Otakar Ostrčil (February 25, 1879, Prague – August 20, 1935, Prague) was a Czech composer and conductor. He is noted for symphonic works Impromptu, Suite in C Minor, and Symfonietta, and in his opera compositions Poupě and Honzovo království.
Ostrčil was born in Prague, where he spent his entire life, as it was the center of the Czech musical community in his generation. He studied philosophy at Charles University, attending the classes of Otakar Hostinský, and simultaneously studied composition and music theory privately under Zdeněk Fibich. From his early student days he was a close friend of Zdeněk Nejedlý, whose outspoken voice in musicology would form Ostrčil's greatest critical support. He worked as a conductor at the Vinohrady Theater (1914-1919) and later at the National Theatre (Prague) (1920-1935), which was one of the most influential positions in Czech musical life. He also worked as a pedagogue at the Prague Conservatory, teaching conducting.
Ostrčil's main output consists of six operas: Jan Zhořelecký (written as a student under Fibich, 1898, unperformed), Vlasty skon (Vlasta's passing, premiered 1904, to a libretto previously considered by Smetana and Fibich), Kunálovy oči (Kunál's eyes, 1908), Poupě (The Bud, 1912), Legenda z Erinu (A Legend of Erin, 1921), and Honzovo království (Johnny's Kingdom, based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy, 1934). His most significant orchestral music includes Symphony in A (1906), Impromptu (1912), Suite in c minor (1914), Symfonietta (1922), Léto (Summer, tone poem, 1927), and Křížova cesta (The Way of the Cross, orchestral variations, 1929). Beyond these, he also composed various works for chamber and choral ensembles; much like his main musical influence, Gustav Mahler, his rigorous conducting schedule rarely allowed free time for composition, with the exception of the summers when the theater was not in season.
Like his contemporaries, Vítězslav Novák, Josef Suk, and Otakar Zich, Ostrčil composed in a densely orchestrated, thickly contrapuntal style that was heavily influenced by Mahler, Richard Strauss, and the early works of Arnold Schoenberg. At times, the extreme linearity of his work (as in the orchestral preludes to Legenda z Erinu and the climactic sections of Křížova cesta) goes beyond functional harmony; in these moments he can easily be aligned with the Viennese expressionists, whom he much admired. At the very end of his career, with Honzovo království, he turned to an ironic sort of neoclassicism reminiscent of Paul Hindemith or even Dmitri Shostakovich: the work is full of grotesque marches and folk dances that match the socialist politics of the libretto's mock folktale atmosphere.
As a conductor, Ostrčil had a significant influence on his younger contemporaries in the interwar period. From the beginning of his time at the National Theater he conceived new ideas of musical leadership and choice of repertoire, wherein representatives of the current generation of musical modernism, both at home and abroad, would be presented to Prague audiences as a matter of cultural responsibility. As a result, under Ostrčil, Prague saw the Czech premieres of works by Debussy, Strauss, Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Zich, and most importantly, the opera Wozzeck by Alban Berg in 1926.
These programming choices met with extreme controversy over his entire fifteen-year administration at the National Theater, especially from conservative critics such as Antonín Šilhan, who branded the conductor as an anti-Czech pro-communist traitor, and whose articles prompted a riot at the third performance of Wozzeck. Many of these criticisms had to do with Ostrčil's close association with Nejedlý, who by this time was a strong proponent of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. It was Ostrčil's belief in the necessity of presenting modern art to the public that won him many supporters among the students of Prague, led by the young pedagogue and microtonal composer Alois Hába; in a climate increasingly unsympathetic to modernist exploration, the conductor was hailed as a hero.
His untimely death in 1935, at the height of his career, was a bitter blow to the community, and for the remainder of the democratic era (to 1938) his achievements were continually rhapsodized in print.
- Rybáři (fragment)
- Jan Zhořelecký (1898)
- Cymbelín (1899 - unfinished)
- Vlasty skon, Op. 5 (1903)
- Kunálovy oči, Op. 11 (1908) on the theme from the short story of Julius Zeyer.
- Poupě, Op.12 (1910)
- Legenda z Erinu, Op. 19 (1919)
- Honzovo království, Op. 25 (Honza's Kingdom after Leo Tolstoy 1933)
- Krásné dědictví (Eliška Krásnohorská - destroyed)
- Kamenný mnich (1893)
- Lilie (Karel Jaromír Erben)
- Balada o mrtvém ševci a mladé tanečnici, Op. 6 (K. Leger - 1904)
- Balada česká, Op. 8 (Jan Neruda - 1903)
- Skřivan (Mir. Valenta - 1934)
- Orchestral works
- Fairy Tale Suite in G Major, Op. 2 (1898)
- Pohádka o Šemíku, Op. 3 (Tale of Šemík, tone poem, 1899)
- Symphony in A, Op. 7 (1906)
- Osiřelo dítě, Op. 9 (The Orphan's Tale 1907)
- Sirotek, Op. 10 (The Orphan, incidental music for play after Nemcova 1906)
- Impromptu, Op. 13 (1912)
- Suite in c minor, Op. 14 (1914)
- Legenda o sv. Zite Cantata, Op. 17 text by Jaroslava Vrchlického(1913)
- Symfonietta, Op. 20 (1922)
- Léto, Op.23 (Summer, tone poem, 1927)
- Křížova cesta Op. 24 (The Way of the Cross, orchestral variations, 1929)
- Chamber music
- Sonatina for Viola, Violin and Piano, Op.22 (1925)
- String Quartet in B Major, Op.4 (1899)
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