The Devil, Greed, War, and Simple Goodness: Ostr?il’s Jack’s Kingdom

Otakar Ostrčil was a prominent Czech composer who has fallen into
obscurity. His dates, 1879-1935, span a key moment in the history of
Central Europe, for it was in 1918 that the Czech lands became part of the
new country of Czechoslovakia, independent of Austrian rule. In the
preceding decades, Czech writers and artists had often attempted to define
a national identity for themselves, as can be heard in many works of
Smetana and Dvořák. When national statehood arrived, composers
took one of several paths: some modeled their work on trends within the
European musical mainstream (e.g., symphonic poems in the manner of Liszt
or Strauss; or neoclassicism in the manner of Stravinsky and some of Les
Six), while others continued to explore ways of sounding distinctive and
different, for example by writing vocal music and opera using Czech texts
based on Slavic folk legends. The whole story is further enriched by the
fact that Prague had a substantial German-speaking population (including
many Jews), and even a German opera house, the New German Theater, which is
now known—after a number of name changes—as The Prague State

Ostrčil, who established himself early on as a conductor and composer,
served as the music director at the Prague National Opera (i.e., the
Czech-speaking house) from 1920 till his death at the age of 56. He was
greatly admired for the precision of his conducting and for the open-minded
welcome he gave to a wide range of repertoire, from the comic operas of
Auber to a work for which he was roundly chastised in the press:
Berg’s Wozzeck. His 1933 recording of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride was at one point released on CD by Naxos but
seems to have been withdrawn, perhaps for contractual reasons.

Ostrčil wrote a number of successful orchestral works and operas. Honzovo Království was the last of his
operas, and the present recording is a re-release of a superlative
recording made in 1954. The opera was a great success at its premiere in
1934, but Ostrčil died four months later, possibly in part because of
overwork. (The often-contentious Czech musical scene during the first half
of the twentieth century comes vividly to life in two scholarly books that,
I should confess, I had a hand in getting published: Opera and Ideology in Prague, by Brian Locke—no relation to
me!—and Bedřich Smetana: Myth, Music, and Propaganda,
by Kelly St. Pierre.)

In Honzovo Království (which has been variously
translated as “Johnny’s Kingdom” or “Jack’s
Kingdom”), Ostrčil distinguishes himself from most Western
composers by basing the libretto on “Ivan the Fool,” a
quasi-folktale published in 1886 by a fellow Slav, Leo Tolstoy. The story
tells of four siblings whom the Devil tries to manipulate for his own
nefarious purposes. Ivan, though seemingly dim-witted, is the one who
manages to out-maneuver the Devil. He ends up establishing a kingdom in
which there are no wars, and people who do physically demanding labor are
the first to be served dinner, whereas intellectuals and nobles (people
with soft, pale hands) have to be content with whatever is left over.

Ostrčil’s librettist, Jiří Mařánek, gave the
story a specifically Czech twist, in part by renaming the characters: most
notably, Ivan becomes Honza, a figure clearly derived from the character in
many Czech folk tales known as “Hloupý Honza,” i.e., Dull
Jack. (The name Honza, like Hans in German, derives from Johannes.)
Honza’s brothers are now called Ondřej (i.e., Andrew) and, a bit
oddly, Ivan. The fourth sibling, a mute sister, is omitted. Honza comes
across here as similar to another powerfully effective simpleton in Czech
culture: the title figure in Jaroslav Hašek’s novel The Good Soldier Schweik (1921-23).

The opera is compact, taking, in this recording, only 107 minutes. The
basic style reminds me at times of mid-career Prokofiev (e.g., The Prodigal Son) or the motoric ensemble scenes in Weill’s Mahagonny. On a basic musicodramatic level, the work follows
certain Wagnerian procedures that had become normative for many Western
European opera composers in the intervening half-century. In general, the
melodic lines are conversational, requiring clear enunciation more than
long-phrased breathing. There are exceptions, though, mainly in lyrical
passages for Honza,

the Princess (CD 2, track 3),


the slippery, multi-faceted Devil.

I might recommend to enterprising lyric tenors Honza’s soliloquy
that opens Scene 2.

Continuity is provided by several recurring themes and by richly elaborated
interludes between scenes.

(For example, the orchestral description, in Act 2, of the sadness that
has gripped the kingdom because—as the Constable has just
explained in spoken words—the princess is mysteriously ill: begin
at 0’50”.)

Passages of spoken dialogue over orchestral music, a technique known in the
opera world as melodrama, depart forcefully from the Wagnerian model and
help emphasize the modesty and directness of the folk-like story.
(Melodrama was a technique particularly cultivated by Ostrčil’s
teacher, Zdeněk Fibich.)

The spirits of hell converse with the devil from all parts of the
theater, using megaphones. On the recording, their speaking
voices—they are trying to cook up a war in Honza’s
peaceable kingdom—are made even creepier by some simple
electronic reverb.

(The YouTube track begins with a symphonic interlude; the conversation
begins at 2’13”.)

This recording, apparently the only one that Honzovo Království has ever been granted, was made in
the Prague radio studios in 1954 and was released on LP by Supraphon.

(It can be heard entire, in many segments, at YouTube, but they are not
arranged in any recognizable sequence.)

The performance under Jiráček is vivid and presumably reflects
the extensive series of staged performances that the work had received in
the Czech and Slovak lands up to that point. The work was first heard in
Brno, in 1934, then in Ostrava, and from 1935 onward in Prague. It was
given in German in 1937 in the aforementioned German-language opera house
in Prague.

The reissue of this recording on CD was made possible, according to a note
in the booklet, by Astrid Štúrová-Kočí, presumably
the daughter of

baritone Přemysl Kočí

. The latter performs the role of the Devil splendidly—acting and
singing all at once, all the way through, with witty understatement rather
than Boris Christoff-like overemphasis. The CD release coincides, surely
not by chance, with the hundredth anniversary of Kočí’s
birth. What a wonderful tribute to the memory of someone who was a major
artist in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia.

The Czech Radio website ( offers for sale, on CD or as a
download, a Czech-language performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Kočí in the title role.

The other cast members come across just as vividly, including Otava, who
sang his role here (Ondřej) at the opera’s first Prague
production, 17 years earlier. In the meantime, Czechoslovakia had
experienced almost unimaginable turbulence: occupation by the Nazis, mass
deportations for forced labor in Germany, persecution of political
resisters, the systematic murder of most of the Jewish population, and, in
the post-war years, the expulsion of most of the German population and the
beginnings of what would be four decades of repressive Communist
dictatorship. I can barely imagine the many different ways that this
anti-war opera may have resonated for Czechs and Slovaks in 1954.

The best-known of the singers is

the tenor Ivo Žídek

, in the title role. We hear him at age 28; he had been singing leading
roles since 18 and would continue to expand his repertory, and to perform
and record internationally, at the highest level, until age 59. His singing
nicely balances secure vocal production with a serene characterization and
touches of humor.

Indeed, the singing from the whole cast is light and clear, with little
trace of the “Slavic wobble” that I find tiresome in many
recordings from further east (e.g., Russia and Bulgaria). The spoken roles
seem to be taken by professional actors: they are superbly done. The
orchestra and chorus play and sing alertly. Occasionally the woodwind and
brass sections are not perfectly tuned, or the brass blare a bit. The
various solos for wind instruments and for violin are nicely characterized.
The sound quality is high-quality mid-1950s mono: clear, no distortion, but
with the orchestra a bit recessed instead of richly surrounding the voices.
Essay, synopsis (with helpful track numbers), and libretto, in Czech and
(mostly comprehensible) English. I would say that it is time for a more
modern recording, allowing us to appreciate the power and wit of the
orchestral writing more. (And of course some live performances, either on
stage or in concert.) But, if the vocal performances did not show the
detail and insight that they do in this recording, I suspect the work
wouldn’t come across half as well as it does here.

The second CD is filled out with a recording of Ostrčil’s
fascinating fourteen-section set of Variations for Orchestra, Op. 24
(1928), entitled “Křížová cesta,”which is
translated on the CD box as “Calvary.” Other sources list the
work’s title as “Golgotha.” Closer English approximations
would be “The Way of the Cross” or “The Stations of the

This mono recording of the Variations, by the Czech Philharmonic under
Václav Neumann in 1957, may have been the work’s first.

(Like the opera, it is available on YouTube in segments. Here is the
opening: “The Son of Man Is Condemned to Death.”)

The sessions took place in Dvořák Hall, in the famous 1886
building called the Rudolfinum. The 1100-seat hall has fine
acoustics—reflected in the good clear sound—and is the home of
the Czech Philharmonic (and of many Prague Spring events).

A stereo recording, likewise by the Czech Philharmonic under Neumann,
was released on CD in 1990 and re-released in 1995.

Carl Bauman, in the American Record Guide, at first found the work
“bombastic” but, upon re-listening, discovered “various
beauties” in it (March/April 1995). Each of the work’s fourteen
short sections is headed with a descriptive phrase describing a moment from
Christ’s last days, beginning with his being condemned to death and
ending with his entombment. The booklet essay suggests that Ostrčil
identified with Christ because of how he himself had suffered for the art
he loved.

The musicologist Martin Nedbal informs me that there have been, for
centuries now, “Calvary hills” constructed throughout Europe,
including several in what used to be Czechoslovakia. A Calvary hill often
consists of a cross (or three crosses) on a hill, and other markers and
chapels on the way toward the hill, for pilgrims who wish to reenact and
ponder Jesus’s last journey.

I found the 31-minute-long piece continuously engaging, especially when I
remembered to keep in mind the titles over each of the fourteen sections:
for example, in section 4, Jesus meets his mother Mary (Mahlerian sorrow,
beginning with the strings alone and then broadening out) and, in section
7, he collapses for a second time under the weight of the Cross (much
thrust and intensity, full orchestra). The work follows the traditional
list of 14 Stations (some based on medieval legends), not the more
carefully scripture-derived versions authorized by Pope John Paul II in
1991 and by Pope Benedict in 2007 (which purge, for example, the episode of
Saint Veronica wiping Jesus’s face with her
veil—Ostrčil’s section 6).

I am not sure I’ve yet fully grasped the variation process here,
aside from a very noticeable rising motive that begins most of the fourteen
sections. I was more aware of the expressive contrasts from one section to
another. Still, I look forward to listening again to this remarkable case
of a programmatic orchestral work that conveys a message at once religious
and highly personal.

I continue to be surprised to find so many fine, even exciting musical
works that are floating “out there” yet rarely, if ever, get
performed in North America. I am grateful daily to Thomas Edison and his
followers who perfected the medium that gives me so much joy and emotional
gratification—including these two works by a composer who was to me,
until now, just a name in books.

Ralph P. Locke

The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in

American Record Guide

and appears here by kind permission.

Ralph P. Locke

is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s
Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems
Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two
books are

Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections


Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart

(both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback, and
the second is also available as an e-book.

here for a review of Laci Boldemann’s Black Is White, Said the Emperor. Click here for a review of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges.

image_description=Supraphon SU 4224
product_title=Otakar Ostr?il: Honzovo Království, opera; and “Calvary” Variations, for orchestra
product_by=Jaroslava Vymazalová (Princess), Ivo éídek (Honza), P?emysl Ko?í (Devil), Josef Celerin (Father), Antonín Votava (Ivan), Zden?k Otava (Ond?ej), Jaroslav Veverka (King), Milada Jirásková (Ivan’s wife), Ludmila Hanzalíková (Ond?ej’’s wife). Prague Radio Symphony and Chorus, conducted by Václav Jirá?ek (in the opera); Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Václav Neumann (in the Variations)
product_id=Supraphon SU 4224 [2 CD]