recognition abroad. Borkovec had instilled in him a strong sense of form and his interest in Czech folk music had been kindled in his student days, when he collected folk songs in Moravia. The church environment at Krumlov sowed the seeds for his later study and use of plainchant. His many fine works for organ include the two Concertos (1954 and 1982) and the major solo compositions, Faust (1980), Job (1987), and The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart (1991). Based upon Goethe, the Bible and Comenius respectively, the latter two originally were massive organ improvisations, an art of which Eben was a rare master. All three cycles were intended for performance with spoken texts.

Of his other very approachable organ compositions, any organist who has Eben in his repertoire will have enjoyed Sunday Music (1957-59) and Laudes of 1964. Shorter but equally attractive pieces include the toccata and fugue Hommage à Dietrich Buxtehude (1987) and Four Biblical Dances (1991). One of the finest works for trumpet and organ is his Windows (1976), based on the Chagall windows in the Hebrew University Medical Centre near Jerusalem. Most organists have taken his popular Sunday Music into their programmes.

The kind heart of Petr Eben made it difficult to say "No" when commissions for yet more organ works poured in, yet he longed to write more orchestral and instrumental music. Of his orchestral output, his Vox clamantis (1969) for three trumpets and orchestra, Night Hours (1975) and Prague Nocturnes for the 1984 Salzburg Festival are among the best known. In 1995 he was commissioned to write his Improperia for the 1996 centenary of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Chamber music holds a lesser place but both his String Quartet (1987), written for the famous Smetana Quartet, and his Piano Trio (1986) are strong works.

His many choral works include religious compositions and those of an apparently secular nature in which church and Gregorian melodies were disguised in order to hoodwink the Communist authorities. Pragensia (1972) displays his interest in the Renaissance, and was based on sources of the time of Rudolf II dealing with manufacturing practices and other aspects of Prague life. His oratorios include Apologia Sokratus (1967), and cantatas such as Bitter Earth (1959) and Greek Dictionary (1974). Like other Czech composers he wrote many works for the fine children's choirs to be found throughout the land, the composition of which gave him much pleasure, while for wider church use he wrote masses such as the Trouvère Mass (1968-69) and the Missa cum populo (1982) which allows for congregational participation. In 1989 came the Prague Te Deum to mark the Velvet Revolution. Eben wrote more than a dozen attractive song cycles of which the Songs to Lute (1951), setting medieval lyrics in four languages, was an engagement present for Šárka Hurnikova (the sister of his composer and writer friend Ilja Hurník) whom he married in 1953.

Petr Eben had a long association with Britain and this he marked with a number of dedications of works to performers and friends. His Job was dedicated to the organist David Titterington, while both Faust and Four Biblical Dances were dedicated to the organist Susan Landale. His Festive Voluntary: on Good King Wenceslas (1986) for organ was dedicated to the diplomat Peter Smart. The pianist William Howard received the dedication of the Kafka-based Letters to Milena while his Veni Creato was dedicated to me. The Nash Ensemble commissioned his Piano Quintet (1991-92).

In 1991 The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart was performed at the Edinburgh Festival, with Tom Fleming as the narrator. Eben considered this performance with, as he put it, a Catholic organist on a Presbyterian organ with a Baptist narrator, the finest he had seen, although he thought the performances with Cormac Rigby at Canterbury and Westminster Cathedrals came close.

Petr Eben's desire to return to larger-scale orchestral compositions was curtailed by the sinister effects of an undiagnosed stroke which started to take effect first on the non-musical memory aspects of his brain. While he continued to write short organ and choral works, his ability to work on longer sustained composition began to desert him – and so the Violoncello Concerto commissioned by Raphael Wallfisch and for which the Prague and London premières were to be conducted by Jirí Belohlávek sadly never progressed beyond the initial ideas stage.

At the time of the Velvet Revolution in November 1989 Petr was staying with us in London. The day after the great event he went shopping and returned with a pair of shoes, saying that he wished to be wearing new shoes when he stood again on the soil of a new Czechoslovakia. In our visitor's book of that occasion he wrote "Full of hope (once again in my life!)"

Petr Eben is considered already by some to be the next in the line of Smetana, Dvorák, Janácek and Martinu. As to that, only time will tell. What is certain is that his humanity, humility and strong faith sustained him through years of persecution and personal suffering to emerge as one of the leading figures to whom his countrymen turned with confidence and love in the difficult times of their newfound freedom. Eben was the truest, gentlest and loveliest of men.

Graham Melville-Mason