This year, we have decided to welcome in the new year with you in Czech style with four beautiful works, each of which is original and a supreme musical celebration. Antonín Dvořák, who conducted the very first Czech Philharmonic concert, composed three concert overtures titled In Nature’s Realm, Carnival, and Othello in 1891. Carnival Overture is the most impressive of these works, and it is part of the worldwide core orchestral repertoire. It has a brilliant violin solo in common with Suk’s Praga, which follows. The second half opens with another depiction of Carnival, this time by Bedřich Smetana. Suk dedicated his symphonic poem Praga to the “Royal City of Prague”, while Janáček dedicated his Sinfonietta to Brno. Although the two works share dedications to the two largest Czech cities, they differ entirely in terms of their character and overall tone. Suk’s monumental symphonic poem builds upon the traditions of Smetana and Dvořák. It takes a look back at Prague’s history, and through a recollection of a lyrical theme from his suite A Fairy Tale, it drives towards a tremendous hymn-like conclusion supported by the sound of organ and bells. Janáček’s immediate stimulus for composing the Sinfonietta was a request from the newspaper Lidové noviny that he write a greeting for the All-Sokol Rally. This resulted in the creation of the opening and closing fanfares, which later grew into a brilliant five-movement composition filled with mysticism, excitement, and grandeur. The Czech Philharmonic gave the premiere with Václav Talich in June 1926 as part of the cultural programme of the VIIIth All Sokol Rally at the Rudolfinum.
Prague Castle Guard and Czech Police Band is a large brass orchestra which has been representing Czech musical culture in a highly professional fashion for more than sixty years, not only at home, but also abroad. Its establishment in 1945 carried on a rich tradition of military, police and gendarme bands from the First Czechoslovak Republic. They were ensembles which were always an integral part of our musical culture and also an example of the nation’s musical development.
The primary duties of the Band of the Castle Guards and Police of the Czech Republic include musical accompaniment at all state ceremonies at Prague Castle, primarily state visits and initial audiences with ambassadors. The orchestra is a significant cultural representative of the Police of the Czech Republic and also performs all tasks resulting from this position.
The ensemble also includes smaller groups – the Domino Brass Trio, the Prague Brass Sextet, The Brass Quintet, the Brass Octet, the Big Band, Largo and the Formanka Small Brass Orchestra. Their focus and repertoire suitably supplement the orchestra’s wide range of activities. In addition to its duties, the orchestra has always given concerts and made recordings. It has made more than twenty CDs. The orchestra’s most important annual concert activities include performing at the Prague Spring International Music Festival and during the Saint Wenceslas celebrations.
Prague Castle Guard and Czech Police Band has toured sixteen countries in Europe, Mongolia, Japan and the USA, where it headlined at the famous Carnegie Hall in 2002.
Born in the Czech Republic, Jakub Hrůša is Chief Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony, Music Director Designate of The Royal Opera, Covent Garden (Music Director from 2025), Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.
He is a frequent guest with the world’s greatest orchestras, including the Vienna, Berlin, Munich and New York Philharmonics; Bavarian Radio, NHK, Chicago and Boston Symphonies; Leipzig Gewandhaus, Lucerne Festival, Royal Concertgebouw, Mahler Chamber and The Cleveland Orchestras; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and Tonhalle Orchester Zürich. He has led opera productions for the Salzburg Festival (Káťa Kabanová with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2022), Vienna State Opera, Royal Opera House, Opéra National de Paris, and Zurich Opera. He has also been a regular guest with Glyndebourne Festival and served as Music Director of Glyndebourne On Tour for three years.
His relationships with leading vocal and instrumental soloists have included collaborations in recent seasons with Daniil Trifonov, Mitsuko Uchida, Hélène Grimaud, Behzod Abduraimov, Anne Sofie Mutter, Lukáš Vondráček, Lisa Batiashvili, Joshua Bell, Yefim Bronfman, Rudolf Buchbinder, Gautier Capuçon, Julia Fischer, Sol Gabetta, Hilary Hahn, Janine Jansen, Karita Mattila, Leonidas Kavakos, Lang Lang, Josef Špaček, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Klaus Florian Vogt, Yuja Wang, Frank Peter Zimmermann, Alisa Weilerstein and others.
As a recording artist, Jakub Hrůša has received numerous awards and nominations for his discography. Most recently, he received the Opus Klassik Conductor of the Year nomination and the ICMA prize for Symphonic Music for his recording of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, and the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik for his recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, both with Bamberg Symphony. In 2021, his disc of Martinů and Bartók violin concertos with Bamberg Symphony and Frank Peter Zimmermann was nominated for BBC Music Magazine and Gramophone awards, and his recording of the Dvořák Violin Concerto with the Bavarian Radio Symphony and Augustin Hadelich was nominated for a Grammy Award. His recordings of Dvořák and Martinů Piano Concertos with Ivo Kahánek and the Bamberg Symphony, and Vanessa by Samuel Barber from Glyndebourne both won BBC Music Magazine Awards in 2020.
Jakub Hrůša studied at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, where his teachers included Jiří Bělohlávek. He is President of the International Martinů Circle and The Dvořák Society. He was the inaugural recipient of the Sir Charles Mackerras Prize, and in 2020 was awarded both the Antonín Dvořák Prize by the Czech Republic’s Academy of Classical Music, and – together with Bamberg Symphony – the Bavarian State Prize for Music.
Carnival Overture, Op. 92
As Antonín Dvořák was fifty years old, he was faced with a difficult decision over whether to interrupt the promising progress of his career as a tireless European composer, a status he had achieved after years of effort, to abandon his recently obtained position as a professor at the Prague Conservatoire, and to set out across the Atlantic Ocean to meet a new challenge. Of course, middle-aged men need challenges, so having thought it over for half a year, Dvořák decided to accept the offer of the position of director of a conservatory in New York. There, he found a source of new inspiration that enabled him to compose his most famous works of the following three years. After all, who among us does not know his Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”), the String Quartet No. 12 (“American”), the Biblical Songs, Humoresques, and the Cello Concerto in B Minor?
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. While Dvořák’s fiftieth birthday was being celebrated in Prague on 8 September 1891, the composer was hard at work in seclusion in Vysoká near Příbram, composing and considering whether to go to America. He completed a cycle of three concert overtures, which were first played on 28 April 1892 at the Rudolfinum on a concert programme as part of a farewell tour that Dvořák gave before departing for the New World. At the premiere, the pieces still bore the original titles Nature, Life, and Love, and the whole work was linked together by themes of nature. The pieces got their final titles two years later when the first edition was published. The second overture was renamed Carnival. What Dvořák had in mind was not so much a masked ball as the metaphor of the “carnival of life”, which is well suited for New Year’s Eve and for celebrating the New Year. Carnival contrasts starkly with the other two overtures (In Nature’s Realm, Op. 91 and Othello, Op. 93). It is jubilant, energetic, and sonically intoxicating, yet in the middle section it is also meditative and dreamy. The brilliant orchestration greatly contributes to the music’s character, with plenty of brass and percussion including the tambourine, unusually for Dvořák.
On 14 September 1883, when Bedřich Smetana finished the score of his Introduction and Polonaise, the first two movements of the cycle Prague Carnival, he did not know that he had only the last half year of life. He had originally intended that Prague Carnival would follow up stylistically on his cycle of Bohemian Dances. The composer wanted to develop further the idea of a cyclical ordering of dances in the loftier genre of the symphonic poem he had employed in Má vlast (My Country). Fate, however, intervened. Smetana never finished his last two compositions; Prague Carnival and the opera Viola remained torsos. The composer was unable to attend the first performance of the Introduction and Polonaise in April 1884 because of his rapidly worsening illness, although the concert was a celebration of this sixtieth birthday. The performance left the audience perplexed. According to period reports, the work made a depressing impression on Smetana’s friends, and it was long regarded as a failure or even as being decadent. The fragmentariness, succinctness, and harmonic astringency that are typical of Smetana’s late works are in fact connections back to his progressive Gothenburg period, and in the Polonaise, the composer even employed a theme he had already notated in his sketchbook in 1858.
The life of Leoš Janáček took many twists and turns before he arrived at the compositional style of his greatest operas and symphonic works, which have now made him one of the most famous and most frequently performed Czech composers abroad. Janáček grew up with the music of the church and of folk culture. He gained his first experience in the church choir in Hukvaldy and later at the Augustinian monastery in Staré Brno. In 1872, the composer and choirmaster Pavel Křížkovský was hired to lead the choir there, and Janáček later became his successor. At the same time, he was studying at a secondary school in Staré Brno and at a teachers’ college. After graduating, he furthered his studies at the organ school in Prague. Thereafter, he was engaged in important activities in the field of folklore studies and pedagogy, collecting and publishing Moravian songs, leading the organ school in Brno, and conducting at the Brno Beseda concert hall. At first Janáček focused on writing choral music, then he turned his attention to other genres. The opera Jenůfa became a success after initial difficulties and obstacles baring its path to the stage. Later on, his other operas (Káťa Kabanová, The Makropulos Affair etc.) won recognition at home and abroad, as have his symphonic works (Taras Bulba, Lachian Dances etc.).
One of those symphonic works is the Sinfonietta, JW VI/18, probably the most famous of all of Janáček’s compositions. The idea originated when the newspaper Lidové noviny asked Janáček to write some music as a salutation for the Eighth Sokol Gymnastics Festival. Janáček began by writing fanfares, then he expanded them into a five-movement work, making use of his recollections of the sound of a military band. Václav Talich conducted the premiere at the Rudolfinum in Prague in 1926 with a military band joining the Czech Philharmonic as part of a cultural programme in association with the Sokol festival, and Czechoslovak Radio recorded the performance.
Praga op. 26, symfonická báseň
On the 4th of January, a boy was born in Křečovice, a little village 50 kilometres south of Prague. He was given the name Josef after his father. He exhibited musical talent early playing violin, piano, and organ, and he began his studies at the Prague Conservatoire at the age of eleven. First, he studied violin under Antonín Bennewitz, then piano under Josef Jiránek, and composition under Karel Stecker. When he turned seventeen in 1891, the year the previous work on today’s programme was composed, he began his composition studies in the advanced class taught by Antonín Dvořák. Who knows how he took his teacher’s decision to depart for America, but he later became a favourite pupil of Dvořák, a visitor to the composer’s summer residence in Vysoká near Příbram, and an assistant in making piano reductions of the master’s works. It was there that Suk met Dvořák’s daughter Otilie, who later became his wife.
1891 was also the year when a student string quartet was established at the Prague Conservatoire at the initiative of the director Bennewitz and of Hanuš Wihan, the professor of chamber music. Josef Suk played second violin in the quartet. In 1892, the recent graduates began giving concert appearances as the Bohemian Quartet (the Czech Quartet after 1918), and when they thrilled Vienna in 1893, doors were opened to them in Europe, and they became one of the most important chamber music ensembles of their day. Josef Suk played in the Bohemian Quartet for 41 years, almost the entire period of the ensemble’s existence, and in that time he gave more than 4,000 concerts around Europe and all over the world. It is difficult to imagine how Suk managed to compose at all, being enormously busy as a performing artist continually on the road.
Once while on a tour of Spain, he decided to compose a musical depiction of his beloved Prague that would express the city’s greatness and beauty. He chose to make it a symphonic poem, and he composed it between the spring and October of 1904. At the end of the summer, he wrote to his publisher Mojmír Urbánek: “I’m nearly finished with Praga – about four more pages. There won’t be any choir, organ or bells, but it will be lovely even without them.” In an earlier conversation, the pragmatic publisher had apparently persuaded the young composer to avoid the use of excessively monumental forces that would limit opportunities for the work’s performance. Ultimately, Urbánek succeeded only in part – the work does not, in fact, call for choir, but contrary to Suk’s quoted letter, organ and bells are heard at the work’s grandiose conclusion. The Czech Philharmonic gave Praga its premiere with Oskar Nedbal conducting on 18 December 1904 in Pilsen, and it was heard in Prague on 25 March 1905 at the Rudolfinum under the composer’s baton.