Discover more about the world premiere recording of Bohuslav
Martinů's one act opera-pastoral What Men Live by in an interview with the
chief executive producer for classical music on the Supraphon label Matouš
Supraphon is now coming out with previously unreleased recordings by
Jiří Bělohlávek more than a year after his death…
I’m sorry the Maestro did not live to see the recording released and that it
is his final word on the music of Bohuslav Martinů. Together, we had made big
plans for a number of other recordings in the years to come, but these plans
were never realised, unfortunately…
These plans involved other compositions by Bohuslav
Yes. Jiří Bělohlávek loved Martinů’s music, and he devoted himself to it
exhaustively all his life. It is no exaggeration for us to say that among all
conductors, whether from this country or abroad, it was above all Jiří
Bělohlávek who blazed the trail for Bohuslav Martinů’s music to reach
concert stages. If you look at Bělohlávek’s discography as a whole,
Martinů’s music unquestionably holds a place of distinction in it, and
during the maestro’s tenure as chief conductor of the Prague Symphony
Orchestra, he recorded a remarkable number of Martinů’s compositions for
Supraphon, including many world premiere recordings. When listening to
Bělohlávek’s recordings, I get the impression that there was a
fundamental resonance between the order and rhythmic structuring that are so
characteristic of Martinů and Jiří Bělohlávek’s inner world.
And what about the plans that were not realised?
With the Czech Philharmonic, we wanted to finish a complete set of the
symphonies and to supplement it with more of Martinů’s later symphonic
compositions – his beautiful Parables, Estampes, Frescoes etc. Together with
the third through the sixth symphonies, which had been recorded earlier, the
complete set was to have been released on four CDs. Jiří Bělohlávek was very
committed to completing this set, but he only managed to add a recording of the
Symphony No. 1. We also wanted to supplement the opera What Men Live By with
another short opera.
So the CD is the release of fragments from two more extensive
That is sadly the case. Jiří Bělohlávek did not live to finish any more of
them. Under normal conditions, it would not have occurred to me to combine an
opera with a symphony on a CD, but the first time I listened to this CD
compilation, I was surprised by how nicely the works go together.
Let’s talk some more about the opera What Men Live by. Martinů
completed it in 1952. How is it possible that the world premiere recording of
this opera did not appear until 2018, more than sixty years later
There are several reasons why this opera has not yet found a home on opera
stages around the world. For one thing, it is rather short – 40 minutes –
so in a live performance, it is necessary to add another operatic work. It is
written for very specific chamber forces, neither very large nor very small. And
the opera also lacks any virtuosic vocal writing, and none of the roles or even
arias would be viable on their own. The opera takes its inspiration from Lev
Nikolayevich Tolstoy’s tale Martin the Cobbler. At the heart of this
touching, powerful story is the affirmation that no person is alone and that we
can encounter God in other people and find the meaning of our own lives through
service to others. Martinů himself referred to the work as an opera-pastoral,
and as a whole, it resonates greatly with the message of Advent and Christmas.
The opera’s musical component is correspondingly very accessible for
audiences, uncomplicated and beautiful.
How did Jiří Bělohlávek arrive at this work? Was this one of his
I have been told that Maestro Bělohlávek was also hesitant at first and
avoided this score for a number of years; it just did not interest him much. But
once he had decided to give a concert performance of the opera, he fell totally
in love with it. He even supposedly came up with the idea that the Czech
Philharmonic should perform it every year during Advent. I think the depth of
the subject matter resonated deeply with his knowledge and possibly even with
the illness that further deepened certain aspects of his humanity during his
final years. But that is just my own speculation.
How was the recording itself actually made?
The Czech Philharmonic performed the opera at three of its subscription concerts
in December 2014, and this live recording was made from the concerts. One little
curiosity about this production is the engagement of the Czech Philharmonic
concertmaster Josef Špaček as the narrator. Thanks to having studied for
several years at the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School in the
United States, the young violinist speaks excellent English, and he took on the
role of narrator as a great challenge.
There is also a Czech version of the opera What Men Live By, but you
chose the English version for the recording…
Yes, mostly because that is the original version. Martinů wrote the opera in
America, and it was clear to him that there was no chance of a performance of
the work in any version other than that in English. He wrote the libretto in
English himself based on the tale I already mentioned, and the Czech version
was not written until later.
What are your expectations from this recording? Do you suppose it
might awaken greater interest in live performances of the opera?
I believe that the recording could return the breath of life to this work and
pave its way to opera houses around the world. I have been noticing over the
last few years how there is a growing awareness of Bohuslav Martinů’s music
among listeners, critics, and presenters; in other words, the world is
discovering the beauty and magic of his music. This is also shown by the
international success of the recently issued Supraphon recordings of his
compositions (The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Madrigals, the Cantatas of the Czech
Highlands, the piano trios etc.). I think that What Men Live By will be a
revelation to many listeners. And I think the recording of the First Symphony
with Jiří Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic is eagerly anticipated by
many who know his older recordings of the other symphonies.
Bělohlávek’s tenure with the Czech Philharmonic during the last five years
of his life was a very happy time for both parties, and in the
orchestra’s sound one now hears the new qualities that were developing during
this period. This recording shall remain as living proof of what was a very
special constellation of humanity and artistry.