Obituary: Klement Slavicky

Graham Melville-Mason
Monday 20 September 1999 23:02 BST

WITH THE death of Klement Slavicky, less than three weeks short of his 89th birthday, passes the Czech Republic's senior composer and a link with that nation's great musical past. He was the last composition pupil of Josef Suk, whose music he had admired from his youth.

In a tradition dating back two centuries, Slavicky obtained his initial musical training at the hands of his organist, violin-maker and choirmaster father. Klement Slavicky senior (1863-1941) was a pupil of Jancek at the Brno Organ School up to 1884 and held several positions in Moravia. His fine collection of musical instruments passed to his son and grandson.

Slavicky entered the Prague Conservatoire in 1927 and remained there until 1932. His teachers were Karel B. Jirk for composition, Pavel Dedecek for conducting, Ruzena Kurzov for piano and Frantisek Stupka for viola. From 1931 to 1933 he was selected to join the composition masterclass of Josef Suk, the same class in which Suk himself had studied under Antonin Dvork. From 1934 to 1935 he was also in the conducting masterclass of Vclav Talich.

The following year he joined Czechoslovak Radio in Prague, first as a music producer and staff conductor, managing to continue there throughout the years of the Second World War in spite of being a reserve officer of the Czechoslovak army and active in the resistance movement. Indeed, after 1940, while continuing as a senior music producer and programme planner, he was lucky not to be arrested by the Nazis, as they broke the underground group of which he was a member and only the silence of the man next to him in the line of command saved his life.

It was at this time that he met his future wife through their common interest in church music. She was also one of the first women announcers on Czechoslovak Radio but she knew nothing of his clandestine activities. She was the daughter of Kamil Voborsky, who was one of the last pupils of Dvork. She herself fell foul of the occupying forces at the time of the assassination of Reichsprotektor Heydrich, when she was forced at gunpoint to read a script against the Czechoslovak government in exile. She read it in such a way that the Czechs understood her note of defiance. She was instantly dismissed and was lucky not to have been executed.

After 1945 both Klement and his wife continued in Czechoslovak Radio until the birth of their son, Milan, in 1947. The Communist takeover in the following year brought further persecution. The resistance colleague who refused to denounce Klement survived the concentration camp but returned a hardened Communist and was made the radio's personnel manager. Wartime friendships meant nothing to him so, after Klement Slavicky underwent compulsory political schooling and still refused to join the Communist Party, he saw to it that Slavicky left in 1951 and he was expelled from the Union of Composers.

Suffering also from the balance problems of Meniere's disease, he found it impossible to get other work and thereafter chose to remain a freelance composer. For his wife the situation was no easier; she was excluded from even the most menial jobs in Prague. However, the family survived thanks to a friend, a Franciscan who had been imprisoned by the Communists, who employed Mrs Slavicka as a church helper and later as a music teacher in a monastery at Kadan between Prague and Kerlovy-Vary. Here she commuted to support her family until 1960.

Slavicky's first compositions to attract attention came as early as his student years with Suk, his graduation Fantasie for orchestra with piano of 1931 and String Quartet No 1 (1932) already showing the hallmarks of a technically accomplished composer with originality. The folk influences of his Moravian origins showed themselves first in his Trio (1937) for oboe, clarinet and bassoon, which achieved a notable success at the 1947 International Society for Contemporary Music festival in Copenhagen.

In 1940 came the first of his Symfonietas, subtitled "Impetus", which won him the 1941 Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts Prize. He began to write songs on folk texts and in 1942 his choral Sve matce ("To My Mother") to words by Josef Sldek appeared.

After the war, in 1945, Slavicky joined that number of composers who, like Bohuslav Martin, commemorated the Nazi destruction of the town of Lidice, with his own male-voice double chorus, Lidice, setting words by Frantisek Halas, but it was not until 1960 that it received its first performance. His most successful piano work was his Tri skladby ("Three Compositions"), which was a great success at its premiere at the 1947 Prague Spring Festival but it too was to suffer political exile when, in 1949, the Communists declared it "formalistic" and destroyed the entire stock of it.

Thus for Klement Slavicky wider recognition came slowly, although the Czech musical scene well knew his worth. The Communist Union of Composers tried to tempt him in 1951 with a commission for a cantata about the steel works at Ostrava - which he refused. The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra offered him a position as orchestral keyboard player but the conductor, Karel Ancerl, was afraid to employ him - yet, to Ancerl's credit, he played Slavicky's works when he could.

Nevertheless, the authorities recognised his value and later in 1951 relented by offering him a stipend to write whatever he wished. The result was his Moravske tanecni fantasie, in which he turned to his Moravian roots. This orchestral fantasy was to be one of his most popular orchestral works. The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra included it in its 1956 tour of Britain under Ancerl. Two years later he wrote what was to become his other most popular orchestral composition, his Rapsodicke variace ("Rhapsodic Variations"), which like the earlier work received performances abroad.

With some easing of Communist cultural control in the late 1950s, Slavicky was able to return to writing works of a more serious nature. Most successful from this period were the Fresky for organ (1957) and his Piano Sonata Zamyslenl nad zivotem ("Meditation on Life", 1958). His music was more performed, but after 1968 the tightening of political control meant the dissolution of the Union of Composers and a new era of persecution. Slavicky was largely sidelined for the next 20 years.

He continued to compose, however, producing his Psalmi for soloists, chorus and organ in 1970 which received its first performance only in 1988 in a broadcast from St Paul's, Knightsbridge, by the BBC Singers in a programme which also included the Beatus Vir by Slavicky's son Milan. The first public performance of Psalmi was given in Prague in 1990.

The 1980s brought further easing of restrictions leading up to the events of November 1989. In 1980 Slavicky wrote his Symfonieta No 3 as a "Concerto for Orchestra" but it was his Symfonieta No 4 (Pax hominibus in universo orbi) of 1985 which brought him renewed international recognition, including the United Nations Gold Commemorative Medal, marking also his dedication of the work to the 40th anniversary of the United Nations Organisation.

In this year he celebrated his 75th birthday, which was marked by the award of the Gold Commemorative Medal of the Palacky University of Olomouc. In 1988 he wrote his Musica per corno solo for his horn-playing grandson. He was performed again at home and, increasingly, abroad. Although in the Dubcek era he had received a number of national awards, in early 1989 the authorities nominated him for the award of National Artist, but he remained true to his principles and refused it, also in protest at the cruel suppression of the rally in Wenceslas Square in 1988 to mark the 20th anniversary of the sacrifice of Jan Palach.

After the 1989 Velvet Revolution he enjoyed a real revival. Although in his 80th year, he joined other senior composers like Jan Hanus who remembered the years of freedom in doing what he could to revive Czech musical life in the new free society. He became President of the Suk Society, as well as, most fittingly, chairman of the revived Umeleck Beseda, the most famous of all Czech organisations for composers and performers, of which both Dvork and Suk had been members and of which he had been a member since 1939.

Visiting him last year and enjoying the Slavickys' ever warm hospitality brought his recounting his times with Suk, whom he remembered as a pleasant and kindly man and a stimulating teacher. He felt that he and his wife had managed to survive the Communist years having been through the dark years of the German occupation in their younger days and with a firm religious faith to sustain them.

Of his earlier works, he had a particular fondness for the Tri skladby and his Piano Sonata, as well as his 1954 song cycle Ej, srdenko moje ("Oh, my heart"). From his later compositions it was clearly Psalmi and the Symfonieta No 4 which gave him the greatest satisfaction and I left with a present of the scores of both works under my arm.

Klement Slavicky, composer and conductor: born Tovacov, Moravia 22 September 1910; married 1943 Viasta Voborska (one son); died Prague 4 September 1999.

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