Josef Bohuslav Foerster – Symphonie No. 4 in C Minor Op. 54
(b. Prague, 30 December 1859 – d. Novy Vestec (near Stará Boleslav, 29 May 1951)
Easter Eve (1904-05)
I Molto sostenuto – Allegro p. 3
II Allegro deciso – Allegro moderato – Tempo I, di scherzo Allegro vivace p. 39
III Andante sostenuto p. 72
IV Lento lugubre – Animato – Allegro moderato – Allegro p. 90
After Leos Janácek, Josef Bohuslav Foerster was one of the leading Czech composers of his generation, together with his younger colleagues, Vítezslav Novák, Josef Suk und Otakar Ostrcil. In 1888 he married the famous opera singer, Berta Lauterer, and followed her to Hamburg where she was employed in 1893. In 1903 Gustav Mahler engaged her at the Vienna Court Opera. Foerster followed her there and was soon to enjoy Mahler’s active support. As Mahler wrote to Foerster, “If I ever become an independent orchestral conductor, I shall perform all your symphonies.”
From 1918 onwards he furthered his career as a teacher on his return to Prague, where he was highly regarded. As a composer he wrote in a large variety of forms. His 190 or so works include five symphonies (1888, 1893, 1895, 1905, 1929), of which the fourth – generally considered the finest in his entire output – is by far the most popular.
Foerster wrote his Symphony No. 4 in C Minor Op. 54 (1904-05) and gave it the title The long Night, which is not, however, mentioned in the printed score. In 1955 a condensed version of Foerster’s autobiography, Poutník (Der Pilger), was published in German, edited by his friend Frantisek Pala, based on the Czech original, which appeared in two volumes: Poutník (The pilgrim, Prague, 1942) and Poutnik v civine (The pilgrim abroad, Prague, 1947). As the composer recalls in these comprehensive memoirs, “It was in Hamburg, on Good Friday, 1904, that I began to write my fourth symphony, deeply moved by the spirit of Easter Week. I had no clear idea of the structure of the work as a whole and was doubtful at first whether I should not conclude the piece with a Good Friday meditation.
As can be seen from the opening bars, I intended to compose the work in an opulent polyphonic style. The first movement went very smoothly, its tragic quality and relatively slow tempo calling out for a really powerful contrast. I then recalled my childhood, especially the Easter holidays, which I once spent at my grandfather’s at Osenice. This provided the necessary mood. Easter Week in the first movement, as experienced by as adult, and in the second, the Easter festivities, as seen through the eyes of a child. On the one hand, the painful journey in the steps of the Redeemer carrying his Cross, on the other, early greens buds, anemones and cowslips, spring breezes and pastoral melodies. The following slow movement — a paean in praise of solitude and spirituality — a prayer with two themes that merge into one just before the end. The final movement — a triple fugue, the second subject borrowed from a Gregorian plainsong — develops into a hymn of joyful praise for the risen Saviour at the end of the movement, interspersed three times with our folk song, ‘On the third day our Creator rose again’.
I took the finished draft with me when I visited Vienna on holiday a year later. I had spent the first part of my holidays in the picturesque valley by the river Kamp near Vienna because my wife was ill. We lived in quiet house belonging to a Czech from Vienna called Karásek, in the middle of some woods far off the beaten track. One could walk eastwards to an ancient pilgrimage church, Vierlinden, surrounded by wonderful lime trees and glimpse the picturesque old grey towers and battlements of the Rosenburg further on […] I worked at the score in the garden day in day out during the most glorious summer weather. When the symphony was finished I announced to my friend Oskar Nedbal that it could be included in the forthcoming concert season of the Czech Philharmonic.”
Foerster wrote of Nedbal: “It was sheer drama to see him rehearse and to observe his delight as he worked through each bar and responded to many exciting new ideas. He brought out the most voluptuous colours and an inexhaustible opulence of orchestral tone, achieving the most magical effects through the combination sounds.”
The premiere of Josef Bohuslav Foerster’s Symphony No. 4 in C Minor Op. 54 took place on November 22, 1905, in Prague, played by the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Oscar Nedbal (1874-1930). It has found its place in the permanent Czech repertoire ever since but has failed to gain ground abroad. The score was published by Universal Edition in 1924. Rafael Kubelík conducted an incomparable first recording of the work on vinyl for Supraphon on January 17, 1948.
Translation: Jonathan Price
For performance materials please contact the original publisher, Universal Edition, Vienna (www.universaledition.com).
Reprint in this form with kind permission of Universal Edition AG, Vienna, 2003.
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