When Emperor Leopold II was crowned King of Bohemia in Prague in 1791, two pieces of music were commissioned for the occasion. One was an opera from Mozart. The other was a choral work from the Czech composer Leopold Koželuch. Even though Leopoldʼs wife Maria Luisa reportedly dismissed La clemenza di Tito as “a German mess”, it has been staged innumerable times since. As far as anyone knows, Koželuchʼs Coronation Cantata was not performed again until January 2017, in a church not far from the Estates Theatre where it premiered.

Marek Štilec and the Prague Symphony Orchestra © ArcoDiva
Marek Štilec and the Prague Symphony Orchestra
© ArcoDiva
“It really is an exceptional piece,” says conductor Marek Štilec, who led the Prague Symphony Orchestra and Martinů Voices chamber choir in last yearʼs performance. Štilec is the artistic director of Czech Masters in Vienna, a project devoted to resurrecting the music of Koželuch and a handful of other Czech composers who were working in Vienna in the second half of the 18th and early part of the 19th century. “Itʼs a shame that their music has been forgotten,” Štilec says.

“When you look at the scores, the level is pretty high. In fact, some of Koželuchʼs symphonies were for a long time attributed to Haydn. This is definitely music that should be heard and recorded.” Štilec came upon it by accident. He grew up in classical music, picking up the violin at the age of four under the tutelage of his father, a musicologist, and his mother, a composer. By the age of 17 he had founded his own ensemble, the Chamber Orchestra Quattro, and switched to conducting, a passion that grew after he had a chance to study with luminaries like Jorma Panula and Michael Tilson Thomas. He now works mainly as a guest conductor, in particular with the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Pardubice, Sinfonietta Cracovia and Wiener Concert-Verein.

In the course of researching 18th and 19th-century repertoire from Central Europe, Štilec made a compelling discovery. “I began to come across names of Czech musicians and composers active in Vienna at that time,” he says. “As I dug deeper, I found more and more of them in important positions.” Indeed, Koželuch was both Kammer Kapellmeister and Hofmusik Compositor in the court of  Emperor Franz II, succeeding Mozart in those positions after his death, reportedly at double Mozartʼs salary. Earlier, he turned down an invitation to succeed Mozart as court organist in Salzburg, fearing the same abuse that drove Mozart to resign. In Vienna, Koželuch taught well-connected aristocrats, became involved in court intrigues with the likes of Antonio Salieri, and wrote music that prompted Ernst Ludwig Gerber, a German composer who compiled a dictionary of prominent musicians, to say of him, “Leopold Koželuch is without question the generally most loved among our living composers, and this with justification.”

When Koželuch died in 1818, Czech violinist, organist and composer František Krommer-Kramář (aka Franz Krommer) succeeded him. Earlier, Bohemian composer Florian Leopold Gassmann served as chamber composer and court conductor for Emperor Joseph II, and founded the Tonkünstler-Societät, the first group in Vienna to give concerts for the general public. Pavel Vranický (aka Paul Wranitzky), a violinist and prolific composer who ran two theatre orchestras in Vienna, was a favourite of Empress Maria Theresia and friends with Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Haydn asked him to conduct the Vienna première of his oratorio The Creation, and Beethoven had him conduct the premiere of his First Symphony.

Marek Štilec with Thomas Hampson and the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice © Jan Černo
Marek Štilec with Thomas Hampson and the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice
© Jan Černo
This list could easily include another half-dozen names. Why were they in Vienna? On a macro level, they were part of a larger diaspora that saw Bohemian musicians of the Baroque and Classical eras working in major music centres throughout Europe – places like Venice, Paris and Dresden, where Jan Dismas Zelenka wrote such inventive music during the 1720s and 30s that J.S. Bach became an admirer and friend. To Czechs this emigration seemed perfectly natural, as Bohemia was considered the conservatory of Europe (at least by the Czechs), a training ground for talent too good to remain local.

To the extent that there were only a limited number of court and church positions in Bohemia to support a surfeit of well-trained musicians and composers, this was certainly true. In the case of Vienna itʼs also worth noting that it was part of the same political entity, the Habsburg Empire, and thus not considered going abroad. As the capital, Vienna had an allure that Štilec states succinctly: “The money was there, and the power was there. It was the perfect place to make a good career.”

Štilecʼs discovery dovetailed with work he was already doing for Naxos, a classical music label that offers one of the broadest catalogues in the world and specializes in obscure and overlooked repertoire. His recordings of the 19th-century Czech composer Zdeněk Fibich had garnered good reviews and several awards, so Naxos founder and chairman Klaus Heymann listened with interest to his tales of Czechs in Vienna. “For many years, Naxos has been recording works of the contemporaries of Mozart and Haydn,” Heymann says. “Therefore, when I was approached by Marek Štilec with the idea of recording the music of these Czech composers, I readily agreed. Their works are rarely performed nowadays, nor have most been published. We are looking forward to many exciting and rewarding discoveries.”

To date, Naxos has released one Czech Masters CD, offering four Koželuch symphonies performed by Štilec and the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice . Four more Koželuch releases are planned, including a live recording of last yearʼs performance of the Coronation Cantata. Beyond that Štilec has an open-ended commitment for two new releases a year, and plans to move on to Vranický and Krommer-Kramář.

Koželuch was chosen as the starting point for purely practical reasons. In an exhaustive 1964 biography of the composer, Czech musicologist Milan Poštolka compiled a complete list of his works and where to find them. “Many of the other composers we are looking at didnʼt have such luck,” Štilec notes. “The situation with their pieces is very messy.” In some cases, only a few pieces, or fragments of pieces, survived. With his father Jiříʼs extensive contacts at archives throughout Europe, finding usable manuscripts is not difficult. But thatʼs only the first step in creating modern editions suitable for performance. “This is very demanding work and it needs specialists,” Jiří Štilec says. “Usually we obtain just the parts [for individual sections or instruments]. Then we have to correct the mistakes, sometimes fill in missing notes or bars, and put everything together in a complete orchestra score.”

Marek Štilec, Michael Tilson Thomas and Jiří Štilec © ArcoDiva
Marek Štilec, Michael Tilson Thomas and Jiří Štilec
© ArcoDiva
Locating and restoring the manuscripts comprises one leg of the Czech Masters project. Recording them is another. The third is getting them into circulation, an effort Štilec is spearheading by including the music in his concert programs. In January he did Koželuch symphonies with the Wiener Concert-Verein and Sinfonietta Bratislava. And the Pardubice orchestra has committed to dedicating one subscription concert a year to the Czech Masters. This season the focus was on Koželuch; next year it will be Krommer-Kramář. The orchestra will also be doing special concerts devoted to Vranický and Josef Bárta, who composed popular Singspiele.

Ultimately, the Štilecs hope to broaden and deepen the history of classical music in Europe, and bring their compatriotsʼ contributions to a wide audience. “Thereʼs an assumption that we already know about everything that was good,” Marek says. “I donʼt think that music is a horse race, Iʼm not trying to prove that anyone was better than Mozart or Haydn. Instead, what Iʼve found is a lot of beautiful and interesting music that almost no one knew was there. And in the performances of it that Iʼve done, in the Czech Republic and abroad, both the audiences and the musicians have been pleasantly surprised.”

“We hope we will show that Czech music is not just Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček and Martinů,” says Jiří. “It started much earlier, and we want to fill in the white space. We will not rewrite music history, but we do want to complete the whole picture, which was not so schematic and simple. And sometimes modern concert life seems very monotonous. So we also hope to enrich it.”

Click here to find out more about the project.


This article was sponsored by Fly United.