Karel Sklenička (1933 – 2001) was a composer, whose work intervenes in the field of chamber, concert, scenic, spiritual and liturgical music. In addition to composing, he raised six children with his wife Helena, made some extra money as an organist and during his whole life he strove to prove successful as an artist, even though the political regime was not always in favour of it.
Sklenička’s genre range is wide, but we will focus on his liturgical work. Here we can find Czech Mass Ordinary put in music, the Sunday psalms and psalms for the important days of the liturgical year as well as the mass and spiritual songs, that can be used during liturgy.
Spiritual and liturgical music
Up to the mid-1960s, Karel Sklenička devoted himself exclusively to stage and concert music. In liturgical music he was only involved as an organist in church service. In 1966 Antiphon for sacrificial procession was created – his first truly liturgical work. At the same time Karel Sklenička also composed The Czech Mass Ordinary and worked on the project of several authors Reading from the Bible – The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Furthermore, he still engaged in stage music (television and theatre), but this course of direction was soon stopped for political reasons.
After the Second Vatican Council (in 1969) Karel Sklenička wrote the article „Music and liturgy“, in which he responded to the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council. Besides other things he stated: „It seems, it would be ideal that liturgical music gains on charisma, as it was with proclamation of the word in early church, and it would turn into one of the form the word is proclaimed. (…) To address at this point, and additionally, in times of far-reaching liturgical changes, the question of what music should or should not be played during liturgy, is of course impossible. While maintaining the principle of pluralism and freedom of choice, it can, at the most, be decided on quality as the touchstone, whether it be Gregorian chant, rhythmic music, jazz or folk singing.“
We can assume from the extensive music material that besides the quality, Sklenička also preferred the functionality of the music, to which he submitted all his liturgical works.
In liturgical compositions Karel Sklenička likes to draw from Gregorian chant, which he enriches with new compositional procedures, condensed harmony and unusual interval skips.
Karel Sklenička was able to produce his own liturgical music in the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows in Prague 2, Na Slupi, where he played the organ since 1955. After the Second Vatican Council he composed for the residential church choir, which he directed, several songs, but mainly psalms and responsorial songs. They derive in their own nature from the singing of the early or ancient churches.
The Psalms, as such, are predominant in Sklenička’s liturgical work. Besides to Responsorial Psalms for Sundays, holidays and Significant Days of Liturgical Year (1987 – 1989), he composed dozens of individual psalms, most of them arose in 1972-1973.
Karel Sklenička also devoted himself to such a spiritual and liturgical music, which could also be presentable in concerts, due to its originality and demanding character. The most pieces of this kind he composed at the end of the 80’s and early 90’s. Between these compositions fall for example: Three Duets on Liturgical Texts, Three Trios on Liturgical Texts, Salve Regina, Missa Brevis.
Karel Sklenička has put in music, text from mass ordinary, twice. The Latin Missa Brevis has the usual form of five separate parts of ordinary of the Roman Catholic liturgy (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). The composition is demanding both in terms of rhythm (it is not a homophonic rate) as well as intonation, since there are in the middle of phrases numerous dissonances, which “clarifies” on the very last pitch of each phrase. All in all, however, it is a contemporary adaptation of choral tunes, without an absence of characteristic choral intervals (fourths and fifths) and the male solo singing voice at the beginning of some parts (Gloria, Credo). Missa Brevis was performed also in concert, under the name Laudes musicae antique.
In the same year as Missa Brevis also arises Czech Mass Ordinary which doesn’t include Credo. That was enclosed first in 1987. Contrary to Missa Brevis is Czech Mass Ordinary much easier in terms of singing. It is also composed for soloist and people-chants with the accompaniment of the organ. It’s ceremonial form contains in addition part for drums and trumpet. This version is also available in organ accompaniments to “Mass Hymnal”. 1*
The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ
Despite the bleak political situation Karel Sklenička was composing ceaselessly. Some of the pieces have been heading once again “in the drawer”, others were immediately carried out. Among the performed works were Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which, as Sklenička recalls, has been created thanks to the sudden absence of censorship in 1968. He was asked by his friend P. Pavel Kuneš 2*, who obtained a German record of Bible Stories with modern music. Karel Sklenička got acquainted with the recording, even though he did not like its form, he was captured by the concept of this project. He decided to go deeper with both the music and the text.
He talked about his ideas with his friends, primarily with Jaroslav Kadlec and Karel Šprunk. Together they arranged text about the life of Jesus, from all four gospels 3*, pieced together as one whole. The final form of the piece is the result of many hours of joint work of these three friends. The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John introduces prologue and finishes with an epilogue written by P. Jaroslav Kadlec.
Sklenička at the same time started friendship with Václav Voska (a significant actor of National Theatre in Prague), who agreed to narrate the prepared six-hour text of The Gospel without a payment claim. Voska wrote: “I am deeply convinced, that this book contains a great amount of wisdom and knowledge. With this in mind, I took a cautious approach to reading it with love, humbleness and care. If I contributed with my modest help to understanding, it makes me happy.”4*
From the program aired in Cafe Viola came into being Reading from The Bible – three records, one of which contained Old Testament texts in presentation of Zdeněk Štěpánek accompanied by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The other two records were recording of the New Testament texts in presentation of Václav Voska accompanied by the music of Karel Sklenička. The records were pressed by Supraphon and were to be distributed. At that moment, however, the censor ordered all records to be scrapped.
At the same time was completed the seven-hour project The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It was advertised, copied at home on cassette tape and sent to those interested. In total, about 3000 pieces were sold. After the add was stopped, several unsold sets remained in the family. In 2003 Helena Skleničková and composer’s son Jakub decided to renew the work at the friends’ request. It took Jakub three years to improve the sound quality of unsold tapes and together with his mother they added accompanying texts and transcripts of the chorales, including their translation. A set of 6 CDs with the complete The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is available in the composer’s family archive.
Musica sacra nova Pragensia
In 1972 Karel Sklenička at the parish of the church of Our Lady of Sorrow, Na Slupi, where he worked as organist, founded an amateur ensemble „Musica sacra nova Pragensia“. Members were partly singers from resident church choir and partly various friends from a member of this choir – Hana Zuklínová. The core of the ensemble was made up of university graduates mostly from faculties of mathematics, physics and philosophy. The purpose of the group was to present the most recent pieces of Czech spiritual music (especially after the Second Vatican Council) 5* in both liturgy and concerts. The incentive to start this ensemble was an invitation from German evangelical pastor and friend Frithjof Meussling, who Sklenička got to know during his holiday by his relatives in German Bautzen.
The choir prepared three concerts in GDR. A total of 30 members were supposed to travel to the GDR and perform in concerts, which were advertised there with numerous posters. However, about three days before departure, the entire trip was banned. Sklenička was summoned by normalization office worker Mr. Jelínek, of Ministry of Culture, and pointed out that the trip would not be even possible privately. If the choir members would arrive there as tourists, from three priests (whom Mr. Jelínek specifically named and whom Karel Sklenička personally new) a state consent 6* to carry out their work would be taken away. Out of consideration for the above-mentioned priests the concert didn’t take place, the choir was disbanded.
Karel Sklenička continued as an organist in the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows and for the parish besides the Czech Mass Ordinary he composed several mass songs (Mass Song of Ursulines, The Morning Song to Mother Anděla, Lord and Master, With my Gifts, In the Shadow of the Cross, Order of Mass for Saint Martin). In addition, many other psalms were created.
Antiphon to the offertory procession
The composition Antiphon to the offertory procession was written in 1966, just after the end of Second Vatican Council. We can assume, that it was the composer’s immediate reaction to celebrate liturgy in the national language. Antiphon to the offertory procession was written with the intention apparent from its name. The piece is conceived as liturgical song for a solo singer and the people singing accompanied by an organ. From the linguistic and liturgical point of view these are the ten prayers that entrust these offerings to the God. From the music point of view, the assessment is a little more complicated.
As for the accompanying instruments, in the original version the soloist and the people are accompanied only by organs. They have the character of a harmonious support. The music line is easy even for a beginning organist. However, the composition (just like many other Sklenička’s liturgical songs) is possible to interpret only in choral setting, while the accompanying voice parts assume the recorded harmony. It is also possible to exchange or join the organs with other instruments, which are currently available to the choirmaster and whether it is “ordinary” or festive mass.
The Psalms in Sklenička’s work are of great significance. The first ones emerge in the 70’s shortly after the Second Vatican Council. It is anticipated that antiphon is sang by choir and verses are sang by one or two singers - soloists. In the time of Velvet Revolution Responsorial Psalms for Sundays, holidays and Significant Days of Liturgical Year were created. Later Sklenička was blessed with grandchildren, and he composed for most of them “personal” psalms, which were sung during the christening of the child. There were also Psalms for other special occasions, such as the Wedding Psalm, which was first heard at the wedding of the composer’s youngest daughter.
The whole set of Responsorial Psalms for Sundays, holidays and Significant Days of Liturgical Year came into existence by coincident. After Second Vatican Council many composers tried to put into music the Psalms, that were included in the liturgy, but these Psalms contained imprecisions, especially in terms of inadequate antiphons. In the Mělník area, where Sklenička went on weekends with his family to a cottage, P. Bernard Říský 7* of the Franciscans order was back then active. He very much welcomed the liturgy in the national language and in the 80’s he was convincing Karel Sklenička to set to composing the Sunday Psalms. He emphasized the fact that antiphons were not modified in any way, but that they accurately corresponded to the liturgical rules according to the General Guidelines to the Roman Missal.8*
Sklenička did not want to start unnecessary work because he felt that many countless Psalms had been already created. Moreover, he knew that his financial situation did not allow him to release them for wider use. However, Bernard was so convincing, that Sklenička from his pleas assumed, that Bernard knew someone who would publish the Psalms, but could not approach him until he had them physically ready. In 1987 Sklenička set to work and composed a total of 204 responsorial psalms on 34 different tunes. It took him about a year and half. When the notes were redrawn into print, Karel Sklenička brought them to Bernard. He looked at them, scrolled through and said: “It’s perfect. And now, only to get a publisher, Carl,” and returned them. But there was any publisher there and Sklenička has any money for printing.
Psalms so stayed in the drawer, only in Summer, when Sklenička was with his family at the cottage, Psalms have been played in the church in the village of Vidim, where Bernard worked. Perhaps the Psalms would be completely forgotten if shortly after the Velvet Revolution, they would manage through Sklenička’s son to find publishing house and also Italian family friends to get the necessary funds. In 1991 the Psalms have been published as two separate books (for singing and for organs) with the following preface:
“I’m presenting to the Catholic public my Responsorial Psalms. They are intended for all communities where there is hunger for the more recent Czech praise of God’s glory: 34 tunes of antiphon and verses in variations for Sundays, celebrations and holidays of A, B and C cycles of the liturgical year.
Long ago authors of Bible psalms had a good tradition: for the new situation they created new song. I have tried to follow this tradition even in our time.
Newly, I embraced the language. Czech needs a distinctive space for its poetical uniqueness. After all, every syllable, word and phrase has its own non-transferable length, width and depth. That should be over and over re-discovered and proclaimed. Therefore, it was necessary to create new psalm-forming rules. I deliberately tried to avoid squeezing Czech translation into original (e.g. Choral) tunes, which is based on the Latin accent. It appears to me, it wouldn’t contribute to the spirit of our mother tongue.
This is not only about poetry, but also about music. Translators of Kralice Bible knew very well, that you can not only sing psalms, but also celebrate music in psalms which are not only ‘songs’, but also ‘tunes’. That inspired me to create chants that are rather banal and easy to remember. I think I gave the singer the opportunity not only to sing the psalm, but also to perceive more its recited text and presented it as his own experience with God. New here is harmony. Here I dared to draw upon hundred years old novelties as late Dvořák, Debussy and Stravinskij discovered them. I don’t know if it is in Czech liturgical music too late or too soon.
Professor Václav Bogner‘s translation of psalms seems to me – compared to other modern Catholic translations – to be the most poetical. I‘m glad, that he was given preference in the liturgical reforms after the council. I stuck to Bogner’s text and his choice of antiphon – if the composition allowed it - as accurately as possible. For this reason, I based it strictly on texts in lectionary.
Two greetings remain. The first one is for Father Bernard Říský of the Order of Friars Minor, after all in the power of his spirit these psalms were created. The second greeting is intended for all, who took part. They are my loved ones, Eastern European Information Agency employees, but also Italian friends from Treviso, especially Silvana and Remigio Bernazzi, who with their donation helped to publish this work.
I’m not sure whether the Lord’s creation was hurting. This creation – even though painful – was good. Karel Sklenička.”
Sklenička’s work is a little known, yet he is an extraordinary musician. His contribution to liturgical music lies above all in his ability to build on trivial melody carrying content, which comes from text and from Sklenička’s personal experience of faith. Let’s hope we can hear his work more frequently in our churches.
The author is the granddaughter of the composer Karel Sklenička
English translation: Petra Jones
„Mass Hymnal“ (Mešní zpěvy) – the collection of songs for the Catholic service was issued by the Vatican in 1989.
P. Pavel Kuneš, *1937. Catholic priest. He was consecrated in June 1961, worked in many parishes and church institutions. He is active in Klecany near Prague. (See Pavel Kuneš (1937), available online: http://bit.ly/2ov2J89 [5.4.2017].)
It has been based on Prof. Col's translation – Prof. Rudolf Col, *1902 +1964. Catholic priest, a Biblicist, professor on the Faculty of Theology in Olomouc, translated in 1947 from the Greek New Testament. (BSŠZ, 2008, 9. notebook, Page 442.)
These words were added in 1969 to the introductory text of the work, when Sklenička sent him to Radio Free Europe, which was supposed to air it.
Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), brought into the life of the Church a great renewal of liturgical life, its main effort consisted in ecumenism, it dealt with peace and security issues, religious freedom, human rights, social issues, pastoral issues etc. Large topic was implementing of national languages into the liturgy.
State consent exercise of spiritual service was granted to individual priests on request. The application had to be approved by the appropriate Deputy Mayor of the District or County National Committee. Priests’ register served to assess a salary, but granting of this permission was widely misused for humiliation and intimidation. To the undesirable priests the consent was revoked most often on the grounds of criminal offence “obstruction of supervision of churches and religious associations”. Each consent holder was forced to take the vows of loyalty to the republic. The law of approval of this consent was abolished on November 20, 1992. (§ 2 of Act No. 218/1949 Coll. and §§ 16 and 17 of Government Regulations No. 219 – 223/1949 Coll.)
P. Bernard Říský, *1925 +2004. The Czech Catholic priest, a member of the Franciscans Order, was imprisoned between 1951 and 1960. Since 1968 he has been able to work as a priest again, he has remained in active service until his death. (See P. Bernard Drahoslav Říský, available online http://bit.ly/2oaVIWx [30.3.2017]
Psalms are an integral and immutable part of the liturgy and their singing should be preferred before reading. (BERGER, 2008. Pp. 574-576.)