Jan Novák was born on April 8th, 1921 in Nová Říše, a little town in southwest Moravia. The place is dominated by a Premonstratensian monastery, which has been in its time an important center for culture and music. Nová Říše is also the birthplace of the Vranický brothers Pavel and Antonín, themselves well-known Viennese composers at the end of the 18th century.
Novák’s parents were first employed in the monastery, then his father made himself independent as a bookbinder. The boy received a thorough education in the humanities at the Jesuite School in Velehrad, a place of Old Slavonic Christian tradition, and at the classical Gymnasium in Brno. This, together with the music- and art-loving atmosphere at home, influenced the development of his personality, primarily directed towards music.
From early childhood Jan Novák showed great musical talent, especially on the violin, piano and organ. In his grammar school years this talent was already reflected in his first compositions. This took him to the Brno Conservatory, where he studied composition with Vilém Petrželka and piano with František Schaeffer. During the Second World War he was forced to interrupt his musical studies for two and a half years. Like most of the Czech students of his generation, he was deported by the Nazis to engage in forced labor in Germany. Eventually he succeeded in fleeing Germany and spent the end of the war hidden in his uncle’s home.
In 1946 Novák graduated with a string quartet and the DANCE SUITE for orchestra. He then continued his studies at the Prague Academy of Music with Pavel Bořkovec, before returning to Brno for a further period of study with Petrželka. He completed his studies with a scholarship to the USA awarded by the Ježek Foundation. There he spent the summer 1947 at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Mass., where he worked with Aaron Copland. After that he went to New York, to meet his famous compatriot Bohuslav Martinů. He studied with Martinů, whom he called his “divine tutor”, until he returned to Czechoslovakia in 1948, on February 25th, the day of the Communist takeover. The epistolary contact with Martinů lasted even after, right through the Iron Curtain, until Martinů’s death in 1959.
Novák settled down in Brno where he lived as a freelance composer. A liberal-minded humanist, with his uncompromising artistic and public attitudes, he had recurrent confrontations with the official Czech authorities and with the leading representatives of the Composers’ Union. At that time he experimented with jazz (CAPRICCIO for cello and orchestra, CONCERTINO for wind quintet) and the dodecaphonism (PASSER CATULLI for bass and 9 instruments). Both musical languages were at that time proscripted as too “western” by the artistic dogmas of the official socialist realism.
In the mid-Fifties, Novák began to devote himself to the Latin language and literature. The soft wording and the rhythmic conciseness of Latin verse fascinated him. He began to set the poetry of Horace, Catullus, Virgil and others to music, carefully preserving the metre and rhythm of the original. Then he went on to create musical versions of the great prose works of Caesar, Cicero and Seneca, eventually using his own texts as well. When asked why the Latin language played such an important role in his work, Novák would say: “Nihil est, bone, immortalitatis causa hoc fit” (No special reason, my dear friend, I only do it for the sake of immortality).
In 1967, Jan Novák reached the high point of his popularity in Czechoslovakia with the premiere of his cantata DIDO. Even at this stage the composer made no secrets of his political beliefs: the year before he had written the music to a Christian passion play, this being interpreted by the officials as a religious gesture and thus as a provocation. The invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 21st in 1968 took place while Novák was on a concert-tour in Italy. It was a violent shock, and decisive moment in his life. He decided not to return, his family followed him, first for a brief stay in Austria and Germany, then to Aarhus in Denmark. There, in his first year of exile, he wrote the cantata IGNIS PRO IOANNE PALACH, as the homage to Jan Palach, the young Czech student who burned himself publicly in Prague to protest against the invasion.
Then his trio for voice, clarinet and piano MIMUS MAGICUS won a Composers’ Competition in Rovereto, Italy, in 1969. Sunsequently Jan Novák decided to move to the country, which was the birthplace of Latin culture. The family settled down in Riva, on the shore of the beautiful lake Garda. In Rovereto he founded “Voces latinae”, a choir devoted exclusively to music with texts in Latin.
Although being a convinced European, it was not easy for Jan Novák to get a foothold in the West. He couldn’t, nor did he want to, contribute to any of the preponderant musical avantgarde-streams of the time, thus becoming an outsider in the world of western contemporary music. Nevertheless, it was during these years spent in Italy and then in Germany that he composed his most important and mature works, such as his only opera DULCITIUS. He went back to Germany in 1977, to live in Ulm. Finally he was appointed in 1982 to a chair in music theory at the “Staatliche Hochschule für Musik un Darstellende Kunst” in Stuttgart.
Jan Novák died on November 17th 1984 in Neu-Ulm.
His extensive work is now becoming accessible, also thanks to the support of the Czech Republic after the political changes in 1989. President Václav Havel decreed him the Czech State Award in 1996, and in 2006 he was appointed the Honorable Citizenship of Brno.
His free use of tonality and clear structures, his creative invention, and omnipresent humour and wit, reflect his positive and humanistic view of the world, and in his pure melodic lines one can see perhaps also the Bohemian origin of this great European.
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