“Here in Prague, I have found myself in a different world. I have been totally captivated by the music in Prague’s churches, at the Crusader Church, at St Nicholas’s in the Lesser Town, at St Michael’s, and elsewhere, led by Koželuh, Praupner, Strobach, and Vogel. For the first half year, I was deaf and blind, and I thought of nothing but music.” This quote from Ryba’s autobiography gives us an idea of Prague’s cultural atmosphere at the beginning of the 1780s, when he came here to study with the Piarists. The 15-year-old lad desired the career of a professional musician, but things turned out differently. In 1884, his father sent him a letter with the news that a teaching position had become available in Nepomuk, and he wanted his son to apply. How disappointed Jakub must have been! He hesitated for a while, but then he obeyed the commandment “Honour thy father and thy mother”, withdrew from the grammar school, completed a teacher training course, and headed for Nepomuk.
Four years later, he settled permanently in Rožmitál pod Třemšínem, a cosy little town of 1,100 souls surrounded by forests. He swore an oath that as a teacher he would “raise good people to be pious, honest citizens for the state”, and he established a family there. The school consumed most of his time, so he could compose only during the long evenings and nights. The need to compose music did not allow him to sleep. He was a very prolific composer; over a period of 32 years, he wrote nearly 1,500 compositions. Ryba’s fate as a village cantor was also reflected in his ideas about composing: “It is one thing to write for genuine, trained musical experts and for those who understand music, and something else entirely to write for ordinary listeners, of which one still finds a thousand times as many. What good is it to the composer for his strict style to satisfy two listeners out of two thousand if the others come away empty handed, without getting any enjoyment?” The parameters of his compositions are usually predetermined by their intended use for a village church choir with modest forces and the limited technical skill of the musicians. The music is deliberately simple, employing stylistically unified, and fundamentally conservative expressive resources. Today we know Jakub Jan Ryba mainly as the composer of a single work, the Czech Christmas Mass, a composition with many charms. For many, it has become synonymous with Christmas in this country in the two centuries since Ryba’s death, but calling it the greatest demonstration of Ryba’s ability as a composer would not tell the whole story. It is in this work that he undeniably succeeded brilliantly at satisfying those 1,998 listeners out of every 2,000 that we mentioned above, but he regarded the composition as music for practical use, and he had a higher opinion of other works he had written.
At the least, we should mention the works composed for the choir of St Bartholomew’s Church in Pilsen, and especially the Stabat Mater, a lengthy oratorio in 12 movements with an instrumental introduction that impresses the listener as almost belonging to the era of Romanticism. Also associated with Pilsen was the creation of a work titled Cursus sacro-harmonicus that is unparalleled in the Czech musical culture of the day. In 1808 Ryba sent the first part of Cursus to Pilsen, containing 16 Masses for the Sundays of Advent, Christmas, and Lent covering over 700 pages of manuscript, and that was just one tenth of the planned total! By 1814 he had sent another four volumes, but he did not live to complete the project. It certainly would be silly to compare the Rožmitál cantor’s contribution to music with that of his contemporaries Mozart or Beethoven (the former was nine years older than Ryba, and the latter was five years younger), but one must remember that Jakub Jan Ryba was not just the composer of pretty pastorales, and that slumbering within him were entirely different ambitions and abilities, although he was not fated to develop them fully.
The Missa pastoralis bohemica, usually called the Czech Christmas Mass or “Hail, Master!”, is something like a Christmas pageant built into the structure of the Mass. The simple story of the heralding of Christ’s birth and of the shepherds’ visit to the manger does not have much in common with the Latin liturgical text. Ryba wrote the Mass in 1796 during what was, in relative terms, the calmest and happiest period of his life. The work is thoroughly pastoral in character, and the fresh, joyous music is just as easy to understand as the charming text, with the action set in a familiar Czech environment. Copies of the work quickly spread all over the country, and performances continued even after Ryba’s death. The copyists, usually cantors or church choirmasters, routinely altered the work to suit the available forces. These changes were often insensitive to the work’s original stylistic purity, and they entailed alterations of the instrumentation and corrections of the text, melodies, voice leading, and harmonies. Sometimes whole movements were even transposed into a different key, usually down a step, to make them easier to sing for amateur voices.
Various changes were also carried over into the printed editions published in 1930, 1961, and especially the score issued in 1973, which is used today for most performances of Ryba’s Mass. (Some movements are transposed, timpani and pairs of trombones and trumpets are added, and slight changes are made to the texts and melodies.) The fact that the autograph score is lost has greatly contributed to this state of affairs. All that has been preserved are parts copied in an unknown hand and inserted between covers signed by Ryba, which may be reasonably assumed to have come directly from the composer’s estate. Those parts have also become the basis of a critical edition of the Mass, which was published in 1994, nearly two centuries after it was written.
The Kyrie with its pleas for mercy that open the Mass is replaced by an introductory scene in which the author exhibits considerable talent for drama. After the gentle opening dialogue for organ and pizzicato strings (a kind of heavenly music), we hear a dialogue of the shepherds. A younger shepherd tells us “O’er the mountain I can hear / Gentle syrinx sweet and clear”, and he awakens his older master, who is annoyed initially (“Why disturb my sleeping when I need to rest?”). At first, he and the first shepherd guess at the cause of the strange nocturnal phenomena (“What may those strains be? Beauty that lingers?”), then they call the others to come (“We must seek these sounds so gay”) without revealing the reason for all the excitement. It is not until the beginning of the Gloria that angelic voices (sopranos and altos) announce the birth of the Messiah. The voices of angels awaken more shepherds, and they start off on their way to Bethlehem (“For the Lord has given you his son”). There master shepherd has yet another entrance (“What is that? Where is that?“), and it seems that after having been awakened suddenly, he is only slowly coming to his senses. The alto and tenor sing a duet that is quite similar to the duet of Pamina and Papageno from Mozart’s Magic Flute. (Is the similarity a coincidence, or had Ryba heard Mozart’s singspiel on one of his trips to Prague?) After the long introduction, the choir finally enters, echoing the master’s little motif from the introduction to the Kyrie (“O my brothers!” … “We can hear!”) and rejoicing over the good news (“Alleluia”).
What follows are mostly the choral parts of the Graduale, sounding something like a Czech polka, and the Credo. Now the solo parts are short, and the whole company is preparing to go to Bethlehem. Beginning with the Offertorio, the text follows the liturgy more closely. The master calls upon the others to pay tribute to the Saviour (“Let us kneel with hearts aglow”), the shepherds give gifts, and female voices sing warmly to the baby boy (“His little hands reach out to me”), and after a bagpipe interlude, the section ends noisily (“Happiness, elation, jubilation”). The text of the Sanctus most closely approaches the Latin text (“Heaven is calling ‘Holy’”). The immediately following Benedictus is a simple movement in ternary form. Then comes the Agnus and the ceremonial Conclusion, in which everyone celebrates the birth of the Saviour with “Happiness, elation, jubilation”.
Although the Czech Christmas Mass is an exceptional work for its day, it does not seem that Ryba regarded it has having any special importance. He never mentions it in his diaries, and it appears in his list of his own compositions as just another item with an entry for its creation and its performance. It seems to have been written in passing and without great effort, but Ryba managed to create a brilliant, dramatic work that is effective, however simple it may be, because of the perfect balancing of all of the resources employed. For this reason, it is able to speak to listeners even two centuries later, so it has won a place in the Christmas liturgy although it was not entirely to the church’s liking. People simply were always asking for it, as we read in an inscription made in a copy of the Mass from Klatovy dated 1864: “This dreadful jumble, which must be regarded as an unparalleled insult to sacred music, has been gracing Christmastide in Klatovy for many years, and woe betide the choirmaster who fails to perform this caterwauling at least twice every Christmas…”