About Kalabis and Kahánek
If* he were alive, Viktor Kalabis would not be an artist for our times. Nor was he, I dare say, an artist for the times in which he lived. I hope that he will have a cult of originality and individuality, and that he will perceive musical works as thoroughly social artifacts. He considered all attempts to build a musical language, which led to the breaking of bonds with the listener, to be incorrect. Emotions and fundamental problems for human existence, such as the tension between love and hatred, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, harmony and disorder, etc., were what created the bond between the musical work and the listener. According to Kalabis, singing was a special medium for conveying emotions and existential content. Jaroslav Šeda, the author of the monograph on Kalabis, was supposed to confess that he wanted to compose sung music all his life, but he could not find a text that he did not think was unnecessary.
A few biographical puzzles
Kalabis was born on 27 February 1923 in Červený Kostelec, in a "small house opposite the post office". The town was "textile", dominated by the weaving industry. However, Kalabis was born into a family of post office clerks and was the only child of Viktoria Anna and Karel. The nature of their work ensured that Kalabis had an existentially stable childhood. From home, he brought out systematicity, punctuality and modesty. He had a special bond with his mother, who played the piano at home. As he confessed himself, music surrounded him from his early childhood, not only at home. He listened to Áda Šupich's band, for example, and at the age of five he watched The Bartered Bride. At the same age he began to learn how to play the piano. Šeda says that his first compositional rehearsals took place between 1933 and 1935, when Calabis wrote a tango for singing.
Kalabis's education, apart from strictly musical studies, also includes classes in aesthetics, conducted at the Faculty of Philosophy of Charles University. There Kalabis was a student of Jan Mukařovský, a co-founder of the Prague structuralist school, who had a great influence on Kalabis. It was Mukařovski who showed him the concept of form/structure, as a dynamic whole, created by interrelated elements whose hierarchical arrangements were historically variable. Structuralism was also the source of the concept of function, which determines the specificity of a given language. Using the notion of function, Kalabis will criticize music which, under the guise of naturalness, is a compositional exhibitionism fixated on the individualistic expression of ego.
One of the most important events in the life of Calabis was the meeting with Zuzana Růžičková, with whom he married in 1952. The bond between them was extremely strong. Kalabis confessed that this marriage gave him a lot, also professionally - Zuzana, one of the most outstanding harpsichordist of the 20th century, was the first judge of his works. They lived modestly, their priority was the possibility of (joint) work. The apartment was full of books, which they read in their free time (sometimes reading was changed into watching television). Nature was also an important element of their lives. They used their free time to go outside the city, enjoying the richness of their images, and to take walks in silence and conversation. Zuzana also had a direct influence on the music of Kalabis. Her love for Bach, analytical exploration of his scores and performance influenced the musical means used by Kalabis. They also inspired Kalabis to write a string quartet devoted to Bach (apart from the title Ad honorem J.S. Bach, Kalbis weaves Bach's name into the music and a fragment from the Matthew Passion). This work is a kind of philosophical-ethical meditation. Here Bach is a symbol of "balance on the volcanically unstable soil of philosophical skepticism", as the composer wrote in his commentary on the work.
Kalabis believed that music is a living, dynamic whole that is developing. Broadening the tonality, independent dissonances, equal rights for all tones - these are the phenomena that were born on the path of music development. Such a "natural" stage was also dodecaphony, Calabis emphasized that if Schönberg had not appeared, someone else would have systematized the atonality reached by composers from before Schönberg.
Looking from this perspective, Calabis contradicted the great turns in music. He declared that he believed in the continuity of human thought and culture, especially music. A great turn of phrase means that he could only destroy music. At the same time, he did not deny that one can speak of phrases in the sense which, due to the lack of a better word, is a smaller name. A phrase would then be connected with the composer's struggle with musical language, with experimentation. He soberly added, however, that to some extent every composer must experiment; experimentation is not the same as originality. To quote Noda Rorema, he argued that innovators and composers are two different professions: the great innovators are not the best composers, while the latter take advantage of innovations by incorporating them into their musical language and working techniques. One could say that the proverbial genius is the work of a multitude of other people, from the representatives of the past (tradition, as Kalabis claimed, is not a habit that works automatically, but a living force) to the people of modern times, with their problems and the world they live in. Music is the answer to this world, it is always immersed in context. Its deconstexualization is dangerous. This could be seen in the rigid application of dodecaphonic rules. Kalabis said that an elementary logic is enough to master the method, there is no need for fantasy or imagination. Music is then created as if as a result of an algorithm, but it is devoid of undefined beauty. He spoke warmly about Alban Berg from the dodecaphonists, but he was also the least orthodox, immersed in expressionism and gnosticism, from the representatives of the Second Viennese School. At the same time, the social character of music and its relation with the present day are connected with the requirement of not closing oneself in the cage of what was. Calabis used twelve-tone technique, for example in symphony no. 2 Sinfonia Pacis or in Chamber music op. 21, at least in movement 3, a kind of concerto grosso, where twelve-toneity appears in the ripieni. In the second movement of symphony No. 3 he also used aleatoricism. The ratio of Calabis to such phenomena as decodecaphony best reflects this quotation: "Whoever has nothing to say will not be helped by any system".
An important musical point of reference for Kalabis were the composers of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. He interpreted their music existentially, he believed that it speaks to good and evil, love and hatred, beauty and ugliness, harmony and disorder, order and anarchy, reality and surrealism... In his opinion, these fundamental issues were able to be integrated within a single form, while avoiding "cheap pathos and screaming". The development of Kalabis's compositional language is precisely a search for synthesis, not an eclectic gluing of something with something. Certainly, it is also an aspiration not to express oneself in a flamboyant and fair-pathetic way. Only in this way did the existential character of his works have a chance to be brought to light. Bach and Baroque music owed him harmonic courage, balance of proportions, fantastically free shaping of the architecture of the works, motor skills characteristic of toccatas and sensitivity to ornamentation. He owed much to his studies of Beethoven (he even wrote a cadence for his third piano concerto) or Mozart. Of the Romantics, Brahms was particularly important to him - thematic work, variation, bass in passacaglia, non-semantic and melodious melos, etc. - but he was also very interested in the composer's music. He also referred to Smetana, Dvořak, Mussorgsky and Debussy.
But he was probably closest to Leoš Janček and Bohuslav Martinů. Critical of the music as a consequence of the rigid application of the method, he stated that it lacks the elusive and undefined beauty present in a simple two-voice motif from On a Overgrown Path of Janček or Martinů symphonies. He considered both composers authentic avantgardists. As he claimed:
"The avant-garde should be called whoever saw the truth and fought for it before others saw it. He fought for it because his ethics did not allow him to choose a more comfortable path. Because his truth was avant-garde (which he could only show in time), it was not widely understood”.
Janček was close to him not only because of his formal solutions, but also because of the profound humanism of his music and its strong links with nature. Martinů considered him "...a poet of our land, of our joys and sorrows, of our Highlands". The composer was particularly clear about "explaining to all people what is the basic feature of a Czech man". This was expressed in the music by the simple sophistication behind which "a deep man - a philosopher" hid himself. Unfortunately, his contemporaries confused the simplicity of wisdom with simplicity, they did not notice that Martinů's avant-garde was based on communicating a complex world "in the simplest possible form", that it was an expression of a "pure loving heart". These, I must admit, pathetic confessions were translated into the actions of Kalabis, who publicly defended Martinů against critics. In a letter addressed to an older colleague, he also admitted that he dreamt of studying with him. He remained even for the third year at the conservatory, hoping that Martinů would take up a class there. When it turned out that this would not happen, he finally moved to the Academy of Music.
This year, Supraphon released a double album with a complete set of Kalabis's piano works. Ivo Kahánek plays it. The first disc contains three piano sonatas, the second one contains the remaining pieces: Accents. The cycle of piano expressive studies op. 26, Entrata, aria and toccata op. 41, Three polkas op. 52, Four enigmas for Graham op. 71, Two Toccatas op. 88 and Allegro impetusoso op. 89.
It is a very diversified repertoire with different genre weights. Toccaty together with Allegro impetuoso are designed as Czerny's etudes, as works for young and young pianists. Riddles is a piece written with the friend of Kalabis and Růžičková Graham Melville Mason in mind. The title riddles concern the inclusion of the name Graham in the music, while the work is written in such a way that it can be played by Mason. Accents are a collection of miniatures, each of which has a problem with expression. The last of the miniatures, as Kalabis said in 1988, is "a piano storm for Svyatoslav Richter". Entrata is a work written for Pavel Štěpan. It is structurally reminiscent of a Baroque suite. Polish women are an attempt (again, after Smetana or Martinů) to capture the Czech spirit. At the same time, Kalabis believed that this dance is "the soul of Czech music".
Sonatas allow us to trace the development of his language, from the visible influence of Stravinsky and Bořkovac in the first sonata and the adoption of the classical form of the sonata, to going beyond formal limitations. The first sonata is a three-movement sonata. Calabis wrote it in 1947, dedicating it to his mother - although she would not have been able to play it, he wanted to offer her the best thing written (for that moment). Here we have a very clear allegro, a roundabout finale, and in the second movement a "passacaglia" bass.
Sonatas two (from 1948, "this is my own work", stated Kalabis) and three (from 1981/1982) are two-part. The first movements play the role of preludes. The second part plays the role of a drama.
Introduced sonatas from 1948 have a tripartite structure, with a figured choral melody in the middle. It begins meditatively, with a played pp of sound D and slow climbing through chromatically differentiated rows of tones. As Šeda writes, we are dealing here with tensions and pain brought by dissonances, discharged by consonant chords. This introduction is a peculiar De profundis of humanity. Movement Two is a sonata allegro, with a pair of contrasting themes, the second of which is a stylized Moravian folk song.
Sonata Three, which, like the previous one, tells the story of an existential situation "I and the world, the world and I". The prelude based on the passage technique precedes the drama, which is no longer told in a language based on musical themes. We have here rather a structure based on contrasts, where the motor music is accompanied by a polyphonic fragment, reminiscent of Šeda's scratches on glass.
Kalabis claimed that the greatest difficulty of this sonata is its expression. The pianist should not interpret it with academic coolness, but should be very rich.
In my opinion, Kahánek understands this music perfectly and feels it. He also interprets it very well. I come back to this album time and again. Just like the previously recorded album with sonatas for cello and clarinet (with Kahánek at the piano). And also to the disc with string quartets no. 3-6 (various performers).
*Text entirely based on a monograph by Jaroslav Šeda, Viktor Kalabis, Prague 2016.
Zuzana Růžičkova is one of my beloved artists. On the occasion of her 90th birthday, Erato/Warner published a box (20 records) with her Bach recordings, which appeared on vinyl in the 70s of the last century. Writing about this release I will not avoid private, even intimate matters. I ordered the Box before Mom's planned operation and together we were happy to listen to Bach after her return home. It happened, however, that we returned home from the hospital and Růžičková's records accompanied us for two weeks every day, until another trip to the hospital, from which Mum did not return. The first disc I put into the player was the nineteenth disc with sonatas for violin and harpsichord. Růžičková is accompanied by Josef Suk. We both let ourselves be seduced by this performance - Suk plays with extraordinary emotional sensitivity and extraordinary sensitivity to colour. He plays on one breath with Růžičková. Later we listened to sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord, here in the cello version. Mom wanted to listen to them in combination with the gamba and thought that Pierre Fournier was in no way inferior to the original version. We were also delighted with the rest of the albums. People who know me know that I see music in colours. Probably that's why I feel such an amazing spiritual community with Růžičková, for whom the colour aspect of the performed music is one of the leading elements (it is perfectly audible in the way of recording). There is also no academic stiffness in these performances. As Esfahani (a pupil of Růžičková) writes in her essay box book, she never said that Baroque articulation or tempo was always performed in this way or that way. She never gave quick answers to the students' questions either. Esfahani writes that she made references to ancient drama or Rilke's poetics when talking about it. Her lessons with her were focused on music as a pure sound in opposition to music treated as a semiotic or symbolic system (loose translation). Thinking about articulation and phrasing in the "neoplatonic" spirit, giving them priority over thinking about Baroque music through the perspective of words, Růžičkova built up her unique language, which fascinates me more than the vast majority of correct playing in the spirit of actually "historically informed performance". I also admit that it's been a long time since I've seen Mom as delighted as when listening to these records, although she loved music and listened to it a lot. This delight, a piece of her spirit, remained for me forever among the creations of Růžičková and her partners (Jean-Pierre Rampal also plays on the albums). And every time I listen to them, Mom's presence becomes tangible.
In my deep sense this box is worth having on the shelf. Unless you are a dogmatic admirer of the alleged progress under the banner of resurrection of tradition.
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator