MgA. Tomáš Pálka Prague /CZ/

Intentionally I chose for the topic of colloquium two sharp Czech composers personality of 2nd half of 20th century – Marek Kopelent and Pavel Zemek. Both of them were my teachers of composition and there was really lots of space for discussions about the theme “spiritual music” and for discussions on spiritual topics at all. In my compositions I try to find my spiritual way. This orientation for spiritual streams in music led my steps to reflection in pieces not only in works of my teachers. What’s interesting in this line: Kopelent – Zemek – Pálka, is representation of three various generations (1932 – 1957 – 1978). We have then three different views on spiritual topic, three different factors, which can influence their focus on the theme.

In a certain compression I would like to sketch problems of term spiritual music. The present day allows us to move borders of paradigm, which are blinded to this term. Very often we can find today their demarcations. In my studies at Academy in Prague I was confronted by opinion, that spiritual principles are present undoubtedly more or less in every so-called classical (artistic) music with a serious theme. It could be any symphonic, vocal, vocal-instrumental music as well like contemporary streams of electronic or electro-acoustic music etc. I agree with this thesis only in a part. I distinguish music, which is primary composed on a liturgical or spiritual oriented text, or we can find spiritual content in such composition like extramusical programme, symbols, etc. On the other side are compositions, which can lead listeners to finking about spiritual questions, however it is rather result of instrumentality of music in itself. The aim of spiritual composition, using topics of spirituality, is to impact listener in sense of catharsis (like in prayer) or in sense of revival of spiritual topics.

For all that the question of spiritual music is much more complicated. We can’t forget to match philosofical levels. The source of spiritual music can be thus not only various religious directions. United denominator is still and all the only – searching of GOD.


Spiritual symbols in Kopelent’s music are sharply marked out by normalization in Czech country after the 2nd world war. The basic ground for symbols are accordingly dual: Christian and social- political. Really strong expressional resource for demonstration of opposition to the political situation in Czechoslovakia in 70th (censorship, very strong repression, propagation of atheism) is a symbolism in a form of inserted musical genre extracts – inlays. These give us latent picture of real situation. This symbolism allows him a certain reflexion of inner freedom and expression of his opposition to repression of human spirit. Spiritual heritage is thus in Kopelnt’s work more encoded in forms of philosophical questions. Also the symbols follow from political levels (impact of the system on society), but their leverage has moral impact. For example in the composition A few minutes with an oboist (1972) we can find kazačok (Russian dance); in Symphony (1982) – funereal march (for Jan Patočka1/); in composition Sonata (Veil of Veronik) (1972) – behind the structure (lattice) of chords are symbolized “moving of disappearing subjects”; in Rondo (Before coming of charming executioners – Three sorts of bowing low to hope) (1973) – spiteful laugh played in the end of composition from recorder; in Ballad (1976) – “banging” symbolizes the pressure… Spiritual value leans on bravery and fearlessness. Very important composition with similar heritage is Laudatio Pacis – oratorio with texts of J. A. Komenský (from epoch of thirty years war). Three composers composed the work. Except Kopelent participated on the composition P. H. Dittrich (Germany) and Sofia Gubajdulina (Russia). Confession of trus has humanistic message – Interpersonal tolerance, liberality between beings. Kopelent has however also planty of compositions with pure spiritual theme: for example Legend “De passione st. Adalberti martyris“ (1981) or Lux Mirandae Sanctitatis /Light of astonishing sacrosanctity/ (1994) – extensive spatial oratorio to the legend of Saint Agnes.


During few years after studies at Academy of Janáček in Brno, Novák starts to use diatonic system and nondiscordant chromatic. Gradually he focuses his aim to the conception of whole composition. He prefers free motion in tone systems. He strongly reduces the contrast elements, he unites metro-rhythmical pulsation. All his future attempt aims Novák to the spiritual music. Looking for concepts of momentum and time, structure and form, content and its sense – these all values find their use in music, which is going over all these systems…

Novák brings up in his dissertation: “During my studies on my dissertation I finded for myself some new possibilities in technics and musical forms. It is principally a shift in conception of structure – gradually accentuating of the homophony right to unison for all the duration of (cyclic) form.” This Novak’s concentration on homophony refers us to the moyen-age Gregorian chants (chorale) – to its static flowing in time. Novák is persuaded that right this flowing is fundamentally authentic for European culture: “…for European music is not typical dynamic concept of music form. Typical is the form static, which the dynamic form was later separated by progress from”. This concept has its deep roots in Moravian folk song (creation of Janáček) and also Ištvan’s view on the unison. Except all these elements Novák aims for maximal elimination of dissonant harmonies in composition.

In my opinion Novák uses really interesting unification of static principal (harmony, momentum, duration) and dynamic principal (escalation of momentum). It is similar like in Gregorian chants. From its strict rules of monophony arise later new forms – heterophony, polyphony… Novák tries to find general unity of all events. It is effort for finding rules of this way. Reflexion of unity is its dominance above diversity, above contrasts.

TO the spiritual music Novák remarks that spiritual is something, what exists, not something, what we are doing or creating. It is difference between liturgical music and “the others”. Liturgical music had (has) strict rules in form and content.

In late 80th was Novák severely ill. This experience led him to comprehension of truth. Novák creates almost solely spiritual compositions from this time.

Novák uses symbolism of numbers - above all numbers 4 and 72/. The symbolism is then present not only in titles of compositions but also in other component of composition (rhythm, intervals, quantity of tones in motive…). Another important expressional factor is melodic line, which is climbing up. It is binded with form and also with a content. We can find it in elemental interval sequences in main locations – for example finishing of movements by interval, which heads upwards (symbol of a “good end”).


I remember for several compositions, which I wrote at conservatory. I remember that, how I contended with their construction form detail to the wholeness. But always I missed something. It was long time of searching of values and faith. Except of Bible I found inspiration also with poets and novelists, who are looking for similar relations. I created compositions inspired by texts of Bohuslav Reynek, Vladimír Holan, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Ivan Blatný, Michaela Plachká, Jiří Jan Vícha, Zdeněk Volf… The last two poets (Vícha and Volf) became for long time almost synonym of my creation. Poems of Vícha arose in prison (he was imprisoned for his faith). His poetry radiates pureness, resonance, humility, beauty. Vícha is poet of pain, but his poetry contains power of hope: “how a light by crystal – my soul rings by yours – and eternity of yours – bends over eternity of mine”.

Subtlety and veracity of Volf’s poesy is “sharper”, “angularer” than Vícha’s poetry, however his poesy leads directly to essence, without any adornments:“By remission – liberates me / I kiss – what I did not like / Where only the dearest – can hurt”.

Poetry of both is filled by faith, which is powerful. Except of spiritual content I prefer their reductionism in tectonic of poems. This is based on expression of thoughts by several words, by several verses. I choose reductionism also in my work. Nowadays almost each composition is inspired by spiritual themes. I prefer one-movement units. Contrasts in macroform are minimal. In microform are contrasts more marked, firstly in instrumentation and instrumental timbre or in field of rhythmics of layers… These all things are directed to strengthening of unity of pieces.

Certain symbolism, which I use, is binding of mathematical-astronomical relations with symbolism of numbers of mythology. This numerical symbolism I project both to rhythm and to intervals or harmony lines. I combine prime numbers and mathematical row of Fibonacci.

In conclusion I would like to subjoin words of Tomáš Halík:“Living faith, the faith to living God (…) has always form of question about God. Looking for God is simultaneously looking for ourselves, comprehension ourselves. Inquietude of this querying is a pulsation of our stay on the Earth; it can’t be accomplish by nothing, but God fulfill our lives by its eternity; attempt to stop it (…) means derailing off the way of faith.”

Supplement / analysis of compositions:

Marek Kopelent: Matka /Mother/ (1964) – fresco for mixed choir and flute

Composition expresses threeattitudes to mother – dramatic, playful, lyrical. The base of text is the term matka /mother/ and its verbal vaiants. Spiritual content of composition crystallizes not only by choice of this word and its meaning – relationship with mother, but also with its universality. One part of composition presents prayer Ave Maria – Kopelent leads to this essence. It is not aiming only at wordplay by the word mother, even if dominates in the composition.

We can study deformations of words – it creates new qualities and new words mama, mamo, like if an infant try to say this word , various emotional layers – imperative forms matko, mámo, maminko intensified as to cry . We can interpret this like beseeching call, like search for a real relation, protecting… Wordplays continues as far as to the part of Ave Maria – parts of this text are declaimed and stratified in vertical. The final part comes to apotheosis of mother – MOTHER with “M” at the beginning. This passage is under way of long vowels a, o and syllables ma, mi, min. Uncertainty is accented in tones (singing by ajar mouths , vague vowels . Allusiveness erases differences between vowels and syllables – they coalesce into single shape. This unity leads in the unison (symbol of unification) in the end of composition.

(Source: Kopelent, Marek: Matka, Panton, Praha 1969)

Pavel Zemek: Requiem (1997 – 2000) for 5 solo voices

/in memory of P. Pavel Posád/

The composition has 7 parts:

1/ Requiem aeternam, 2/ Dies irae, 3/ Tuba mirum, 4/ Rex tremendae, 5/ Lacrimosa, 6/ Libera me, 7/ Requiem

It is the chamber requiem, where some parts are omited (Kyrie, Sequentia). Periodically rotates minor and major cast: Requiem aeternam and Lacrimosa is written only for 1st and 2nd soprano. Only in the end of Requiem aeternam divides unison to multisound. Tuba mirum is for 2nd soprano and alto. Dies irae Is for complete choir except bass, voices come after each other form 1st soprano to tenore. The other movements are for whole choir, only the 4th movements begins with solo alto. Bass is presented in last two movements very rarely. On the basis of Libera me, where repercussion of voices come from bass to soprano, that it is a symbol for expression of motion upward (heavenwards). In the moment of coming 2nd soprano, bass disappears and it never sound together with 1st soprano with beseeching text of Libera me. Melodically cultivates diatonic field with tonal centres. In melodic line we can find almost solely minor and major 2nd, only here and there sounds other intervals. In tutti parts dominates homophony, except of Dies irae, which refers us to the principal of medieval moteto (voices are stratified in layers).

Requiem aeternam is written in aeolian mode with fundament in the tone B. Dies irae (also in aeolian mode) has dominance of harmonic cadenza (1st, 4th, 5th tone). Very interesting is combination of a lag with a rhythmical lag and melodic lead of voice. Tuba mirum – to previous aeolic mode are connected two chromatic tones (Gsharp, A), there are intersected intervals of minor 2nd and augmented 4th, which dominate. Rex tremendae – is written in aeolian and doric mode. Lacrimosa – similar to 3rd movement (Tuba mirum) – free chromatic progress has downwards tendency. Libera me comes from 4th movement (Rex tremendae) – 4th and 5th (intervals) in vertical uses chromatic order. Requiem combines medieval heterophony and medieval moteto – parallel 4th and 5th.

(Source: Zemek, Pavel: Requiem, copy of handwriting)

Tomáš Pálka: O Pater /Oh, Father/ (2003) for big mixed choir and soundtrack

Composition written on latin translation of Volf’s poem: Oh, Father, you huged me by everything (O Pater Tu mihi omnia aplexisti). Relation between father and son, Father and a human, relationship unconditional, unqualified – it should be the aim of this composition.

In conception is situated like 16-voices spatial composition. Choir is placed in circle and togethr with soundtrack in last third forms almost perfect feeling of surrounding by sound.
Composition is builded on three basic interval rows:
Chord minor 3rd, major 2nd, perfect 4th, comes from symbols of numbers 2, 3 and primarily of number 4 – number of symmetry, number of four elements. The symbolism of number 4 is held also in the cast – 4 voices in 4 groups.
Dorian mode – is presented like mystic row, row of “cosmic vibration and energy”.
Aliquot row (row of harmonics) – is presented in the end of composition like synthesis of previous material.

In the composition is indicated motion upward by means of instrumentation and melodic evolution. Basses begins, then gradually add the other voices towards sopranos. Final solo part O Pater characterizes ascending motion of melody. Momentum of composition is static, metric unit of mesurement ( = 60) is simultaneously an unit of astronomical time. Inertia of this flowing is interrupted by smaller islets of rhythmical models of single solo voices, or in all voices. Composition is a celebration of God and its multifariousness…

(Source: Pálka, Tomáš: O Pater, own score)

MgA. Tomáš Pálka
composer, music critic - Prague/CZ/

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