NELHYBEL: Sinfonia Resurrectionis. Symphonic Movement. Two Symphonic Movements. Antiphonale. Appassionato. Corsican Litany

by Walter Simmons



NELHYBELSinfonia ResurrectionisSymphonic Movement. Two Symphonic MovementsAntiphonaleAppassionatoCorsican Litany • Frederick Fennell, cond; Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra • KOSEI KOCD-3577 (65:40)

Vaclav Nelhybel, born in Prague in 1919, was already active as a professional composer when he came to the United States in 1957. He died in 1996 while serving as composer-in-residence at the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania. His music shares much in common with other Czech composers of his generation: that is, an elemental, almost brutally forceful aggressiveness, often highly dissonant, yet obstinately tonal, frequently focusing on notes 7-1-2-3 of the Aeolian mode. Other composers who exhibit these qualities to one extent or another include Miloslav Kabelác, Lubos Fiser, Zdenek Lukáš, Jirí Jaroch, and even Karel Husa at times. 

The mention of Husa raises an interesting point: Husa and Nelhybel were near contemporaries; both were born in Prague and came to the United States during the 1950s. But while Husa spent time in the music capitals of Western Europe, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger and Arthur Honegger, and associated himself with the centers of “advanced” composition before immigrating to this country, Nelhybel maintained a lower profile. Husa was immediately invited to join the music faculty at Cornell. Having composed for most of the standard media, he began to turn his attention to the symphonic band and wind ensemble—aggregations that were especially receptive to new music. In 1969 he composed his first major work for band, Music for Prague 1968, in recognition of the failed rebellion against the Communist dictatorship of Czechoslovakia. That powerful work was performed literally thousands of times during the years that followed, while Husa, winning award after award, became one of the most highly regarded composers in America during the 1970s. Although he didn’t neglect other media, his list of works includes about a dozen for wind ensembles of various kinds.

Nelhybel, on the other hand, is barely known to the larger classical music audience. Upon arriving in America, he too discovered the voracious appetite of wind ensembles for new music, and began to focus his compositional efforts in that direction. His works were rapidly embraced by bands throughout the country and soon entered the active repertoire. (One of the most popular, Trittico, can be heard in a stunning performance featuring the Dallas Wind Symphony, conducted by Frederick Fennell, on Reference Recordings 52CD.) But Nelhybel was somewhat less sophisticated than Husa, and somewhat less adventurous stylistically; his reputation never really extended beyond this subculture, although his is virtually a household name among those who participated in high school or college bands during the 1970s and 80s. I am not about to argue that this is one of the great injustices of music history, nor am I asserting that Nelhybel is as significant a figure as Husa. But not only did Nelhybel’s reputation remain confined to the band subculture, he suffered the ignominy of being dismissed as something of a hack—a purveyor of mediocre utilitarian fodder for “the educational music market.” And this I believe is a grave injustice. Nelhybel’s music has an individual style and personality, is stunningly and expertly scored for the media he chose, is gratifying to those who perform it, and flamboyantly exciting to listeners. In Nelhybel’s hands, the contemporary Czech style takes on a sort of neo-Medieval quality, with his emphasis on modal themes, chorale settings, and a forceful, insistent rhythmic drive, along with a generous use of percussion. 

The program here includes some of Nelhybel’s best known shorter pieces, along with one work of somewhat grander aspiration, the 22-minute Sinfonia Resurrectionis. In his program notes, Frederick Fennell states that the composer left no information about this work, aside from the fact that it was composed in 1980 for Arnald Gabriel and the U.S. Air Force Band, one of America’s most distinguished service bands. It resembles Nelhybel’s shorter works, but pushes the limits of his customary approach, diffusing the familiar chorale-like material through a distorting lens, with cluster harmony, polytonality, and other starkly contrasting devices, in addition to some extended woodwind solos. The work is extravagantly scored, but I’m not sure that its episodic structure coheres as a fully satisfying entity. 

The shorter pieces share in common the general approach described toward the beginning of this review, although each has some distinctive features. Included is one of Nelhybel’s most popular pieces, Symphonic Movement of 1965. As its title implies, this is a straightforward work in which an eight-note theme is stated, and then subjected to an energetic, colorfully scored, but structurally free development. The harmony is largely consonant or mildly dissonant. In 1969 Nelhybel composed Two Symphonic Movements. Not surprisingly, this pair of pieces—the first longer and generally slow in tempo, the second shorter and generally fast in tempo—is conceived along much the same lines, i.e., straightforward development of a motif. In this case both pieces are based on the same thematic idea. The opening of the first piece seems to suggest the sound of gamelan music; this material returns at the end of the piece, and then at the end of the second piece, further linking the two together.

Antiphonale is scored for brass sextet and band, somewhat along the lines of a concerto grosso.Like the Sinfonia, this piece from 1971 adds cluster harmony and other more novel techniques and gestures to the consonant, polyphonic chorales that form the basis of much of this composer’s music. But whatever material he adopts, Nelhybel always shapes a convincing dramatic trajectory, abstract though it may be.

Appassionato (1966) is an especially lovely piece with a particular emphasis on woodwinds. Although “passionate” music is generally associated with the string section, here the passion is conveyed, rather than by means of intense vibrato, through the ebb and flow of gentle dissonances rooted in polyphonic voice-leading. 

Corsican Litany (1976) is a little less interesting than the other pieces. Inspired by the Corsican practice of using professional mourners at funerals, it focuses on chant-like melodies.
The Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra was founded in 1960 by a Japanese Buddhist organization. Highly selective, it developed into an ensemble of impeccable precision. In 1984 the group invited Frederick Fennell (1914-2004), probably the world’s most celebrated and admired conductor of wind ensembles, to serve as its music director, and he held this position until 1996. Under his leadership the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra developed into one of the world’s leading wind ensembles. This reputation is readily confirmed by the stunning performances heard on this recording. In view of the quality of both the program and the performances, this CD is confidently recommended as the most favorable recorded representation of the music of Nelhybel available, enabling the broader listening public to discover and evaluate for themselves the distinctive qualities of his work. This compact disc may be obtained from the Florida Music Service in Lakeland, Florida (www.floridamusic.com).