The celebrated Czech composer Petr Eben, who died last October in Prague, was
particularly well known for his organ and choral music. He taught composition
briefly at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester as well as at
Dartington Summer School, but mainly worked in Prague, at the University and the
Academy of Musical Arts. As an organist he performed at the Royal Festival Hall,
at Notre Dame in Paris and many other venues around the world, and his works
were and are performed internationally by respected soloists and ensembles such
as the Vienna Philharmonic.
Although he had studied piano as well as composition, the piano does not feature extensively in his works. The principal solo works are the early Sonata in D Flat, the collection “Maly portrety” (Small portraits), the “Dopisy Milene” (Letters to Milena) and the “Veni creator spiritus”, an improvisation on Gregorian chants.
The Letters to Milena, composed in 1991, are particularly interesting, as they form a connection with another celebrated citizen of Prague not often associated with music. Franz Kafka never had any significant links to music in his lifetime, and it plays little part in his writings. Eben alludes to this in his preface to the pieces, quoting Kafka directly: “I have a certain strength... that is my unmusicality”, and goes on to describe Kafka’s writing as cool and objective. However, in the letters Kafka wrote to his friend Milena Jesenska he reveals a more emotional, sensitive side to his personality, and it is these letters that inspired Eben’s five piano pieces. Each piece is based on one short quote from the letters, ranging from philosophical to autobiographical observations.
The manner in which Eben transforms aspects of these quotes into music is fascinating. Some aspects are translated in fairly direct ways, such as in the final piece, describing “I have no one here but fear, locked together we toss through the nights”; the waltz element in the music mirrors the German word for toss - “wälzen”, from which “waltz” is derived. The second piece poses a more formidable challenge. It would be difficult to see how a composer could set the words: “It is difficult to speak the truth, for though there is only one, it is alive and thus has a lively, changing face”. Eben’s solution is to restrict himself to two chords, one in the left hand and one in right, and to alternate them in constantly changing rhythms. He thereby portrays the two natures of truth, the absolute and the changing, in an intellectually satisfying and musically captivating way while allowing for some of the dry humour of Kafka’s style to remain as well. Eben also includes the post scriptum of the letter in the piece in an amusing way: after bringing the alternating rhythms to a climax, an agitated cadenza expresses impatience at the insoluble question of truth, after which the rhythms of the opening reappear somewhat half-heartedly in the lower regions the piano and break off gruffly.
The centre of the collection is the fourth piece: “My home is the quietest quiet, this is what is right for me”. Whilst Eben never imitates the organ in his piano pieces, one feels it is never far away. The characteristic sound of the organ, allowing for different layers of distinct timbres to be heard simultaneously, is beautifully transferred to the piano here, using a wide range of very soft sonorities in pianistically convincing ways. Almost all the music is derived with classical discipline from a basic motif introduced at the beginning of the piece, so that the same figure sometimes functions as a melody in the centre of the keyboard while appearing in both upper and lower registers as accompaniment in varied forms. Far from sounding contrived or calculated it all produces a magical stillness and reveals a deep knowledge of the piano and its possibilities.
The first piece, “How nervous I am, my ship must somehow have lost its rudder during these last days.” alternates static strong notes and phrases dotted around the keyboard with agitated interjections, gradually leading to a faster section marked “Inquieto” (Restless), which has more than just this indication in common with the “Allegro inquieto” of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7. The music from the opening then returns, quietly, without the interjections, and the piece dissolves without offering a clear resolution – pertinently so, as it is followed by No. 2, which describes the intangibility of truth!
Overall, the collection is a beautifully constructed and thoughtful homage to a great but troubled Czech citizen, revealing a deep understanding on the part of the composer for the texts, the personality that created them and for the instrument the music was written for.
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