Vítězslav Novák was born in Kamenice nad Lipou. He spent his childhood in Počátky and graduated from the grammar school in Jindřichův Hradec. His musical talent was developed by his piano teacher Vilém Pojman from Jindřichův Hradec. After graduating from grammar school Novák moved to Prague and enrolled in the Faculty of Law and later in the Faculty of Philosophy at Charles University. At the same time he studied piano and composition at the Prague Conservatory, where he did not get along with the pedantic Karel Knittel, but in the third year he became an enthusiastic student of Antonín Dvořák. After graduation he received a state scholarship of 400 guldens a year, which enabled him to devote himself to composing. From 1901 he worked for 40 years as a professor at the Prague Conservatory. In 1919 he founded the Master School attached to the Prague Conservatory, which was attended by a plethora of 20th century Czech and Slovak composers.
In the summer of 1896, the 26-six-year-old Vítězslav Novák came to Velké Karlovice in Moravian Wallachia for a holiday with his friend Rudolf Reissig, a violinist and later the choirmaster of the Beseda Philharmonic Choir in Brno. Novák was captivated by the forgotten region, its distinctive people, their songs, dances and the ubiquitous folk music. He returned there again and again and began to study the local folklore; his interest soon expanded to southeastern Moravia and Slovakia. In 1897 he met Leoš Janáček in Brno, from whom he gained valuable folklorist knowledge. He also befriended the playwright brothers Alois and Vilém Mrštík and composed an overture to their theater play Maryša. His Moravian friends included the painter Joža Uprka and the architect Dušan Jurkovič. Novák became an honorary member of the Brno Art Club, and when the world premiere of his symphonic poem The Tempest took place in the Moravian capital in 1910, it was a major cultural event. He paid tribute to Slovakia, whose mountains he had traversed as an avid hiker and active mountaineer, with his symphonic poem In the Tatra Mountains (1902). His most popular composition in the long term remains the Slovak Suite (1903).
Folklorism manifested itself in Novák’s music through thematic quotations and elaborations of folk songs. Janáček abandoned this way of working after Lachian Dances, aware of the danger of being accused of a lack of his own inventiveness, which Vítězslav Novák had to face. In this respect, an interesting discovery was made by the Brno musicologist Miloš Schnierer, who specialized in the work of Vítězslav Novák, who found 28 of Novák’s Songs on the Words of Moravian Folk Poetry from 1896–1897 with absolutely no trace of quotations of folk melodies. Their lyrics is interpreted using the composer’s own invention, almost in the spirit of Janáček’s or Bartók’s “radical folklorism.”
Novák’s String Quartet No. 1 in G major, Op. 22 is characteristic in its application of compositional principles. It was completed on 15 October 1899 when Novák took it to the Court Councillor Adolf Schwerak to play the new score together with him on piano four hands. With his first string quartet, Novák competed for the 1899 Czech Chamber Music Society’s prize. He entered the competition anonymously, signing the score as “Anonymous”. He then learned from the pianist Karel Hoffmeister that the patron Josef Hlávka had opposed the award of the first prize to this work during the jury’s deliberations because of its “excessive tendency towards decadence”. The jury therefore did not award the first prize, and Novák’s quartet received the second prize, shared with the quartet by Hanuš Trneček, a Prague harpist and a co-founder of the Czech Chamber Music Society.
Novák’s String Quartet in G major summarizes the young composer’s impressions and memories from his holiday travels. The song from Moravian Wallachia – “Jak je to nebe vysoko, tak je má milá daleko” (As the sky is high, so is my beloved far away) as a minor theme is a unifying structural element permeating all three movements of the quartet and anticipating Novák’s tendency towards monothematic design. At the composer’s request, the program notes of the Czech Chamber Music Society at the premiere on 19 November 1900 in Prague – played by the Czech Quartet – explicitly included the designation “Po valašsku” [in the Wallachian way] for the second movement and “Po slovensku” [in the Slovak way] for the third movement (meaning expressively, not geographically, hence the lower case in the Czech adjective). Zdeněk Nejedlý criticized the new work for being an “ethnographic illustration” instead of chamber music, but praised the excellent compositional technique. He did not realize that the extra-musical symbolic meaning of this quartet was an admiration for the creative power of the inhabitants of those remote regions. Perhaps the strongest emotion expressed in the quartet is the sympathy for the unfortunate Slovakia, culturally and economically depressed by the Hungarians (perhaps hence the “decadence” that Hlávka disliked). Let us not forget, however, that Novák’s musical expression came at a time when no one could even imagine a free common state of Czechs and Slovaks!