“An instrument should be approached with an open heart, then it
itself will teach you,” the pianist Petra Matějová says. Supraphon has just
released an album of Václav Jan Křtitel Tomášek’s Piano Sonatas (SU
4223–2), as immaculately performed by her. The artist talks about the composer
with great ardour, admiration and understanding, as though she knew him in
person. Yet just as enthusiastically has Matějová approached the music of
other composers who lived during a time she is particularly fond of – the
Classicist period at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries – among them Jan
Václav Hugo Voříšek. Since completing her hammerklavier studies in Paris,
Petra Matějová has given numerous concerts, made a number of recordings and
taught at master classes across Europe. The present album aims to convince the
listeners and Matějová’s fellow pianists that the time has come to revive
Tomášek’s keyboard music and put it back on concert stages, as it so richly
Václav Tomášek was one of the few Czech composers of his time who
did not leave his country so as to earn his living and gain fame abroad.
Definitely because when he was 30 year of age he was offered a very lucrative
job by Count Buquoy, who was very keen on his music and employed him as a
teacher and composer. What is more, Tomášek was provided with luxury
accommodation and boarding at the Buquoy Palace in Prague, and in the summer he
would stay with the Count’s family at their residence in Nové Hrady. He
would have been foolish indeed to turn down such an offer.
So, that was the reason why he did not pursue a career as a lawyer,
even though he had studied law.
Because of Buquoy’s offer, he dispensed with other activities too. He simply
opted for a career as a musician. Furthermore, he was a sought-after music
educator. By the time he left Buquoy’s service, in 1823, when he got married,
he had become a distinguished piano teacher. Tomášek ran a reputable salon and
was one of the most expensive teachers in Prague. Nonetheless, at one time, he
really did try to get to Vienna, and was even assisted in this matter by his
pupil Jan Václav Hugo Voříšek, yet he did not succeed.
Was Voříšek a pupil of his?
To all appearances he was, yet the sources only confirm that the lessons lasted
for a mere few months, for Tomášek had to abandon some of his pupils,
including Voříšek, owing to lack of time. Yet although Voříšek did not
study with Tomášek for long, the two became friends.
Tomášek wrote his own biography, in which he comes across as quite
Self-confidence may well have been one of his traits, but he was a highly
erudite and adroit man indeed! A notable pianist, composer and educator. No
wonder, then, that he held himself in esteem, as he duly revealed in his
Regrettably, he ceased to depict his life relatively early. What was
The reason why he failed to complete his autobiography is not clear. You’d be
better off asking the musicologist Markéta Kabelková, the head of the Music
History Department of the Czech Museum of Music, a specialist in
Tomášek’s life and work, owing to whom I actually arrived at the subject.
Perhaps he stopped writing for practical reasons – in the final phase of his
life, Tomášek was extremely busy with teaching. Yet the autobiography is of
major importance for us, since it is the one and only more or less comprehensive
source of information. Otherwise we know very little about him. We also drew
upon the text when we were attempting to date Tomášek’s compositions, as
there are very few sources in this respect.
When did he compose the sonatas featured on your new CD?
Initially, they were thought to have been written between 1800 and 1806, yet
when I explored them closely, I arrived at the conclusion that the first
sonata might have been composed in 1799. Nonetheless, it is impossible to
ascertain the exact date, as part of the Faculty of Law’s archive in Prague
has burnt down, and documents attesting to the theses and the graduates have
been lost. That is where we would have found the date on which
Tomášek’s thesis, which is related to his music, was approved.
How is it that Václav Tomášek is not as well known as the other
Czech composers of his time?
I assume that there are several reasons, one of them being the date of his
birth. Tomášek’s disadvantage is that his anniversary overlaps with that
of Bedřich Smetana (editor’s note: the years of birth are 1774 and 1824,
respectively). The creators of concert series generally reflect anniversaries in
the programmes and musicians’ presentations. And Smetana is very hard to
compete with. Nevertheless, I hope that in the near future Václav Tomášek
will have joined the ranks of some of his contemporaries, who were discovered
for the audience by musicians and musicologists in the 1960s and 1970s, which
saw the beginning of a renewed great interest in early music.
You yourself have made a great contribution to
Well, I am not alone in this respect. Musica Florea, for instance, recently
performed Tomášek’s Te Deum and other vocal pieces of his. Of major
significance is that Czech Radio has been publishing the sheet music of all his
sonatas, so I hope they will soon become familiar among the wider public too.
I myself have recorded some of the sonatas for the radio.
Years ago, Tomášek’s keyboard works were recorded by the pianist
Pavel Štěpán. How does his take on them differ from your
As far as I know, Pavel Štěpán above all recorded the Eclogues, which are
virtually the only well-known Tomášek pieces today. The piano is essentially
different, and that duly determines the manner of performance. I play the
instruments, or their copies, which were common in Tomášek’s time and which
starkly differ from the contemporary piano. And there is a geographic difference
to take into account too. The modern piano was derived from the English type of
the instrument. To put it simply, that instrument is suitable for long sound,
cantilena. Whereas the Viennese piano – used across the Central Europe
region – possesses other characteristic qualities; it is good for speed,
articulation, “scampering”. Hence, it appears that the pieces once composed
for this “Viennese” instrument are difficult to transfer to the opposite
pole, that is, the piano whose main property is the ability to generate long and
melodious sound. Consequently, my account above all differs from the modern
performances owing to my playing an older type of the instrument.
And that in turn greatly affects the manner of playing, does it
Yes, the entire performance depends on it, since it is mainly determined by the
type of instrument. The manner of playing, the manner of using the pedal, the
tempo, etc. That is precisely what the magic of that which is termed
“historically informed performance” rests in. I myself do not really like
the term, but I do use it, as it has become established.
Is it not the correct term, then?
That is not what I mean. It started to be applied in the 1960s, when the
movement for “early music” was enjoying a great boom, and there is nothing
we can do about it now. By using the term, we aim to stress the fact that we
strive to play period instruments or their copies while being familiar with the
historical sources too. Although, of course, no one today is able to specify how
music was actually performed two hundred years ago. On the other hand, we do
have available ample credible circumstantial evidence that has to be taken into
What helps you the most in this regard?
Instructional for us are, for instance, the period textbooks, in which
everything is described. Sometimes, though, it is not easy to read them, as they
are written in a specific language. You have to immerse yourself in the
respective era, apply historical methods. Besides the textbooks, there are, most
significantly, particular musical instruments. When you embrace them with an
open heart – I must emphasise, with an open heart – they suggest a lot.
When you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to play, spend a certain
period of time with, such an instrument, it itself will teach you.
You stress the necessity of having an open heart – does it mean
that there are musicians who approach historical performance without having an
emotional relationship to it?
I feel obliged to emphasise the open heart because there are many keyboard
players who only try to play such an instrument as they want to make sure that
it is imperfect. They approach it with this intention and they seemingly do
indeed verify that which they had presumed, that it is just a predecessor of our
perfect modern piano. Such musicians are not likely to find anything valuable in
And the other type of musicians?
Naturally, the “early” piano can be approached from a different angle. With
the conviction that it is evidently more appropriate to play a
two-hundred-year-old composition on a two-hundred-year-old instrument than on
one that was only built two centuries after the music was created.
You have reminded me of that which Professor Zuzana Růžičková
said, describing a discussion she had a long time ago with Sviatoslav Richter,
about whether it is more appropriate to perform Bach on the piano or the
That is a complex question. Bach, however, is quite a specific case, for his
music is absolute and, in my opinion, can be played on virtually any instrument.
Even in his time, Bach was highly singular, different from all those
And the other old-time composers?
Classicism is somewhat different; I am of the opinion that many Classicist
pieces do not sound overly great when they are played on modern instruments.
That may even be the reason why they have been overlooked and are not frequently
included in the repertoire – their quality simply rests elsewhere, which the
contemporary instrument is incapable of expressing. Accordingly, we stick to the
Haydn – Mozart – Beethoven troika, as the other composers are,
unfortunately, generally deemed to be “second-rate” today. Yet the only
reason for this is that modern instruments are not able to convey the value of
their music in the way that would be acceptable at the present time. And
historical instruments are not always available.
How would “your” Tomášek sound if it were played on the modern
piano? Would it differ dramatically?
One of the less perceptible, yet quite essential, differences is the instrument
tuning. Firstly, today we are accustomed to 440–443 Hz, whereas, according to
the current consensus, we now tune Classicist music to 430 Hz, and earlier
music, in dependence on the respective period, to even lower frequencies.
Secondly, nowadays we hear the bulk of music in equal temperament – a system
of tuning in which the frequency interval between every pair of adjacent notes
has the same ratio. When it comes to early music, this type of tuning was
scarcely, and only experimentally, applied. Commonly used was unequal
temperament, owing to which the keys are more or less tense. The keys that are
more natural, i.e. with fewer sharps and flats – C major, G major, D major,
A major – to E flat with “b” sound very relaxed, while the keys with a
greater number of marks are much tenser. Although the average listener may not
perceive it, the difference is essential, and it particularly manifests itself
at the emotional level. Esotericists claim that the ease evoked by the wave
frequency A=432Hz is pleasant and beneficial for the human body.
How did you come to devote to music history, as a performer and
I studied the modern piano at the Prague Conservatory and the Academy of
Performing Arts. I have always had a penchant for Classicism; I have always
liked playing music dating from that stylistic era. Unlike the majority of
pianists, who only begin feeling good around 1830, the Romantic period. Although
I didn’t eschew other eras, the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries was
closer to my heart. And since at the time of my studies there were few
opportunities to encounter the period instruments in this country, following my
graduation I left for Paris. My original intention was to attend a master class
with Professor Eugen Indjic. Numerous pianists of my generation had taken his
international performance classes in Piešťany, Slovakia. We really enjoyed
them, and I am not the only one who subsequently decided to go to Paris and
study with Indjic, at least for a short time. While in France, I started to
look about to see what was going on with the hammerklavier there. It was in
Paris where my interest in and decision to devote to the instrument truly
Because of the instrument itself or because of the music that was
written for it?
Above all, because of the repertoire, as I was interested in this particular
stylistic and historical period. I knew that in many countries the
hammerklavier was studied as the main discipline and, as I have said, there
were few opportunities at home at the time. And I was afforded such an
opportunity right at the beginning of my studies in Paris. During a concert of
the harpsichordist Zdeňka Ošťádalová at the Czech Centre, I met the
hammerklavier player Patrick Cohen, who had been invited to the performance. And
that was that. Afterwards, over the half a year I took lessons from Professor
Indjic, I was concurrently training on the hammerklavier. I was certain that
I wanted to continue to devote to the instrument.
I have read in your CV that you studied for your doctoral degree
within a “cotutelle” programme. Could you explain what that is?
It is a very interesting system of doctoral study, entailing joint supervision
according to an agreement between universities in two countries. In my case,
they were the Sorbonne and Paris Conservatoire, and the Academy of Music and
Performing Arts in Brno. I received a scholarship from the French government,
on the basis of which I studied half a year in one, half a year in the other
country over three years.
What was the subject of your doctoral thesis?
Jan Václav Hugo Voříšek’s music, which represents a sort of transition
between Classicism and the period that followed. I deliberately avoid the term
“Romanticism”, for it is not precise. Voříšek’s music is very Romantic
as regards its content, yet is Classicist when it comes to the idiom.
Your hammerklavier is a rather precious instrument. Do you take it
with you to concerts?
Yes, most of the time. I own an instrument of five and a half octaves, it is
practical, relatively easy to transport, and it corresponds to the turn of the
18th and 19th centuries. Yet at the present time, suitable instruments are often
available at more distant places, so I don’t have to travel to, for instance,
Poland and Slovakia, with my hammerklavier. Yet I play a different instrument
on the Supraphon album.
You are also interested in the effect music has on the prenatal
development of babies…
I was inspired by my own experience of motherhood. I performed at several
thematic concerts held by the Czech Philharmonic, and later on I went on to
give concerts for mothers-to-be through the A Centrum in Prague. Some time ago,
the Czech Philharmonic pursued a successful cycle for pregnant women, which
proved to be very popular. The programme was guided and presented by the pianist
Markéta Vejvodová, who maintains the view that music has a positive effect on
the development of the foetus. I myself have experienced it that the baby in
the womb is indeed highly sensitive to sounds and noises.
Your CD with Tomášek’s sonatas has been released within
Supraphon’s praiseworthy and acclaimed Music from Eighteenth-Century Prague
series, which over the years has brought to light a number of discoveries.
Tomášek’s keyboard pieces are certain to rank among them.
Yes, it is a truly exquisite edition, and I hope it will also fill the temporal
gap at the end of the 18th century. The majority of the titles have so far been
dedicated to the first half of the 18th century. When it comes to Tomášek, his
music may be deemed a watershed, since he wrote his sonatas in the first years
of the 19th century, with the bulk of them having been composed in its first
half. One of the supporting ideas of my project was the fact that, in terms of
their musical idiom, seven of Tomášek’s sonatas rather pertain to the 18th
century. I am happy that my album has been included in the Supraphon series.
With regard to the edition, I can see plenty of other Classicist chamber works
and music for the solo piano.