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8.225308-09 - FOERSTER: Eva
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Josef Bohuslav Foerster (1859-1951): Eva
Foerster: a Pillar of Czech Musical History

When, in 1896, the management of the National Theatre in Prague announced a competition for a new opera, there was an unusually strong field: Fibich’s ·árka, Kovafiovic’s Psohlavci (The Dogsheads), and Eva. The unanimous choice of the jury — The Dogheads — perhaps says more about the prevalence of a certain Romanticism à la Smetana than about the works’ relative qualities; what it does make clear is how modern Eva must have seemed at the time. Nevertheless, one by one all three received productions in the National Theatre (by a company that included an exceptional generation of soloists), and each went on to become its author’s most successful opera. For the next sixty years, these operas, along with those of Smetana, Dvofiák and later Janáãek, formed the core of the Czech opera repertory. Eva, indeed, proved especially longlived: each successive administration of the National Theatre opera company saw a revival of the work. In 1929, to mark the composer’s seventieth birthday, the director Ostrãil put on a cycle of all the operas Foerster had so far completed. After the war, Jaroslav Krombholc directed productions in 1945, 1949 (in the composer’s ninetieth year, with 113 performances) and finally 1981.

Foerster’s passionate involvement with the subject of Eva had begun with the première of Gabriela Preissová’s realist drama Gazdina roba at the National Theatre in 1889, which he reviewed for Národní listy (The National Papers). The play was a sensation. Its portrayal of social conflict, represented in the title, where the dialect word ‘gazdina’ refers to the socially respectable farmer’s wife, while ‘roba’ is a derogatory expression equivalent to ‘wench’, was compelling, especially the scandalous figure of the woman who leaves her husband and lives unmarried with another man. Foerster had no trouble hearing an opera in Preissová’s play, and with her permission asked Jaroslav Kvapil, an esteemed man of letters, author of, among other works, the libretto of Foerster’s Debora and Dvofiák’s Rusalka, to put it into verse. He even travelled to the Moravian-Slovak border in order to ‘look inside the hearts of the people’ of the region. For several years he awaited Kvapil’s libretto in vain when suddenly, in an obscure watchmaker’s shop in Hamburg, he found inspiration for the character of Samko. From that moment he worked on the text himself. Between September 1895 and October 1896 he completed the libretto and the vocal score, and the orchestration was finished in April 1897. His verses were not composed of the rough, colloquial language in barely comprehensible dialects that so delighted Janáãek: as he put it, music is the way humans ‘sense, already here, down on earth, the bright glory of paradise’, and therefore demands noble rhymes and literary sensibility.

Although Foerster was charmed and deeply touched by the Moravian-Slovak border customs and rites, he was no ethnologist, still less an ethnomusicologist. Direct quotations from folk-music, as with Smetana and Dvofiák, provided only the initial material for artistic development. In this way Foerster also made liberal cuts to the play: he left out most of the local colour, reduced the religious motivation, and of the original twenty characters kept only six. Moreover, in Preissová’s original Eva’s child does not die, and people talk about the drowning of the ‘roba’ only a year later. In his preface to the first edition of the vocal score in 1908, he set out his task as he saw it: ‘to stress the lyrical and dramatic moments, to capture the individual characters and plot in their psychological veracity’. True to his word, Foerster expands the originally brief reflections of the characters into emotionally rich musical periods: though he was a nationalist, and though his opera is a quintessentially Czech subject, Foerster did not really care about his characters’ context, but rather about their humanity, their soul and its salvation. Thus he concentrated the action around Eva herself, who in his conception was no country wench but a woman of noble soul and hymnic pathos, a woman embodying the desire for a better life. Eva, physically attractive but misunderstood, is raised above those around her, in desire as well as in despair, by virtue of her absolute faith in love.

Musically Foerster’s interest in his characters’ interiority translated into an opera built on several short but flexible motifs, ingeniously elaborated, which both aptly describe the main characters and, in the multilevelled network of orchestral voices, reveal what has not been expressed in words. The fundamental buildingblock of the whole opera, a short but earthily distinctive three-bar motif that represents Eva, is called upon to show not only her energy, solidity, independence, determination, intransigence and defiance, but also a more attractive, feminine, wistful softness. It cuts through the merry dance music of the village festival in the first scene and then appears in the orchestra at Samko’s entrance to reveal that it is Eva whom he has secretly loved for such a long time; variants of it increase Samko’s desire to the points of ecstasy that mark his great arias. In the same way, Foerster works with Mánek’s brief, syncopated motif (ardent but pragmatic) and Samko’s own theme (longbreathed and lyrical). From these short motifs, rich orchestration and a tissue of polyphony, Foerster builds the monumental structure of a tragic opera in which death is not a catastrophe, but rather a symbol of metaphysical purging, conciliation and mystical redemption.

Striking though Gazdina roba had been at the time of its first performance, once Modernism had taken hold of European musical life Eva began to seem much more of an integral part of the tradition that Smetana had established, the late Romantic flowering that would remain the canon of Czech national opera for an entire century. One might argue convincingly for aesthetic continuity by placing Eva alongside the five other Czech operas produced in the sixty or so years following 1875 to feature a rural context and an energetic female heroine: Smetana’s Hubiãka (The Kiss, 1876), Dvořák’s Jakobín (The Jacobin, 1889) Janáãek’s Jenu°fa, Hába’s Matka (Mother, 1931) and Martinu°’s Veselohra na mostû (The Comedy on the Bridge, 1937). It is undeniably important to see Foerster as part of this wider Czech tradition: he was, after all, for many years the grand old man of Czech music, with impeccable nationalistic credentials. Though he travelled widely and forged lasting relationships with the great musical figures of the period, Foerster was always in close spiritual touch with home through his music. He was a more-thanfitting President of the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences, the recipient of numerous honours, and in 1945 the first musician to be awarded the title of National Artist. He was a worthy successor to Smetana; yet for all Foerster’s reverence for the great composer, he was no imitator: dramaturgically, if not musically or poetically, Eva is worlds apart from the tradition it came from. In it, country life is harsh, and economic disparities set insuperable obstacles to human feelings: tragic decline is inevitable. And for all his establishment credentials, Foerster retained his strong work-ethic and his strong sense of grounding. He remained what he had always been: an intensely devout, even mystical believer.

Helena Havlíková


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