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Ostrčil, Otakar

(b Prague, 25 Feb 1879; d Prague, 20 Aug 1935). Czech composer, conductor and administrator. He studied modern languages at Prague University (1897–1901) and worked initially as a professor of Czech and German at the Czech-Slavonic Commercial Academy, Prague (1903–19). His personal development was strongly influenced by his university teachers: Jan Gebauer, Hostinský and Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, later first president of the Czech Republic. He studied music privately, taking piano lessons with Mikeš and, from 1895, Fibich, with whom he also studied composition, serving in the latter years as his amanuensis, for instance in the orchestration of Fibich's last opera. He gained experience in conducting with the Academy Choir in Prague and with the city's Orchestral Association (1908–22). From 1909 he appeared as a guest conductor at the National Theatre, and between 1914 and 1918 he worked as chief conductor at the Prague Vinohrady Theatre. He joined the staff of the National Theatre as Dramaturg in 1919 and, after Kovařovic's death, became musical director (1920–35). In addition he taught conducting at the Prague Conservatory (1926–9), and had a considerable influence in musical circles as co-founder and president (1924–33) of the Society for Modern Music. He was also first president of the J.B. Foerster Society and, from 1912, a member of the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Otakar Ostrčil Society of Prague was founded in 1935.

Concern for the development of modern music was a constant feature of every aspect of Ostrčil's artistic activity. As the conductor of the Prague Orchestral Association, he performed, even before World War I, works by Czech composers little favoured in the city's concert repertory (Fibich, Foerster, Janáček, Jeremiáš, Zich), and it was he who acquainted Prague with Mahler's music. He introduced Foerster's Debora and Zich's A Painter's Whim to the Vinohrady Theatre. However, his principal achievements were at the National Theatre. He built up an exemplary basic repertory stretching from Gluck through Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi and Bizet to Wagner and Strauss. In the sphere of Czech music, he revived the classics and included cycles of operas by Smetana (1924, 1927 and 1934), Dvořák (1929 and 1934), Fibich (1925 and 1932), Foerster (1929) and Novák (1930). He conducted a new production of Jenůfa in 1926, gave the première of The Excursions of Mr Brouček, and introduced all Janáček's postwar operas to Prague immediately after their world premières in Brno. With the exception of From the House of the Dead he conducted all of them himself. Among the other Czech stage works whose first performances he conducted were Zich's Guilt (1922) and Les précieuses (1926), Karel's Ilse's Heart (1924), Emil Burian's Before Sunrise (1925), Jeremiáš's The Brothers Karamazov (1928) and Karel Hába's Jánošík. He also gave the Czech premières of important foreign works, including Pelléas et Mélisande (1921), Petrushka (1925), Max Brand's Maschinist Hopkins (1930) and Szymanowski's King Roger (1932). For his conducting of Wozzeck in 1926 he was awarded the Czech State Prize the following year, though reactionary elements incited a demonstration in the theatre and unleashed a lengthy controversy in the daily and specialist press.

Ostrčil's conducting style was rational: he carefully calculated everything down to the smallest detail, producing measured forms and avoiding impulsive outbursts. He was largely responsible for establishing the modern performing practice for Smetana's operas, which he recorded for HMV in 1933. Apart from presenting the stage works of the foremost contemporary Czech composers, he helped to guide the leading Czech operatic singers of his time (Ada Nordenová, Emil Burian, Otakar Mařák, Vilém Zítek and others) to maturity, and he brought the orchestra to an outstanding level of performance. He thus shaped a whole era in the development of the National Theatre. His work for the society for Modern Music was similarly important. He attempted to direct the society towards acquainting the Czech public with the latest international developments and providing a platform for new Czech works, mainly chamber and vocal. Under the society's aegis many of the most celebrated contemporary works had their Czech premières, both foreign pieces (by Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartók, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Les Six etc.) and Czech (from Hába's quarter-tone school, Martinů, Jirák, Vítězslav, Novák, Suk, Foerster, Ostrčil himself etc.). Also, it was through the society, which was part of the Czech section of the ISCM, that Ostrčil shared in the exchange of musical discoveries on an international scale. Some of the early ISCM festivals, those of 1924 and 1925, were held in Prague.

In his compositions Ostrčil developed from late Romanticism to the Expressionism of the inter-war years. He had a special flair for instrumentation, and orchestral pieces predominate in his modest output. (A self-critical composer, he left only 25 works with opus numbers.) The rational takes precedence over the emotional in his creative as well as in his interpretative work. His first opera to be performed was Vlasty skon (‘The Death of Vlasta’, 1904), a piece still patently influenced by Fibich in its idiom and subject matter. Kunálovy oči (‘Kunála's Eyes’, 1908) and Legenda z Erinu (‘The Legend of Erin’, 1921) both have texts by the Czech symbolist Julius Zeyer and are set respectively in ancient India and mythic Ireland, though the emphasis is less on exoticism than on the ethical aspects of the texts, which deal with questions of guilt and forgiveness. In their idiom these operas are near to Mahler and Strauss though their musical structures remain based on Wagner and Smetana.

Between these two philosophical dramas Ostrčil wrote the one-act opera Poupě (‘The Bud’, 1911), one of the most original of 20th-century Czech stage works. Based directly on a largely unmodified play text it is the first Czech prose opera after Janáček's Jenůfa. Ostrčil's final opera, Honzovo království (‘Johnny's Kingdom’ 1934), lacks the complex and altered harmony of the earlier works, and in many places makes effective use of folksongs. The simple Tolstoyan theme, a trust in the victory of good over evil, symbolizes in legendary guise the conditions in Europe on the eve of World War II, and the work embodies Ostrčil's personal belief in democracy and humanism.

Ostrčil's main creative contribution to Czech music, however, is in his orchestral output. The Impromptu (1911) and the Suite in C minor (1912) use Romantic material, but Ostrčil's approach to it is already here unconventional and non-Romantic. This treatment was developed to its peak in the Symfonietta (1921, Czech State Prize 1923), with its complicated polyphonic musical frame, and in the symphonic variations Křížová cesta (‘Stations of the Cross’, 1928). Ostrčil's orchestration is not lavish or seductive, for he used timbre in a strictly structural manner. The chromaticism of his harmony led him, through The Legend of Erin and his orchestral works, to tonal flexibility, but he never took the consequent final step to atonality. He did, however, achieve the shift from vertical-harmonic to horizontal-contrapuntal thought. His compositions place him alongside Janáček, Novák, Suk and Foerster in leading the evolution of Czech music from Nationalism to the interwar avant garde.




Rybáři [The Fishers] (op, J. Prušák), 1893, inc.

Jan Zhořelecký (op, 3, A. Šetelík), 1896–8, extracts, Prague, Smetana Museum, 7 March 1939

Cymbeline (op, F. Zákrejs, after W. Shakespeare), 1899, inc.


Vlasty skon [The Death of Vlasta] (op, 3, K. Pippich), 1900–03, Prague, National, 14 Dec 1904, unpubd


Sirotek [The Orphan] (incid music, J. Kvapil, after B. Němcová), 1906, Prague, National, 20 June 1906


Kunálovy oči [Kunála's Eyes] (op, 3, K. Mašek, after J. Zeyer), 1907–8, Prague, National, 25 Nov 1908, unpubd


Poupě [The Bud] (op, 1, F.X. Svoboda), 1909–10, Prague, National, 25 Jan 1912


Legenda z Erinu [The Legend of Erin] (op, 4, Zeyer), 1913–19, Brno, National, 16 June 1921


Honzovo království [Johnny's Kingdom] (op, 7 scenes, J. Mařánek, after L.N. Tolstoy), 1928–33, Brno, National, 26 May 1934



Balada o mrtvém ševci a mladé tanečnici [The Ballad of the Dead Cobbler and the Young Dancer] (melodrama, K. Leger), 1904


Balada česká [A Czech Ballad] (melodrama, J. Neruda), 1905


Osiřelo dítě [The Orphaned Child] (ballad, trad.), Mez, orch, 1906


Česká legenda vánoční [Czech Christmas Legend] (J. Vrchlický), male chorus, 1912


Cizí host [The Strange Guest] (ballad, K.J. Erben), T, orch, 1913


Legenda o svaté Zitě [The Legend of St Zita] (cant., J. Vrchlický), T, chorus, orch, org, 1913


Tři písně [3 Songs] (B. Wojkowicz, O. Březina, V. Dyk), 1v, pf, 1910–13


Prosté motivy [Simple Motifs] (Neruda), 4 nos., male chorus, 1922



Selská slavnost [Village Fête], 1898, unpubd


Suite, G, 1898


Pohádka o Šemíku [The Tale of Šemík], sym. poem, after J. Vrchlický, 1899, unpubd


Symphony, A, 1905, unpubd


Impromptu, 1911


Suite, c, 1912


Symfonietta, 1921


Léto [Summer], sym. poem, 1925–6


Křížová cesta [Stations of the Cross], sym. variations, 1928



String Quartet, B, 1899


Sonatina, vn, va, pf, 1925

Principal publishers: Foerster Society, Hudební Matice, Ostrčil Society, Mojmír Urbánek


O. Payer: Ottokar Ostrčil und die tschechische Opernbühne unserer Tage (Prague, 1912)

Z. Nejedlý: Otakar Ostrčil: vzrůst a uzrání [Ostrčil: development and maturity] (Prague, 1935, 2/1949)

J. Bartoš: Otakar Ostrčil (Prague, 1936)

J. Hutter and Z. Chalabala, eds.: České umění dramatické, ii: Zpěvohra [Czech dramatic art: opera] (Prague, 1941), 291–300

J. Procházka, ed: Národní divadlo vzpomíná 10. výročí smrti Otakara Ostrčila [The National Theatre remembers the 10th anniversary of Ostrčil's death] (Prague, 1945) [incl. list of repertory and opera cycles]

A. Rektorys: Korespondence Leoše Janáčka s Ostrčilem Otakarem (Prague, 1948)

A. Rektorys, ed.: Korespondence Otakara Ostrčila s Vilémem Zítkem (Prague, 1951)

V. Lébl: ‘Dramatická tvorba Otakara Ostrčila a její jevištní osudy’ [Ostrčil's stage works and their fate on the stage], Divadlo (1959), 294–302, 333–9

Otakar Ostrčil–Otakar Jeremiáš ve svých dopisech, v práci a zápasech o pokrokovou linii českého umění [Ostrčil–Jeremiáš in their letters, work and struggle for the progressive line of Czech art] (Prague, 1959)

F. Pala and V. Pospíšil: Opera Národního divadla v období Otakara Ostrčila [The National Theatre opera in Ostrčil's time] (Prague, 1962–89)

J. Válek: ‘Technické prostředky hudební mluvy Otakara Ostrčila’ [The technical devices of Ostrčil's musical language], HV, ii (1965), 594–615; iii (1966), 74–87, 292–303

Bibliografie Otakar Ostrčila (Prague, 1971)

R. Smetana, ed.: Dějiny české hudební kultury 1890–1945 [The history of Czech musical culture 1890–1945] (Prague, 1972–81), esp. i, 157–60 [incl. further bibliography]

V. Hudec: ‘Stilwandlungen im Schatten Otakar Ostrčils’, An der Epochen- und Stilwende …: Brno XX 1985, 82–7

V. Pospíšil: ‘Otakar Ostrčil’, HRo, xxxviii (1985), 564–7

V. Procházka, ed.: Národní divadlo a jeho předchůdci: slovník umělců divadel [The National Theatre and its predecessors: dictionary of artists of the theatres] (Prague, 1988) [incl. list of productions and further bibliography]

J. Tyrrell: Czech Opera (Cambridge, 1988), esp. 89–91

J. Tyrrell: Janáček's Operas: a Documentary Account (London, 1992)


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