Petr Eben

Born 22 January 1929. Died 24 October 2007
Petr Eben
Petr Eben

Petr Eben Biography (BBC)

The Czech composer Petr Eben was born in Zamberk, near the Polish border; his adolescent years were spent in the South Moravian town of Cesky Krumlov. Eben’s father – an amateur musician who played in an orchestra conducted by Zemlinsky – was Jewish, but brought his son up as a Catholic. Eben’s family antecedents, and his chosen musical pursuits, were always likely to arouse the suspicions of the occupying Nazi forces; with his family, he was interned in the Buchenwald concentration camp for the last two years of World War II. ‘Relentlessly confronted with evil during my early youth,’ Eben has written, ‘I have often returned to the question of good and evil throughout the course of my life. This theme has always influenced my artistic creations.’

The postwar political history of Czechoslovakia – specifically the Communist era and the country’s subjugation as part of the Soviet sphere of influence – proved to be no less inimical to the notion of artistic freedom. But after the war, Eben was able to complete his musical education, studying piano and composition at the Prague Academy of Musical Arts. Graduating in 1954, Eben began a career as a pianist, specialising in chamber music; in the 40 years that followed he made over 150 concert tours at home and abroad, combining his performing career with teaching, notably at Charles University, and the Academy, in Prague.

Eben is a much-decorated composer: in 1990 he received an award from the Czech Government for his organ cycle Job, and in 1991 was named Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; the German Künstlergilde awarded him its Stamitz Prize, and in 1994, Prague’s Charles University conferred an honorary doctorate.

Until the ‘Velvet Revolution’ of 1989 which saw Czechoslovakia move towards Western-style democracy, Eben’s life as a composer had been marked by a constant struggle to practise his art and his Christian faith freely. ‘I strongly felt music to be a message to the listener, and a composition was, for me, always more than a problem to solve in a musical way.’ Eben has composed prolifically in all genres, but perhaps most influential to his standing in the Czech Republic is his music for community and children’s choirs. Emblematic of the artistic freedoms brought about by social and political change was Eben’s church opera, Jeremias, based on a drama by the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, and performed to public acclaim at the 1997 Prague Spring Festival.

Eben’s music is characterised by an innovative approach to rhythm which he sees as being rooted in Czech folk song. Gregorian chant is an influence; and from his early experiments in organ timbre and his experience as a renowned improviser at the organ, comes a novel approach to sonority, including the frequent use of polytonality (the simultaneous use of more than one key signature). Organ music forms a large part of Eben’s output, and in many respects it was the foundation of his international reputation: the organ, he said, was ‘always pure joy … the dearest instrument to me, full of festivity.’

Above all, Petr Eben is celebrated as a great humanitarian – a composer whose personal suffering is subsumed by gratitude not just for his survival as a man and as a musician, but also for the opportunity it gives him to witness and proclaim the ultimate triumph of good over evil. As one commentator succinctly states, ‘His music dances with the pulse of life, even as it explores what is darkest in our own natures.’

Profile © Graeme Kay

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