Ostrčil Otakar

  • Ostrčil
Year of Birth - Death :
1879 - 1935 †
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Otakar Ostrcil is tied up with the history of Czech music in many ways: he was not only a composer of great originality, but also a director and the chief of the National Theatre Opera (1920 - 35). Ostrcil' s development as a composer was quite unique. In his generation we shall not find another composer of his type. He was the only one among his contemporaries to pass through the first decades of this century without allowing himself to be influenced by the subjectivism of late Romanticism, and he did not let himself be side-tracked by highly cultivated compositional constructivism and intellectual objectivism. The peak of his both organic and systematic thirty-year development from late Romanticism to the method of linear constructivism is considered to be the symphonic variations "Calvary" and the opera "Johnny s Kingdom\", written on the motifs of a fairytale by L. N. Tolstoy. Ostrcil was one of the few pupils of Zdenek Fibich and the closest ho him personally. They were close to one another in the extent of their knowledge, their artistic creed as admirers of Smetana' s heritage and in the role of rationality in the creative process. Ostrcil' s first compositions, for instance Peasant Celebration, the Suite in G major, or the String Quartet in B major, are early proofs of his perfect mastery of all means of expression used by the then Romantic composers. His first completed opera "The Death of Vlasta" (1903), the extensive work of a 24-year-old composer, had its premiere in the Prague National Theatre, and closed his nine-year period of study and searching. In parallel with his compositional studies, Ostrcil also concluded his linguistic studies at Charles University in Prague and thus ensured his existence as a teacher of the Czech and German languages at the Prague Commercial Academy. It was perhaps this very interest in literature and other arts which helped him to make the immediate transition from Romantic thought to literary symbolism and to its themes of internal psychological transformation through the art. These are the opera Kunal' s Eyes (1908) and the humorous one-acter The Bud (1910), in which he brusquely broke the bond holding him to the heritage of his teacher. Ostrcil's great interest in the work of G. Mahler showed itself in thorough analytical study of his scores. As a result of these Mahlerian studies, there are two compositions for large orchestra, "Impromptu" (1911) and "Suite in C minor" (1912 ). However, as opposed to the works of Schoenberg, Ostrcil remained consistently in the frame of tonality, his harmonics, as well as melodies do not deny their link with the preceding degree of development. Ostrcil's somewhat updated compositional style is also documented by the vocal compositions of this time, closely bound, understandably, to the Czech text. A further opera Legend from Erin (1913-19) expresses symbolism of its literary content through the consistent implementation of thoroughly polyphonic thought. Here it is also necessary to rank the outstanding Czech Christmas Legend, perhaps quite unique in world choral literature, and Simple Motifs (1922) with their technically extreme demands. Both compositions were conditioned by the existence of the world-famous Moravian Teachers Singing Association.
After 1920, when Ostrcil became Chief of the Opera of the National Theatre in Prague, he concentrated on several works, absolutely precisely conceived and written in every aspect. If we overlook the otherwise interesting Sonatina for viola, violin and piano of 1925, then there are actually only three great works for large symphony orchestra and the opera Johnny' s Kingdom (1933). The Symphonietta (1921) is an outstanding work which doesn't lack for structural complexity and mature mastery. The Summer, a two-part symphonic composition, is a musical gem. The extensive cycle of 14 variations Calvary (1928) represents the climax in Ostrcil's whole compositional output. It is one of the greatest works of Czech music of the 20th century. These are programatic variations on composer's own theme. They are a splendid structure of severe form, imposing in their consistent maintenance of the conceived compositional construction. Even in the proximity of great works of foreign provenance, "Calvary" stands out thanks to the monumentality and depth of its emotional expression.
In parallel with Ostrcil's activity asa composer he was no less active as a conductor. After a period of conducting the first student amateur orchestras, he was quite frequently entrusted with conducting the Czech Philharmonic. In the war years he was asked to be Chief of the Opera of the Vinohrady Theatre in Prague. In 1920 he became Chief of the foremost Czech Opera and remained in this function until his death in 1935. In the history of the National Theatre this period respresents one of its most important eras. Here too Ostrcil consistently subordinated all interests to well-conceived dramaturgy. A characteristic trait of this period was the introduction of new authors, a friendly relationship to the younger generation and, of course, perfection of execution. In the National Theatre he produced Janacek, Wagner, Strauss, Debussy, Szymanowski, the whole cycle of Mozart s operas and the cycle of Smetana s operas. The promotion of Berg s Wozzeck [1926) was considered fo be the Ideological manifesto of the progressive Czech musical front and evoked a stormy reaction from Prague fascist groups and personal attacks on Ostrcil. Ostrcil's unequivocal progressive ideological standpoint showed both in his compositional work and also in his leadership of the Opera of the National Theatre. Concentrated here at his time were the best forces of musicians, singers, graphic artists and producers.
Ostrcil had no pupils. As a composer he has no direct successor. His work remains, however, in several large, precisely hewn blocks, as the basis of modern Czech music of the 20th century and his activity as a conductor forms an epoch in Czech interpretative art beween the Wars.