By Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
Of the Eastern European countries, both Poland and Czechoslovakia have gained strong reputations for their impressive contributions to world cinema. Czechoslovakia, in particular, has made itself notable for different types of animation, and much of the country’s films, both feature length and short subjects, have contained strong symphonic scores. There are about ten composers in Czechoslovakia whose names re-appear in the credits of their films, most of them also write concert music as well. Among these are three whose work for Czech films has been long-running. Jan Rychlik, also a notable classical composer, began scoring films in the late 1940’s and continued through to his death in 1964; Zdenek Liska is one of the country’s most prolific film composers, scoring many different types of films since the 1950’s through is death in 1983; Lubos Fiser began scoring films in the 1970’s and continues to compose music for Czechoslovakian cinema. It is these three we have chosen to highlight in this special report on film music in Czechoslovakia.
Jan Rychlik (1916-1964) remains a notable composer of classical works in Czechoslovakia. An exceptionally educated artist, his interests were many and there were few subjects in which he did not possess an above-average understanding.
Rychlik became a composer through the fault of or thanks to the Second World War. When the Nazis closed the Czech universities and colleges and he was unable to complete his studies at the commercial college, he turned to the conservatory. There he learned the craft of music under the important Czech composer, Professor Jaroslav Ridky. As a professional musician, Rychlik played percussion in the dance orchestra of Karel Vlach, and soon began to compose his own dance songs, utilizing a modern jazz idiom. Rychlik was an accomplished jazz pianist, and also established himself as a skillful writer of criticism, advertisement and scientific writings, as well as public speaking. Ultimately, he scored more than 55 films and 8 plays, in addition to many concert works that included overtures, chamber music, and choral and cantata music.
As was written in a concert program for a performance of Rychlik’s music in Prague, Rychlik was a “much sought-after associate”. As a composer, he went like wildfire and found it difficult to refuse offers, so that the flood of orders once brought him to the very brink of a nervous breakdown.
“His musical expression was always balanced, proportionate, clear and even in the most complex counterpoint it gave the impression of being self-evident and simple. For Rychlik never lost his natural and convincing directness. He in no way closed his mind to new compositional techniques, but he took from them only that which he saw fit and this he fused inventively with his own clear-cut musical speech, which his vigorous and expressive thoughts made easy to understand.” (Karel Srom, program for Rychlik’s Quintetto A Fiato, Prague, 1972. Translated by Joanne Domin.)
Rychlik died in 1964 at the age of 47. Although his career was cut short at this early age, his name ranks high among Czech composers, and his contribution to film music is equally prominent among Czech cinema. “These are, of course, sparkling, masterly polished jewels of chamber literature,” Karel Srom wrote of Rychlik’s classical music. “And like the majority of Rychlik’s works, they too are full of sunshine and joyfully touch on the positive sides of human life.”
Much of Rychlik’s film music has been for animated and puppet films, one of the most successful both domestically and abroad, was Jiri Trnka’s ARIA OF THE PRAIRIE (it later became a feature film and a theatrical musical called LEMONADE JOE, both of which used Rychlik’s original music). Rychlik’s widow, Olga Rychlikova, wrote to CinemaScore and provided the following filmographical details: “Of the cartoon films that my husband composed music for, I would like to name THE AIRSHIP AND LOVE, THE ANGEL’S COAT , THE CHAMPION, THE SPRINGER (with animation by Kamil Lhotak) SCREW’S ADVENTURES and THE CREATION OF THE WORLD  which was shown on television over two-evenings, with animation by Jean Effel. Of the motion pictures, I remember just a few: THE COFFEE HOUSE ON MAIN STREET, BOMB MANIA , LOST TERRITORY, CIRCUS and MUSIC FROM MARS.”
Among Czechoslovakian film composers, Zdenek Liska was perhaps the most prolific and the most effective. He was also one of the few Czech composers who specialized in writing only film music. Born in Smecno in 1922, Liska studied composition and conducting at the Prague Conservatory during the years 1938-44. Immediately after completing his studies, he was conducting the Philharmonic orchestra in Slany, 1944-45. The next year he began to compose music to films, starting with director Drahoslav Holub’s documentary PRISTAV V SRDCI EVROPY [A Port in the Heart of Europe] in 1945. Subsequently, Liska stood out as the music composer for Hermina Tyrlova’s animated films, DEVET KURATEK [Nine Little Chickens] and ZLATOVLASKA [Goldilocks], as well as scoring many fantasy films for the notable Czech film-maker, Karel Zeman – these included BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1961) and VYNALEZ ZKAZY.
Zdenek Liska scored a total of more than one hundred Czechoslovakian films, for studios both in Prague and in Gottwaldov, where he lived and composed most of the time. Poetic and almost never merely illustrative, Liska’s music is characterized by a wealth of remarkable instrumentation, often incorporating men’s or women’s choirs. He utilized unusual keys and unconventional means of expression, including electronic music. Liska received many awards and prizes for his music in Czechoslovakia and abroad. Three times he became a State Prize laureate, and a holder of more than eleven other Czech music awards.
Among Czechoslovakian film composers, Zdenek Liska ranks among the top. “He evidences an usual sense for musical characterization of individuals, situations, tragedy. humor and parody,” expressed one Czech biography. “The success of his music is due to a considerable degree of his aptitude for the characteristic use of sound media.” Liska’s scores were for all kinds of films – full length features, short films, live-action, cartoons and puppet films, television serials and also theatrical works, from stagings of the National Theatre in Prague to programmes of the Laterna Magica.
Liska died in Prague, in 1983, after a long illness.
Liska’s Score for The Fabulous World of Jules Verne
Zdenek Liska’s score for VYNALEZ ZKAZY [An Invention for Destruction, shown in the U.S. as THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE], was a particularly good score for Karel Zeman’s fantasy combination of live action and wood-cut style animation. Liska’s score featured a music-box style harpsichord theme with a chamber ensemble of strings and woodwinds, very much in keeping with Zeman’s nostalgic visual style which suggested the old engravings that illustrated Verne’s original stories. Liska’s score is similarly old-timey and contributes greatly to the film’s quaint adventurism. Liska provides an especially nice cue when the rogue submarine rams the merchant ship Camelle: a profound theme, full of brief pathos in sympathy for the doomed crew of the sinking vessel, erupts from the strings and woodwinds, seguing to a similarly styled action motif as the Camelle sinks to the bottom. In contrast, Liska’s music tends to remain too moody during the battle with the giant octopus, failing to build any excitement when a more dramatic orchestration seems to be needed. The blows struck against the octopus, however, are nicely punctuated with keyboard strikes. Liska also provided a pretty love theme for woodwinds over muted harpsichord, which seems to be based somewhat on Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Willow, Tit Willow’. The film ends with a happy string finale as the hero and his companion soar into a woodcut sunset on the captured balloon, which segues into a rendition of the Love Theme alternating with a footstep like string motif for the end titles.
Like Jan Rychlik, Lubos Fiser is known in Czechoslovakia for his concert and chamber music as much as he is for his music for Czech films. Fiser’s Report has been performed by the American Wind Symphony Orchestra in Pittsburgh, and in 1966 he won first prize at the UNESCO International Composer’s Competition in Paris. His music was described thusly in a program accompanying a performance of his music in Prague: “His style is developed to a brilliant nature; Fiser achieves maximum concentration and plastic impartation within his musical form, always compact and condensed, giving the listener an impression of the presence of only minimal number of notes. The effect of his music is not only in distinctly shaped thematic material, but also in contrast. The author likes to concentrate on a number of clean-cut contrasts in a small space. This principle is best apparent in Fiser’s one-movement sonatas.” Lubos Fiser’s occupation, however, remains in film composition, where he has scored many feature and short films, including Karel Zeman’s Jules Verne movie, NA KOMETA (1970, On The Comet), Bedrich’s THE DEADLY ODOR (1970, a two-part animated horror spoof), and many other films, many of which have earned Fiser awards for his music. Interviewed by mail during 1983 and 1984, Fiser provided the following insights into Czechoslovakian film scoring and his own work for the country’s cinema.
Postscript: Lubos Fiser died in Prague in 1999.
Interview with Lubos Fiser by Randall D. Larson
We are very interested in learning about the films you have written for Czech cinema, such as NA KOMETA, VALERIE A TYDEN DIVU, THE DEADLY ODOR and DINNER FOR ADELE. What can you tell us about your music for these films?
Up to this day I have composed music for about 300 films, shorts and features, for television, for theatre and for radio performances.
From the films you mentioned, in my opinion the best and most excellent is the film, VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS by director Jaromil Jires, produced from a screenplay by the great Czechoslovakian poet Viteslav Nezval. This film is a fantasy exploring reality and dreams, and it offers the composer many possibilities of expression. To convey its extraordinary atmosphere, I have used a lot of unusual orchestral means; such as childrens’ chorus, ancient instruments, viola da gamba, violone, special flutes, historical cembalo and baroque organ. It has been a wonderful and unique work.
In the compositions for the films, NA KOMETA and DINNER FOR ADELE, I don’t think there is anything extraordinary from a musical point of view.
The series of films, THE DEADLY ODOR, are interesting, first because of the originality of the animation with its special combinations of horror and the grotesque. The director, V. Bedrich, has special inspiration for these films and I feel I have succeeded to express the fanciful imagination of both those films.
What are some of the other films you have scored?
There are some others which are of importance to me for their compositional opportunities. For instance, the film, THE LABYRINTH OF POWER, produced in 1968 for Czechoslovakian TV. It is a particularly beautiful, partially ballet film without any dialogue, where the music takes on the whole dramatic function of the film. The excellent director, Peter Weigl, has created a film of extraordinary expression, and an emotional atmosphere which makes an exceptional experience for all spectators. This film won the ‘Premio Italia’, for music composition, in 1969, and has been broadcast over many TV stations throughout the whole world.
The other film which has become very famous was THE GOLD EELS by director Karel Kachyna, in 1978. This film won the ‘Prix Italia’ in 1979, for my music and for the director. It is a very strong and deeply human story and its international reaction has been very great.
What do you feel about writing music for a film? How do you approach it?
It is a difficult task for me when the music is the dominant structure in a creative film. That takes a lot of work. In some cases it is a very positive co-operation, especially if the film is created by a team of collaborators of the same mind, who are prepared to give their all to the work. But, at other times, it is sometimes a professional job only, when direction and story do not give any possibility for my creating imaginative material.
Which do you prefer? Classical composition or film music?
In contrast to the dominant sphere of my activity, I am happy to score films. I am waiting with impatience for my next coming assignment, because it will emote millions of spectators throughout the world.
Special thanks to Dr. Jiri Levy, of the Czechoslovakian Film Archives, Dr. Emil Ludvik, Lubos Fiser, Mrs. Olga Rychlikova and Mrs. Dana Liskova for their kind assistance with the preparation of this article.