The best of Czech classical music, part 3: Julius Fučík’s Entrance of the Gladiators

Julius Fučík, photo: Public Domain

Czech classical music is not only a part of the national culture and history, but also of its very soul. This year, we have prepared a series on renowned works of Czech classical music. Listeners will be familiar with many of them, as they are widely known and regularly performed in concert halls all over the world. The background to their creation and how they were recorded will all be covered by this series in the coming weeks.

An overwhelming belief in victory

Julius Fučík,  photo: Public Domain

Military marches should convey an overwhelming belief in victory (although gladiators could not have been overly confident as they greeted Caesar going into the arena). Entrance of the Gladiators is possibly the most famous military march of all time. Yet few people outside the realm of musical experts know that this piece was written by Julius Fučík (or Julius Ernst Wilhelm Fučík to be precise).

Fučík the composer was the uncle of the man known for his world-famous journal entries in Reportáž, psaná na oprátce (Notes from the Gallows in English). It is not known if the younger Fučík liked his uncle’s famous march. But one man who certainly loved it was the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, who came to like the piece so much that he ordered that it to be played at all his official appearances – whether he was visiting a spa or christening a new battleship.

A rather peculiar form

Photo: Public Domain

Upon further examination, the form of this composition is rather peculiar. It is binary form without repetition, which can be written as A-B. The first chromatic section does not repeat itself like we would expect it to. Fučík was a successful military band player and an outstanding musician. He received an excellent musical education, studying at the Prague Conservatory from the age of 13; his class was taught by Antonín Dvořák, and notable classmates included composers Josef Suk and Oskar Nedbal.

Fučík spent his military service, which was compulsory under the Emperor, as a violinist and bassoonist. Afterwards, he remained in the Austria-Hungarian army and for years served as the bandmaster of the 86th infantry regiment in Budapest.

Orchestra of Prague Artists

Julius Fučík left Budapest before WWI to start his own music publishing company in Berlin. He had an orchestra of his own as well, called the Prager Tonkünstler-Orchester (Orchestra of Prague Artists), and with it, he performed classic works of Czech music, such as those by Smetana and Dvořák. The orchestra’s daily audience numbered 10,000 people, a number which would today be absolutely unimaginable. Unfortunately, Julius Fučík died before his time, at the age of 44. He is buried at the Vinohrady Cemetery in Prague.

As a composer, he focused mostly on his military bands. For them, he wrote not only dance pieces but also concert pieces. Interestingly enough, military bands at the time played with string instruments, which enabled them to perform as symphonic orchestras. It is especially in Fučík’s orchestral waltzes where we can really hear Dvořák’s influence.

A Strauss-like waltz

Photo: Public Domain

As we have now heard, a Strauss-like waltz did not necessarily have to be written by Strauss. The one in this recording was called Plamen lásky (the Flame of Love). It is an obscure, Dvořákesque waltz written by Fučík, who was, after all, a student of Dvořák’s. This excerpt was played by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, an ensemble that plays Fučík’s work quite often, and it used to do so even more under the guidance of its erstwhile conductor Václav Neumann. It was thanks to Neumann that Fučík’s work could also be heard in the Rudolfinum.

Most of Fučík’s work was composed for military orchestras. That is why he is sometimes called “The Bohemian Sousa”, after the world-famous military bandmaster, or “The Czech March King”. Fučík was a very productive writer, composing over 300 marches, polkas, and waltzes. Some of his works continue to be played today. His marches Entrance of the Gladiators, Florentiner March and the polka Starý Bručoun all still appear on the repertoire.

The Best of Czech classical music series was created on the basis of Lukáš Hurník's and Bohuslav Vítek's project "Millenium hits" which was broadcast on Czech Radio Vltava.