Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fučík's Context

With all the attention to Gustav Mahler on Public Television with the airing of the two-part Keeping Score program about him prepared by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, I found myself thinking about the concerts in Davies Symphony Hall that provided much of the material for this project.  I recalled that one of those concerts introduced the music of other composers to establish the “origins” aspect of Origins and Legacies subtitle for this series of concerts.  One of those purported influences was Julius Fučík.  Like Mahler, Fučík was Czech;  but he was represented by his “Florentiner Marsch,” which was composed in 1907.  Since this was about four years before Mahler’s death, its selection as “origins” music was, to say the least, anachronistic.

Thomas’ explanation to the audience was that this march represented the spirit of the Austro-Hungarian Empire;  and, when I wrote my piece about this performance, I accepted this as a perfectly valid explanation.  Indeed, Fučík’s embodiment of that spirit is easily appreciated from the biographical summary on his Wikipedia page:

In 1891, he joined the 49th Austro-Hungarian Regiment as a military musician. He initially played in Krems by the Danube under Josef Wagner and later joined Karl Komzak's military band in Vienna. In 1895 Fučík left the army to take up a position as second bassoonist at the German Theatre in Prague. A year later he became the principal conductor of the Prague City Orchestra as well as the conductor of the Danica Choir in the Croatian city of Sisak. During this time, Fučík wrote a number of chamber music pieces, mostly for clarinet and bassoon.

In 1897, he rejoined the army as the bandmaster for the 86th Infantry Regiment based in Sarajevo. Shortly after, he wrote his most famous piece, the Einzug der Gladiatoren or Entrance of the Gladiators. Fučík's interest in Roman history led him to name the march as he did. The tune is now universally associated with the appearance of the clowns in a circus performance. In its circus context, the tune is also known by the title Thunder and Blazes.

In 1900, Fučík's band was moved to Budapest where Fučík found there were nine regimental bands ready to play his compositions, but he also faced more competition to get noticed. Having more musicians at his disposal, Fučík began to experiment with transcriptions of orchestral works.

In 1909, Fučík moved again, returning to Bohemia where he became the bandmaster of the 92nd Infantry Regiment in Theresienstadt. At the time, the band was one of the finest in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Fučík toured with them giving concerts in Prague and Berlin to audiences of over 10,000 people.

Nothing quite captures that Imperial spirit more than the tub-thumping patriotism of a military band;  and Fučík was clearly prodigious in cranking out music for those bands.  The fact that his best known composition has been appropriated by just about every circus troupe in the Western world says more about the ironies of history than it does about the prevailing jingoism of the time.

I actually still have the Orfeo CD of Fučík selections (including “Einzug der Gladiatoren”).  Václav Neumann is conducting the Tshechische Philharmonie.  His readings are excellently disciplined, but he never tries to restrain the exuberant mood.  Indeed, the spirit is best captured by the title of the CD, K. u. K. Festkonzert.  I remember asking my friend about the abbreviation;  and he explained that it stood for “Kaiser und König.”  My immediate reply was, “Are you sure you don’t mean ‘Kinder und Küchen?’”

Those looking for any further ironies of history may recall that Theresienstadt was where the Nazis built the Terezín transit point concentration camp, which they tried to propagandize as a “paradise ghetto” and which had a rather impressive number of composers as “alumni;”  unless I am mistaken, none of them survived the Second World War.

No comments: