Zdeněk Šesták (b. 1925) has been a major presence on the Czech music scene for decades. On 10 December 2020, the distinguished composer, who has attended all notable concerts or premiere performances in Prague, will celebrate his 95th birthday.
Zdeněk Šesták was born in Cítoliby, a village that possesses an illustrious musical tradition. In 1720, the local estate was acquired by the Pachta family. Count Arnošt Karel Pachta paid for the training of selected gifted local youths, from whom he set up an orchestra. Over the course of time, some of its members matured into remarkable musicians. Virtually isolated from the rest of the world, these composers – Jan Václav Kopřiva, his equally talented sons Karel Blažej and Jan Jáchym, Jan Adam Gallina, Jan Nepomuk Vent, Jakub Lokaj and Jan Janoušek – created works comparable with those originating at the time in Europe’s major cultural centres. Their remarkable pieces fell into oblivion and would probably have remained forgotten had it not been for Zděnek Šesták’s musicological research and discoveries. Due to his great endeavours and diligence, the Cítoliby composers were brought to the attention of today’s connoisseurs and music lovers. Supraphon’s seven LPs within the “Music of the 18th-century Cítoliby Masters” series and the Prague Spring “Musica antiqua citolibensis” projects have become the stuff of legend.
After completing his secondary education in Louny, Zdeněk Šesták enrolled at the Prague Conservatory, where from 1945 to 1950 he attended composition classes under the guidance of Emil Hlobil and Miroslav Krejčí, while concurrently studying musicology at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University. Since 1957, he has been a free-lance composer and musicologist, with the exception of 1968 and 1969, when he worked as the chief music programmer at Czechoslovak Radio.
Zdeněk Šesták began composing in the 1960s. He has always approached his work with great responsibility, mainly focusing on philosophical subjects and with the conviction that music should convey bold spiritual and emotional messages. He has drawn inspiration from Ancient drama (the symphonic pieces Fatum, based on Sophocles’ Antigone, Euripidés and Sisyfos) and global literature (vocal works set to poetry by François Villon, Guillaume Apollinaire, Karel Hynek Mácha, Konstantin Biebl, Josef Hora and Vítězslav Nezval). In 1968, he responded to the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia with Symphony No. 2. The secondary titles of his works indicate that they deal with weighty subjects that need to be pondered: Symphonic Variations, “Capturing a Point of Time”; Cello Concerto No.1, “Light of Hope”; Concerto for Viola, “Socrates Meditations”; Symphony No. 6, “Eternal Unrest of the Heart”; String Quartet No. 5, “Labyrinth of the Soul”; etc. Although speaking a modern musical idiom, some of Šesták’s compositions are evidently influenced by Classicism, blending the personality of the composer and explorer into one. The 1966 Divertimento concertante for wind quintet dates from the artist’s early creative phase. Its title seems to refer to the works of the same type written by Jan Nepomuk Vent (1745–1801), one of those who started their musical journey in Šesták’s beloved Cítoliby.