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VÁCLAV Nelhybel, composer

Václav Nelhýbel

Music Catalog Below Bio

Václav Nelhýbel (pron. VAHTS-love NEL-hee-bel), a dynamic personality in the world of music, will undoubtedly be regarded as “one of the most significant composers of this century.” This quotation by band director Joel Blahník, is from a program entitled, “Václav Nelhýbel: The Man and His Music” from January, 1969 at the Wisconsin State Music Convention with a performance of Nelhýbel’s music by Blahník’s students. Certainly this assertion contains a great deal of truth, for the explosion of musical energy that has been created in close to 600 musical compositions by this genius, has impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of American youth, as well as professional musicians, world-wide.

Václav Nelhýbel was born on September 24, 1919 in Polanka, Czechoslovakia and studied composition and conducting at the Prague Conservatory of Music and musicology at the universities of Prague and Fribourg, Switzerland. As a student, he was already affiliated with Radio Prague as composer and conductor. At age 18, he was conducting the Czech Philharmonic as an assistant to Rafael Kubelík. By 1948, he had become active in Swiss National Radio as composer/conductor and from 1950-1957, he served as co-founder and Music Director of Radio Free Europe in Munich. During this time he functioned as guest conductor with numerous European Orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic, Bavarian Symphony, and Orchestra de la Swisse Romande. Since 1957, he has lived in the USA, became a U.S. citizen in 1962, and was active as a composer, conductor and lecturer up to his death in 1996.

Among his many awards are the First National Prize for the best radiophonic composition (Prague, 1947); First Prize for the motion picture score to La Beaute des Formes (Paris, 1955); First Prize for the ballet In the Shadow of the Lime Tree at the First International Music and Dance Festival (Copenhagen, 1947); First Prize of the Ravich Music Foundation for the opera, A Legend (New York, 1954); The “Man of the Year in Music” St. Cecelia Award (University of Notre Dame, 1968) and the United States Treasury Department Award for “Patriotic Service” (1968).

Nelhýbel is also the recipient of four honorary doctorate degrees here in the United States. His compositions have been recorded by Golden Crest Records, Musical Heritage Society, Serenus, Turnabout Records, Folkways and Kosei Publishing Company. [Sinfonia Resurrectionis: Music of Vaclav Nelhybel (1919-1996) -Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra conducted by Frederick Fennell – KO CD-3577]

Nelhýbel’s vast repertoire includes compositions of many genres. The Cock and the Hangman, a ballet-opera, was first performed at the National Theater in Prague in 1947. His Symphony No. 1 was given its premiere by the Prague Philharmonic. Virtually most European and American orchestras and choirs have performed his music. In the USA, his greatest dynamic had been, not so much on the professional stage, but in the classrooms of American schools and universities for 30 years. There hardly is an American university that has not performed at least one, if not many Nelhýbel compositions. Likewise, there is hardly a junior high or senior high school in the USA that has not performed at least one of his works. Young people are attracted to the music of Nelhýbel because it is characterized by such a strong inner dynamic energy.

Václav was an accomplished musician with a virtuoso skill in traditional music techniques, striving for his own synthesis of certain traditional trends with contemporary chromaticism. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of his music is its linear-mode orientation. Consequently, his music is never truly functional-harmonic (perhaps this can also be said of Leoš Janáček, his fellow countryman of whom and for whose music Nelhýbel had the greatest respect). The concern with line, modality and the autonomy of the melodic line leads to the second, but not less important characteristic, rhythm and meter. Individual lines are spun across the measures of the time signature in an elaborate complimentary rhythm. This rhythmic and metric coordination of all lines results in a strong pulsation which generates a vigorous drive which is very typical in Nelhýbel’s music. Now add to these elements the tension generated by the accumulation of dissonances, density of texture, dynamics and the choice of instrumental color or timbre, which combine to produce the final effect of energy in motion and duration.

A common trait in the Nelhýbel “sound” would seem to be a panchromatic melodic system, not serial in the deodecaphonic sense, but one which has a strong relation to one gravitational center. This relation to the “gravitational center” generates and releases tensions which Nelhýbel calls the human element in music and is the sine qua non of communication between composer and listener. He is not a revolutionary innovator. He is rather a synthesist, bringing all of past techniques into a harmonious entity. He discriminately chooses existing principles and integrates them into his own concepts and art. He is a man fascinated with the joys of explorative involvement and the transmission of aesthetic excitement. His personal magnetism and dynamism encompass the entire range of human emotions, the common denominator through which his artistic expression carries its universal appeal. A desire to communicate is a real important concern of Nelhýbel and it is his striving for reaching and touching the souls of humanity that make this man so noble. He finds it impossible to surrender his affection for humanity. It is in this “touching” between composer, performers and audience, no matter what the method of the composition may be that best characterizes and typifies his heart and soul, therefore, his music.

Nelhýbel often employed thematic material from his Czech heritage as with Music for Orchestra and Woodwind Quintet, 1987. Of the work he said: “My favorite folk song about the torment of separation of two lovers is the theme of the first movement, and the oldest Bohemian chorale, with its origin in the Middle Ages – a plea to Saint Václav (Wenceslas) ‘not to allow us to perish, nor our children,’ is the theme of the second movement.” Time and time again, we can see the pride and the deep rootedness Václav Nelhýbel had in the musical culture and heritage of his native land.

In his own words, Nelhýbel said, “I am a composer 24 hours a day. . . .to make music is the best way to manifest my existence as a human being. I live with whatever my metabolism brings. I am one of the very lucky people …when I was 5 or 6 years old, I knew I would be a composer.”

The New World opened up a whole new musical world for Nelhýbel. “I came to America when I was 38 years old and never had anything to do with schools. Zero. Band and wind ensemble music does not exist in European schools the same way it does here. For me, band was this thing that marched in parades and played in little villages in churches, performing arrangements of Verdi operas, and it’s what you do not take seriously – half an acre of clarinets, half an acres of flutes – but not a vehicle for artistic expression.”

What he saw and heard with the performance of teenage school children at a 1962 National Music Educators Convention fascinated and changed his life dramatically. That sensation opened an entire new muse in the composer. About this experience, he said, “My life has not been the same since. It is amazing to see the children blow their instruments. Every year I visit schools. I need it. I call it, ‘to lick blood,’ to stay in contact. I write music for those little kids, and it still is music that I sign. It is not, ‘Oh, this is just some little thing for high school, junior high kids.’ No, it is music. I cut the range of the instruments, cut the technique, yet still try to express something that they can take for their own. I am very lucky that my music for them was successful, that it did speak to the kids. Let’s put it this way: I was asking myself, ‘Do I have something that could make them excited?’ Yes, and it seems that I have.”

For Nelhýbel, the creative process was solitary, done daily in an almost soundproof room. “My family, at times, does not know that I exist. I do not compose with piano . . . I compose completely in that room (of the mind), so to speak.”

How did this man, composer of close to 600 compositions in 48 different categories who conducted in all 50 States in the USA plus many foreign countries, recipient of 4 honorary doctorate degrees, have time to compose? A typical work day schedule consisted of three 8-hour shifts. He would compose for 6 hours, sleep 2 hours, compose 6, sleep 2, and compose another 6, sleeping two.” It is amazing what I can get done with this type of schedule,” he said. It was not uncommon to find him two or three days without sleep, being so engrossed in his creative process. “I am always collecting ideas, and I keep them in about 300 folders according to instruments, structure, rhythm, and so on.”

Václav Nelhýbel took everything seriously. His advice to young composers had always been, “Know the reason for each and every note you write. . . everything before it, after it, above it and below it. Economy of means …..achieve the most from the least! With the millions of notes that I have written I can tell you the exact function, life and purpose for each one!”

The Czech Republic can truly be proud of their native son whose commitment to freedom of expression led him to gift the world with his own unique musical expressions and concepts born out of deep convictions for which he lived his life. Nelhýbel died in Scranton, Pennysylvania after a short illness on March 22, 1996 leaving the world with a rich treasury of music.

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