* 8 April 1921 Nová Říše† 17 November 1984 Neu Ulm
Jan Novák was one of the foremost representatives of post-war music in Moravia, one who succeeded in achieving international renown. He endeavoured to find a compromise between artificial and popular music and to rehabilitate Latin as a universal language.
He was thwarted by two dictatorships. During the first, his studies in composition, piano and conducting at the Brno Conservatory were interrupted when he was sent off to do forced labour in Germany; because of the second he was restricted in his actions as a free individual, something which caused him many hardships and conflicts with representatives of the official cultural politics and which eventually led to his emigration in 1968. As a student of Vilém Petrželka and Pavel Bořkovec he won a scholarship from the Ježek Foundation, which in late 1947 made it possible for him to make a study visit to the United States. There he studied with Aaron Copland during summer courses in the Berkschire Music Center in Tanglewood and with Bohuslav Martinů in New York. After his return to Czechoslovakia in February of 1948, he established himself as one of the most talented composers of his era. He evidenced secure mastery in both chamber and symphonic composition as is clear from his orchestral cycles, his symphonies, his concertos, his ballets, his cantatas and starting in the 1960s his film music for Karel Kachyňa, Vojtěch Jasný, Karel Zeman and Jiří Trnka. His style derived from neoclassism of the Stravinsky and Profofiev type, enriched by jazz elements. His style in the 1950s showed the fundamental influence of Martinů, with whom he remained in correspondence until his death in 1959. After a short creative period with leanings toward New Music at the beginning of the 1960s, he returned to his synthetic style with its basis in neoclassicism. His years of exile were spent with his family first in Aarhus in Denmark (1968-1969), then in Riva del Garda in Italy (1970-78) and finally in Neu Ulm in Germany (1978-84). The period in Italy near Lago di Garda proved to find a particularly strong resonance in his Romantic spirit and his love for Latin culture. It was for this reason too that the composer was buried near Rovereto until in 1010 his remains were removed from there to the Central Cemetery in Brno.
The Latin language was of fundamental importance for Novák’s style. Novák studied it, translated into it, wrote his own poetry in it (in reaction to the 1968 invasion, for example, he wrote the collection Incurus barbarorum) and even composed instrumental music based on its meter. He collected what he had learned in a theoretical work Musica Poetica Latina published posthumously.
Some of Novák’s most important works include: his nonet Baletti a 9 composed under the influence of Martinů; the cantata Didó (1967), which was compared in a New York review to Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex; the ballets Svatební košile (The Spectre’s Bride 1954) and Aesopia on the texts of Phaedrus’s fables for two pianos and chorus; and his string quartet Quadricinium fidium (1977). The following are representative of his symphonic works: Philharmonic Dances (1956) dedicated to the then recently founded Brno State Philharmonic, which allude to Leoš Janáček; his first symphony Ludi Symphoniaci I (1977); and Vernalis temporis symphonia (1982), a work commissioned from Aarhus. His final work in this area was his two-part Symphonia bipartita (1983).
Jan Novák was also active as a concert pianist, often appearing with his wife Eliška (née Hanousková), or as a soloist performing his own compositions. We might mention at least his Variations on a Theme by Bohuslava Martinů (1949) for two pianos and orchestra (1955) performed at the first Warsaw Autumn Festival and his Concentus biiugis for four hand piano (1976).His compositions for solo instruments make up a chapter all by themselves. Here we can cite his Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra (1952), his Sonata brevis for harpsichord (1960), his Capriccio for Cello and Small Orchesta that makes use of jazz and twelve-tone technique (1958), his Cithara Poetica (1977), his Sonata solis fidibus (1981) and his Prima sonata clavibus for piano (1982). He composed a whole series of works for flute and piano, the instruments which the composer’s daughters Clara and Dora played.Novák’s choral works on Latin texts have also found a certain following in the Czechlands, a representative one being his mixed chorus Exercitia mythologica (1968).
Author: Martin Flašar
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