About this Recording
9.70120 - URBAN, J.: Piano Album (B. Urban)

Jan Urban (1875–1952)


Bohemia has been described as the Music Conservatoire of Europe. A long line of Czech musicians, from the time of Zelenka up to that of Bohuslav Martinů, departed their homeland, musical crusaders bearing the Lyre in place of the Cross. In the early years of the eighteenth century, having undergone a severe period of repression under the Habsburgs, Bohemia found itself Germanized. Countless musicians such as Stamiz, Benda, Dussek and Vorišek, emigrated to take up top posts in the courts and theatres of the German-speaking countries. Some as great Antonin Reicha continued their journey to Paris. 1848, the Year of Revolutions, triggered a period of national re-awakening throughout Europe and ushered in a new epoch. Johann Gottfried Herder, the German philosopher, had earlier greatly excited Slav thinkers by resurrecting the ancient idea of the Slavs as a peaceful, bucolic people, imbued with the spirit of union and brotherhood and for whom war was anathema.

All this forms part of the intricate cultural context into which the Czech composer Jan Urban was born, into an aristocratic Prague family, in the year 1875. As a young man he belonged to an idealistic group of Czech musicians intent on spreading musical culture throughout the South Slav lands. Graduating from Prague Conservatory in 1896, three years later he settled in Valjevo (Serbia), having married Milka, a young woman of remarkable beauty. For the rest of his life he was committed to the establishment of music schools, choirs and orchestras, devoting his time to teaching, conducting and composing.

Urban’s opera The Mother was given in Belgrade in 1909. It is considered the second Serbian opera, after Stanislav Binički’s 1914 Na uranku (At Dawn). His four-volume Klavieralbum had appeared already in 1905. His colourful Thirteen Slavonic Dances, as well as his Eight Serbian Dances, contributed to Urban being known as the Serbian Dvořák. Some of these have been recorded by the Belgrade Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Urban served as a bandmaster in the Serbian Army during the First World War. In one of his letters from the Salonika Front we read: “The soldiers are dying. Mens’ limbs are being amputated. And I have to write a March”. Several of his works commemorate this period: In Memory of Corfu, Crossing Albania, From the East and The Peonies of Kosovo.

We encounter Urban once more as an opera composer at the State Theatre of Osijek (Croatia), where he conducted his Sin of Iguman, Bewitched Princess, Djul-Beaza, and Rose of Terpsihora between 1925 and 1939. In this most creative period he composed numerous marches, waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, eight string quartets, children’s songs and also a National Mass and a Croatian Mass.

The declaration of the fascist-run, Hitler-supported, Independent State of Croatia found Urban leaving the country at the onset of the Second World War and returning to Serbia. After the war his output diminished. In Tito’s Yugoslavia he composed a number of songs celebrating the Partisan Resistance to the Nazis, including Sutjeska and The Death of the Hero. Forty studies for violin solo are brilliant,inventive last works: as an old man, Urban feels the strings playing now as a figure from Chagall dreams above the roofs, away from wars and tragedy; himself alone, and free.

Twice in his life Urban travelled with the intention of re-visiting his native country, his Prague. On both occasions having reached the Czech border he stopped and turned back. The richness of the rhythms and tunes of his adopted country suffuse his music, but behind these elements his Bohemian homeland always shines through with particular clarity. Jan Urban died in February 1952. Most of his life was spent in exile, but he remains a quintessentially Czech composer.

Listening to the piano miniatures of Jan Urban, it is impossible not to be reminded of Robert Schumann and the world of natural grace, purity and innocence which his own piano miniatures evoke. “These pieces were composed by a grown-up child to bring back memories for others who have also grown up…” Schumann wrote of his Kinderszenen. Much the same could be said of the piano miniatures of Jan Urban: youthful, almost naïve in spirit, these are finely crafted little jewels of pure music.

The seventeen pieces are my choice taken from four piano albums which appeared in Belgrade between 1905 and 1914 and comprise the first published works of the composer.

Just like his great predecessors Smetana and Dvořák, Urban took his inspiration from the land and his people, from the unending flow of Slavic song and dance. Although rooted in Czech traditions the compositions show huge oriental influence: polkas and mazurkas, marches, nocturnes and children’s songs touched with the Balkan wand of Prague’s Kapellmeister.

[1] The Spring is coming (Allegro moderato) has a sudden, surprising opening, inexpressible feelings of new beginning, inevitably suggesting Dvořák‘s first piece Song of Spring, also written in A major, included in his Thirteen Poetical Impressions.

[2] Shepherd’s Song (Moderato) begins in unison and develops to a melody with rich accompaniment. Pan and his sylvan creatures are playing the frula (Serbian folk-flute ).

[3] Song of Grass (Moderato) originally had the title Bagatelle, but my father, Urban’s youngest son, added another title Pesma trave…The grasses are telling me: No, do not write a poem…(S. Raickovic).

[4] Hide and Seek(Allegro scherzando),

[5] Little Girl (Allegretto) and

[6] Mother (Andante cantabile) may be viewed as a triptych. The quicksilver little girl depicted is most probably Katarina, the composer’s daughter. Mother is a true shaft of light, a tender presence: an Aria (Meno mosso)…You promised mother, for ever to live…(D. Maksimovic).

[7] The trills dominating Enchanter(Allegro giusto) evoke fun and humour. The composer used this piece in his opera Enchanted Princess
as a theme for dwarfs.

[8] Nocturne (Andante) could bear the title nocturne-oriental for its elegiac central section in F minor.

[9] In Farewell (Andantino) the tender hope of future reunion takes precedence over the pain of immediate separation common to many pieces with such a title.

[10]–[12] The Sonatina remains the most widely performed piano work of Urban. The first Allegro moderato movement has a polka-like dance for its second subject. The Moderato cantabile looks forward to the future opera-composer, and the Rondo finale recalls Schubert’s Moment musical, No. 5 in F minor.

[13] Nocturne (Andante). Urban wrote three Nocturnes to which he also gave the title Evening Song.

[14] The middle part of the Romance (Moderato) sounds touchingly Bohemian.

[15] Mazurka (Allegretto) in A minor has the sub-title Dagmar. Just as Smetana used to do with his polkas, Urban named most of his dances after women.

[16] Mazurka (Vivace) reminds one of Djurdjevka, the composer’s South-Slav dance.

[17] In Memory (Andante), with only few nostalgic lines Urban is able to evoke man’s desire to eternize moments of beauty.

Biljana Urban

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