In the grey period of “Normalisation” during the 1980s, the concerts of the ensemble Agon were a revelation. For isolated Czech listeners, that extraordinary ensemble opened up a window through which it was possible to hear compositions of the avant-garde from around the world. Three composers were behind the ensemble’s inception: Miroslav Pudlák, Petr Kofroň, and Martin Smolka. The latter is mainly associated by most of the Czech music loving public with the opera Nagano, which he composed on commission for the National Theatre in Prague, and for which he won the Alfréd Radok Award in 2004. However, Smolka’s music is heard more often abroad, and his compositions are commissioned by Europe’s most renowned ensembles and festivals.
This is also the case with Agnus Dei, which was commissioned by the radio choir in Stuttgart, which premiered the work on 14 July 2012. Martin Smolka conceived his Agnus Dei for two mixed choirs as a little Requiem for his father, the musicologist and composer Jaroslav Smolka (1933–2011). The author himself tells us about the composition’s sources of inspiration:
“What were the guideposts of my childhood? Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. Martinů’s Songs on Two Pages. At the piano, our father taught us all about music and accompanied our singing. His massive fingers were not completely agile, but all the more passionate was his love for unusually harmonic combinations and for intense, majestic operatic singing. That passion always wins out for a moment when we sing through the collection of Martinů songs and reach ‘Dievča umiralo’ (The Girl Was Dying). The children take a break, and papa sings until the window panes start vibrating: ‘...she still called out: In the hereafter, whose will you be, young fellows?’ I was always surprised at how energetic and gay the girl is while she is dying.
Everyone in Prague’s musical community knew Jaroslav Smolka. Music history at the Academy of Performing Arts, musical books and dictionaries, producing gramophone records, reviews; he was everywhere and could not be overlooked. Wherever he went, dates, key signatures, opus number, themes of compositions, contexts, and anecdotes just poured out of his head. When he departed for the hereafter ten years ago, I spontaneously began setting the Agnus Dei from the Requiem to music. And something from those guideposts from childhood has stayed with me. From Bartók there are the narrow canons, the friction of seconds, and the simultaneous sounding of major and minor. From Martinů there are quotes of unusual harmonic combinations along with the tune about dying. Incidentally, that melody is in the ‘Podhale mode’, which has an augmented or Lydian fourth degree, but also a lowered seventh degree. It could be said to mirror the 8th through the 14th tones of the overtone series, so it truly has its roots in nature.
‘Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, grant them eternal rest. May light eternal shine upon them, amen.’ In the Latin text, the word ‘eternal’ is even present in two synonyms: ‘aeternam’ and ‘sempiternam’.”