Zdeněk Fibich (December 21, 1850 –October 15, 1900) was a Czech composer of classical music, among whose compositions are chamber works (including two string quartets, a piano trio, piano quartet and a quintet for piano, strings and winds), symphonic poems, three symphonies, at least seven operas (the most famous probably Šárka and The Bride of Messina), melodramas including the substantial trilogy Hippodamia, liturgical music including a mass – a missa brevis; and a large cycle (almost 400 pieces, from the 1890s) of piano works called Moods, Impressions, and Reminiscences, the last of which served as a diary of sorts of his love for a piano pupil. Fibich was born on December 21, 1850, in Všebořice (Šebořice) near Čáslav, Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later moved to Liban. Fibich’s father was a Czech forestry official and the composer’s early life was spent on various wooded estates of the nobleman for whom his father worked. All his life he retained a love of nature. His mother, however, was a cultured, ethnic German Viennese. Home schooled by his mother, who also taught him piano, until the age of nine, he was then referred to a local priest, Frantisek Cerny, for studies in music theory. He was first sent to a German-speaking gymnasium in Vienna for two years before attending a Czech-speaking private gymnasium in Prague where he stayed until he was 15. By the end of his schooling, Fibich had written over 50 compositions. Most were piano pieces and songs, but some were more ambitious, including an attempt at music for the final part of Romeo and Juliet and a symphony sketched out on four open staves.
After this, in 1865 Fibich was sent to the Leipzig Conservatory where he remained for three years studying piano with Ignaz Moscheles and composition with Salomon Jadassohn and Ernst Richter. After the better part of a year in Paris, Fibich concluded his studies with Vinzenz Lachner (the younger brother of Franz and Ignaz Lachner) in Mannheim. He returned to Bohemia in 1870 and spent the next few years living with his parents back in Prague where he began composing full-time and p ro duced his first opera Bukovina, based on a libretto of Karel Sabina, the librettist of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. In 1873, at the age of 23, he married Růžena Hanušová and took up residence in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius. where he had obtained a position of choirmaster. His tone poem of that year, Zaboj, Slavoj, and Ludek, deeply influenced Smetana’s nascent Má Vlast.After spending two personally unhappy years there when his wife and newly born twins both died in Vilnius, he returned to Prague in 1874 and remained there until his death.
Fibich was given a bi-cultural education, living during his formative early years in Germany, France, and Austria in addition to his native Bohemia. He was fluent in German as well as Czech. In his instrumental works, Fibich generally wrote in the vein of the German romantics, first falling under the influence of Weber, Mendelssohn and Schumann and later Wagner. His early operas and close to 200 of his early songs are in German. These works along with his symphonies and chamber music won considerable praise from German critics, though not from Czechs. The bulk of Fibich’s operas are in Czech, although many are based on non-Czech sources such as Shakespeare, Schiller, and Byron. In his chamber music, more than anywhere else, Fibich makes use of Bohemian folk melodies and dance rhythms such as the dumka. Fibich was the first to write a Czech nationalist tone poem (Záboj, Slavoj a Luděk) which served as the inspiration for Smetana’s Má vlast. He was also the first to use the polka in a chamber work, his quartet in A.
In 1875 Fibich married Růžena’s sister, the operatic contralto Betty Fibichová (née Hanušová). They had a son, Richard, in 1876. This baby survived. Fibich took a job at the Provisional Theater in Prague, but finding that his theatrical duties took him away from composition, he gave them up in favor of a position at the Russian Orthodox Church in Prague in 1878. He wrote a fairly successful opera, Blanik, and became interested in the unusual musical form of the melodrama. He came to be one of the most successful composers in that genre. In 1881 Fibich resigned from his church position and devoted himself full-time to composing and teaching. Anežka Schulzová wrote the libretti for all the last four of his later operas including Šárka (1897), about a Czech female military leader which was his most successful work, in part due to its patriotic theme, and also served as the inspiration for his Moods, Impressions, and Reminiscences, composed between 1891 and 1899. Miss Schulzova was a singer and a well-read young woman who directed Fibich toward texts with a feminist orientation.
After his return to Prague, Fibich’s music encountered severely negative reactions in the Prague musical community, stemming from his (and Smetana’s) adherence to Richard Wagner’s theories on opera. While Smetana’s later career was plagued with problems for presenting Wagnerian-style music dramas in Czech before a conservative audience, Fibich’s pugilistic music criticism, not to mention his overtly Wagnerian later operas, Hedy, Šárka, and Pád Arkuna, exacerbated the problem in the years after Smetana’s death in 1884. Together with the music aesthetician Otakar Hostinský, he was ostracized from the musical establishment at the National Theatre and Prague Conservatory and forced to rely on his private composition studio. The studio nevertheless was well respected among students, drawing such names as Emanuel Chvála, Karel Kovařovic, Otakar Ostrčil, and Zdeněk Nejedlý, the well-known critic and subsequent politician. In 1899 he returned to a position as producer at the Provisional Theater, now called the National Theater. He died unexpectedly of a kidney infection in Prague on October 15, 1900.
Fibich was the third of the leading Czech composers of the last half of the nineteenth century, after Smetana and Dvorák. His music is strongly Romantic and often intensely personal. Less nationalistic than was fashionable for much of his later life and early posterity, his works have only recently begun to meet a revival of interest. That Fibich is far less known than either Antonín Dvořák or Bedřich Smetana can be explained by the fact that he lived during the rise of Czech nationalism within the Hapsburg Empire. While Smetana and Dvořák gave themselves over entirely to the national cause, consciously writing Czech music with which the emerging nation strongly identified, Fibich’s position was more ambivalent. This was due to the background of his parents and to his education. Much of the reception of Fibich’s music in the early twentieth century is a result of these students’ efforts after their teacher’s death, especially in Nejedlý’s highly campaigns enacted in a series of monographs and articles that sought to redress what he considered to be past inequities.
My collection includes the following works by Zdenek Fibich:
Comenius Festival Overture (1892).
The Great Musical Monograph of the Building of the National Theatre—Tableau Vivant (1881).
Hedy—Opera, op. 43 (1895): Ballet Music.
Hippodamia’s Death—Melodrama, op. 33 (1891): March.
The Jew of Prague—Tragedy (1871): Overture.
Music for the Celebration of the 300th Anniversary of the Birth of Jan Amos Comenius—Tableau Vivant (1892).
Music for the Reopening of the National Theatre—Tableau Vivant (1883).
A Night in Karlstejn Castle (1886): Overture.
Prologue to the Opening of the New Czech Theatre—Tableau Vivant (1876).