UK Premiere for Czech composer in Solihull

W.H.Veit: Concert Overture in D minor, opus 17

Václav Jindřich Veit's grave Václav Jindřich's image

Nineteenth-century Czech music bristles with composers whose lives and works have sadly vanished from the radar of popular awareness. It is the first misguided rule of art-appreciation to recognize genius and to use that as a yardstick for measuring the worth of seemingly lesser mortals. This scattergun approach leaves a trail of devastation, composers once highly regarded and whose works enjoyed considerable acclaim are often consigned to unworthy oblivion. In the Czech lands, this situation was made worse through subsequent decades of nationalist and communist control of the arts and of social history. Czech art music was ruled to have begun in earnest in the 1860s with the so-called “Father of Czech Music”, Smetana, and centered upon Smetana, Dvorák and Fibich. Many other individuals, offering half a century's worth of earlier musical endeavour in a land then regarded as the Conservatoire of Europe, were simply passed over and dismissed.

Among the most important of these composers-in-limbo was Wenzel Heinrich Veit (1806-1864), also known by his Czech forenames Vaclav Jindrich. The son of a minor landowner, born in a small village in north Bohemia, by the age of 10 he had begun to write music and was already an accomplished pianist, organist and violinist. While studying law and philosophy at Prague University he supported himself by means of his considerable musical talents and embarked upon a career within the state judiciary. He continued composing, taught and performed, and soon carved out an impressive reputation. He was unquestionably the most inspired nineteenth-century Czech composer of chamber music before Dvorák; his works in that genre were popular in Prague concerts and soirées. His Symphony in E minor of 1859 ranks among the most accomplished Czech Romantic symphonies to that date. He wrote songs, choruses and piano pieces that were bought by foreign publishers. His works were admired by Schumann. Smetana knew, and performed, a number of his string quartets. The Concert Overture in D minor was chosen and conducted by Mendelssohn for inclusion in a concert of the Leipzig Gewandhaus. By the 1840s Veit was acknowledged by Prague critics as one of the leading Czech composers.

Yet Veit's creative legacy did not fit with late nineteenth- and twentieth-century polemics of Czech music history. He was deemed insufficiently patriotic – despite the fact that he was an active supporter of the Czech nationalist cultural movement, that he attempted as a German speaker to master the Czech language, that he wrote a number of the century's most popular Czech choruses and strikingly incorporated native folksong themes and characteristics into several of his works. He was deemed insufficiently progressive – being the composer of a sarcastic even though imaginative pastiche on Berlioz's music named an Episode in the Life of Tailor after the Frenchman's Symphonie Fantastique (An Episode in the Life of an Artist) , despite the fact that he withdrew the work soon after composition because he felt such caricature was small-minded. As a lawyer-cum-composer he did not have the time to turn out sufficient works or appear so frequently in Prague concerts as to establish himself as a seminal figure in the city ' s musical life. His social class and bourgeois career were anathema to later communist sensitivies. Perhaps most compromising to the long-term survival of his creative legacy was Veit's modesty, humanity and lack of self-centered ambition. With many nineteenth-century composers creative success derived from their possession of an inflamed ego or a flawed personality. With others it stemmed from endurance of a life of adversity and struggle that stoked the fires of individual creativity. In the case of Veit the latter was very true. Worn out by his profession, wracked by tuberculosis, suffering a series of devastating personal catastrophies, he composed for pleasure and often as a means of personal expression and release. All his works bear the seal of creative honesty. He wrote as an artist for himself, he never sought fame or fortune through his art, and he never looked to impose himself upon local musical life. In an age when egotism, eccentricity and ambition were the most useful means of long term artistic survival, his works were already at a great disadvantage.

The Concert Overture op.17 was written in 1840, six years after Veit achieved his first public successes with a series of chamber works. It was first performed in Prague on 19 th December of that year and enthusiastically received by audience and critics alike. A year later it was given in Leipzig, published by the firm of Hoffmeister, and over the next 20 years featured in a number of important Prague concerts. The piece stands somewhere between programme music and a rousing opera prelude. Veit attached lines from Wieland ' s fairytale poem Oberon to the published score describing a progression from darkness to light and from despair to hope, and later probably sanctioned (being present at the performance), a title of ‘ Nocí k svetlu [From night to light]. ' The piece is indeed just that. A long introduction whose opening chromatic gropings are in similar mould to Haydn's darkness at the start of the oratorio Creation gives way to a lyrical sunrise melody gradually climaxing through repetition in different orchestrations. A trumpet fanfare then heralds a festive major-key Allegro half reminiscent of mid-century Italian opera and half pointing the way in ebullience, vitality and irrepressible spirit towards the Bartered Bride . For the first major orchestral work of any composer it was an impressive achievement. In 1851 the critic of the Prague newspaper Bohemia remarked that the work ‘thoroughly refutes the opinion of hard-nosed critics in... Germany that “musical talent in Bohemia is to be found only in the fingertips [i.e. as performers and not composers].” To us, Veit's Overture seems to be a brilliant novelty of the first rank.' Particular attention was drawn to the slow introduction progressing from an opening pathos to a ‘gorgeous Andante' climaxing with repetitions of a lyrical theme in different orchestrations, and to the Allegro whose ‘splendid lyricism, rhythmic and harmonic interest and beautiful form maintains our attention and enthusiasm right up to the closing chords.'

© Karl Stapleton 2007