Learn more about Zdenek Fibich
Zdenek Fibich (1850 – 1900) was a Czech composer of classical music. Among his compositions are chamber works (including two string quartets, a piano trio, piano quartet and a quintet for piano, strings and winds), symphonic poems, three symphonies, at least seven operas (the most famous probably Sarka and The Bride of Messina), melodramas including the substantial trilogy Hippodamia, liturgical music including a mass – a missa brevis; and a large cycle (almost 400 pieces, from the 1890s) of piano works called Moods, Impressions, and Reminiscences. The piano cycle served as a diary of sorts of his love for a piano pupil. He was born in Vseborice (Seborice) near Caslav.
That Fibich is far less known than either Antonin Dvorak or Bedrich Smetana can be explained by the fact that he lived during the rise of Czech nationalism within the Habsburg Empire. While Smetana and Dvorak gave themselves over entirely to the national cause, consciously writing Czech music with which the emerging nation strongly identified, Fibich’s position was more ambivalent. This was due to the background of his parents and to his education. Fibich’s father was a Czech forestry official and the composer’s early life was spent on various wooded estates of the nobleman for whom his father worked. His mother, however, was an ethnic German Viennese. Home schooled by his mother until the age of nine, he was first sent to a German-speaking gymnasium in Vienna for two years before attending a Czech-speaking gymnasium in Prague where he stayed until he was 15. After this he was sent to Leipzig where he remained for three years studying piano with Ignaz Moscheles and composition with Salomon Jadassohn and Ernst Richter. After the better part of a year in Paris, Fibich concluded his studies with Vinzenz Lachner (the younger brother of Franz and Ignaz Lachner) in Mannheim. Fibich spent the next few years living with his parents back in Prague where he composed his first opera Bukovina, based on a libretto of Karel Sabina, the librettist of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. At the age of 23, he married Ruzena Hanusova and took up residence in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius. where he had obtained a position of choirmaster. After spending two unhappy years there (his wife and newly born twins both died in Vilnius), he returned to Prague in 1874 and remained there until his death in 1900. In 1875 Fibich married Ruzena’s sister, the operatic contralto Betty Fibichova (nee Hanusova), but left her in 1895 for his former student and lover Anezka Schulzova. The relationship between Schulzova and Fibich was important to him artistically, since she wrote the libretti for all his later operas including Sarka, but also served as the inspiration for his Moods, Impressions, and Reminiscences.
Fibich was given a bi-cultural education, living during his formative early years in Germany, France and Austria in addition to his native Bohemia. He was fluent in German as well as Czech. In his instrumental works, Fibich generally wrote in the vein of the German romantics, first falling under the influence of Weber, Mendelssohn and Schumann and later Wagner. His early operas and close to 200 of his early songs are in German. These works along with his symphonies and chamber music won considerable praise from German critics, though not from Czechs. The bulk of Fibich’s operas are in Czech, although many are based on non-Czech sources such as Shakespeare, Schiller and Byron. In his chamber music, more than anywhere else, Fibich makes use of Bohemian folk melodies and dance rhythms such as the dumka. Fibich was the first to write a Czech nationalist tone poem (Zaboj, Slavoj a Ludek) which served as the inspiration for Smetana’s Ma vlast. He was also the first to use the polka in a chamber work, his quartet in A.
After his return to Prague in 1874, Fibich’s music encountered severely negative reactions in the Prague musical community, stemming from his (and Smetana’s) adherence to Richard Wagner’s theories on opera. While Smetana’s later career was plagued with problems for presenting Wagnerian-style music dramas in Czech before a conservative audience, Fibich’s pugilistic music criticism, not to mention his overtly Wagnerian later operas, Hedy, Sarka, and Pad Arkuna, exacerbated the problem in the years after Smetana’s death in 1884. Together with the music aesthetician Otakar Hostinsky, he was ostracized from the musical establishment at the National Theatre and Prague Conservatory and forced to rely on his private composition studio. The studio nevertheless was well respected among students, drawing such names as Emanuel Chvala, Karel Kovarovic, Otakar Ostrcil, and Zdenek Nejedly, the notorious critic and subsequent politician. Much of the reception of Fibich’s music in the early twentieth century is a result of these students’ efforts after their teacher’s death, especially in Nejedly’s highly polemical campaigns enacted in a series of monographs and articles that sought to redress what he considered to be past inequities. Although this served to bring Fibich’s music to greater attention, subsequent scholarship has had to deal with the spectre of Nejedly’s intensely personal bias.
There is a Fibich Society which has organized projects such as Vladimir Hudec’s Thematic Catalog (below) and much else.
Fibich was the original composer of the tune for “My Moonlight Madonna” for which Paul Francis Webster wrote the English lyrics. In 1933 the tune was popularly harmonized by William Scotti.