It has always puzzled me as to the vagaries of musical taste that elevate certain composers to the greatest heights while relegating others to almost total obscurity. Some might argue that in most cases this is simply due to talent and quality will always come to the fore. I’m sure they are right but not always. I’ve been discovering several in recent years who have been inexplicably overlooked and deeply regretting it on their behalf as well as for music-lovers of the past who never had the pleasure of hearing them. One such I now know to be the composer featured on this four disc set, Josef Bohuslav Foerster. It didn’t take long from putting the first disc on to have me wondering how it is that he is hardly known at all. His compatriots Dvořák and Janáček only 18 and 5 years older are household names, not to mention Mahler as well as Martinů and a number of others.
The first set of five pieces is entitled Dreaming. It is difficult to imagine anyone getting much closer to describing that state in music, particularly the first piece marked Sostenuto molto which is unbelievably beautiful. The entire first disc abounds in delightful music and beautiful tunes that will remain in the mind long afterwards. The principal feature of his music is an overwhelming sense of captivating beauty in its simplest form. Reading about him in the booklet written by pianist Patricia Goodson it soon becomes obvious that the music is totally in keeping with the man. He emerges as a thoroughly decent human being without artifice or pretension whose only goal was to enrich people’s musical experience the best way he could. There was no trace of desire for recognition or of betterment of any kind. It is humbling in the extreme when listening to the considerable degree of creativity on display. One feels unsettled on his behalf that he is only recently emerging from the shadows after an unjustified length of time in the realms of obscurity. It is even more puzzling that he is not better known even in his native Czech Republic. The Prague authorities erected a plaque on his birthplace in the lesser quarter just below the end of Charles Bridge, during his lifetime, way back in 1934.
From the booklet I also learned that the majority of the works were gifts or mementos, once again highlighting his selfless attitude. Some others were also written as commissions though it is doubtful that he ever made much of a living from them resulting in a life given over mainly to teaching and writing.
Simplicity is another feature of Foerster’s writing and The Masks of Eros which opens the second disc is the only work in the entire collection requiring any virtuosity on behalf of the pianist. This, considered to be his masterwork, consists of a theme and variations with the theme itself an inversion of a key theme from his 1897 opera Eva. Other examples of Foerster’s generosity of spirit include his composition of the Jičín Suite written for the town of Jičín which gave such a warm reception to his opera Eva. There’s also his Osenice Suite which honours the village from which his forebears originated. Both are further examples of his ability to write wonderfully rhapsodic music which keeps the listener enthralled with its beauty and simplicity.
The third disc’s opening work is And the apple trees blossomed, another lovely composition which he wrote following the death of his friend Antonín Dvořák together with Evening Music which is to be found on CD 1. Following the death of his wife Berta in 1936 he married her close friend Olga Hilkenová and later wrote The Day a set of three short pieces for her son Ivar which describe morning, noon and evening in delightful little mood sketches. His five Miniatures for Piano of 1885 are once again brilliantly simple but highly effective vignettes and there are several examples of his early works in this collection. In fact it is interesting that the pieces are laid out quite randomly in terms of the year they were written. This work follows The Day which dates from 1939; Foerster, being so long-lived, was composing for a total of at least seven decades. Pages from my Diary, the booklet notes explain, may stem from Foerster’s friendship with Zdeněk Fibich, another unfairly neglected composer whose merits are only now being reassessed. The final piece of the five, as Patricia Goodson points out, is reminiscent of Schumann showing that over forty years after his death the elegance and simplicity of his writing was just as much admired then and was still exerting an influence. The people who were in receipt of the piano pieces Foerster wrote and then offered as gifts were lucky indeed and a music-lover could hardly imagine a greater present. I felt this particularly as I listened to Melodie (1892) and his last ever piano piece Lullaby (1942). Although written fifty years apart, these pieces show the same elegant simplicity and overflowing charm.
Charm is the word that also aptly describes the opening work on the final disc Esquisses de danse from 1906. It describes dances of children, lovers, married couples and the elderly. Then comes a work that concludes in an eerily prophetic way. The last piece of Music for my young son, written when Foerster’s son was three years old, incorporates a lament that builds to a furious climax followed by son Alfred’s favourite folk song which is hideously distorted before reverting to the lament. Alfred, Foerster’s only child, died tragically in 1921, aged only 16. This event caused the composer to become, as he himself said, ‘a broken man who saw before him but one goal - the grave’. It was only friendship with soprano Jarmila Královsová and her family that brought him back from despair to make the final thirty years of his long life bearable.
Memories of Youth is a joyous piece from 1942 and the ensuing three pieces from decades earlier also exude Foerster’s delight in life as do his Spring Moods from 1887. The concluding five pieces on this final disc includes one entitled March for the National Youth Front (1939) which seems to us now as a typical echo from the 1930s when nationalism was stirring throughout Europe. Perhaps Czechoslovakia was already feeling unease that its newly established nation (formed in 1918) was in a precarious position which as we came to know was indeed the case. The piece incorporates Czech folksong but is devoid of any militaristic content. The final two pieces were unpublished and so it is pleasing to hear them for the first time.
On the plaque erected at his birthplace it says: ‘JB Foerster was born in this house on 30 December 1859 in order, through his music, to raise us to the heights of beauty’. Thus his peers recognised his contribution to the country’s musical life 17 years before his death. It is all the more stupefying to read on pianist Patricia Goodson’s website ‘I stumbled upon Foerster in a volume of scores I bought in a second-hand bookstore, and was astonished at the beauty, imagination and craftsmanship of the music. I was even more surprised to discover that only one set of piano pieces had ever been commercially recorded. Czech Radio has recorded several works over the years, but these are effectively locked up in the radio archives and not available to the public. All of Foerster`s piano music was in print during his lifetime, but none is in print today, which means this gorgeous music may as well not exist.’ Fortunately for us Patricia Goodson did something about it and launched an online appeal to raise sufficient funds to record the music asking for $1400. After only two days she had raised almost $3700 and no doubt it went on from there enabling her to launch a series of concerts as well. Her commitment to the project is evident throughout this absorbing and enrapturing survey of Foerster’s complete piano music. I look forward on a future trip to Prague to visit her husband’s wooden toys shop near Hradčany Castle. I hope to meet her there so that I can congratulate her firsthand and tell her how very much I enjoyed this wonderful, passionate and personal music that she plays with such effortless charm and elegance.
Full contents list
CD 1 [73:41]
Dreaming (Snění) Op.47 (1898) [17:59]
Roses of Remembrance (Růže Vzpomínky) Op.49 (1902) [20:53]
Evening Music (Hudba Večera) Op.79 (1904) [8:11]
Charcoal Sketches (Črty úhel) Op.136 (1927) [10:33]
Impressions (Imprese) Op.73 (1908-09) [13:34]
CD 2 [60:26]
The Masks of Eros (Erotovy masky) Op.98 (1912) [18:17]
Osenice Suite (Osenická suita) Op.129 (1926) [19:51]
Jičín Suite (Jičínská Suita) Op.124 (1923) [22:03]
CD 3 [58:17]
And the apple trees blossomed (A jabloně květly) Op.52 (1905) [15:39]
The Day, Three pieces for young pianists (Den, tři klavírní skladby pro mladé pianisty) Op.153b (1939) [6:46]
Miniatures for piano (Miniatury pro klavír) Op.17 (1885) [7:45]
Pages from my Diary (Listy z mého deníku) Op.18b (1890) [11:34]
Greetings to President T.G. Masaryk on his 80th birthday (Pozdrav panu presidentu T.G. Masarykovi k 80tim narozeninám) (1930) [0:58]
Melodie (1892) [2:45]
Lullaby (Ukolébavka) (1942) [2:01]
Two pieces for the left hand (Dvě skladby pro klavír levou rukou) Op.142 (1930) [8:57]
CD 4 [58:02]
Esquisses de danse Op.48 (1906) [11:27]
Music for my young son (Skladby pro mého synáčka) Op.72 (1908-09) [13:34]
Memories of Youth (Vzpomínka z mládí) (1942) [2:35]
Petites esquisses (1908) [2:20]
Moment musicale (1892) [2:08]
Allegretto capriccioso (1892) [4:04]
Spring Moods (Jarní Nálady) Op.4 (1887) [6:58]
Allegro and Scherzo Op.5 (1885) [8:00]
March for the National Youth Front (Pochod Mladé národní jednoty (1939) [3:47]
Wiegenlied (unpublished) [1:02]
Zuckerpuppe tanzt (unpublished) [1:15]