The best of Czech classical music, part nine: Ktož jsú boží bojovníci

'Ktož jsú boží bojovníci' in Jistebnice Hymn Book, photo: archive of Natonal Museum

Did the outnumbered Hussites defeat the crusaders at the Battle of Domažlice by singing? Modern-day historians are sceptical. But for František Palacký, Alois Jirásek and other Czech historians and writers of the Czech National Revival movement, the answer was clear. Their argument was Ktož jsú boží bojovníci, the choral Hussite fighting anthem (which translates from Old Czech as “Ye Who Are Warriors of God”), featured in this edition of the Best of Czech Classical Music.

'Ktož jsú boží bojovníci' in Jistebnice Hymn Book,  photo: archive of Natonal Museum
Battle of Domažlice

It is a composition with a rather unique and changing rhythm composed of a series of drumbeats varying in strength. And when sung by a whole section of the Hussite army, accompanied by an unrelenting beating of the drums, this grim song was enough to run shivers up any crusader’s spine. Meanwhile, it would give the Hussites an almost holy motivation to go into battle. At least that is what legend says about the Battle of Domažlice.

But could have composed such a powerful choral that could scare enemy soldiers off the battlefield? Well, for starters we can rule out Jan Žižka z Trocnova, whom many 19th century Czech patriots – quite humorously – liked to consider as the author.

According to historical sources, notably the Jistebnice Hymn Book (an important source of Hussite liturgy from the 15th century) it could have presumably been Jan Čapek, a Taborite priest. He was a known orator in the Hussite settlement of Tábor, assumed an important role in the Hussite hierarchy, and took part in battles.

Čapek also devoted his time not only to writing and composing songs, tractates, and chorales but also to translating. He is the most plausible author of Ktož jsú boží bojovníci because the composition is similar to pieces definitely known to have been his work. There are several versions of the song, this one being the oldest:

Bedřich Smetana’s symphonic poems Má vlast

Jistebnice Hymn Book,  photo: FDominec,  CC BY-SA 3.0

It is worth mentioning that this version is from the early Hussite period, sometime around 1420, roughly when the Jistebnice Hymn Book also came to be. Except the book was found much later, in the Jistebnice town church in 1872. That’s why the second version of the song emerged earlier, in a publication called Mladoboleslavský tisk (Mladá Boleslav press in English).

Then there’s the third version, which dates to the turn of the 16th century. It’s this youngest version that is also the most famous. Bedřich Smetana used it in his set of six symphonic poems Má vlast (My Homeland), since at that time he could not have known the original. The Hussite piece served as inspiration for the dramatic string rhythm of Tábor, the fifth part of Má vlast. Smetana’s composition is not the only piece with such a rhythm, though. Later pieces paying homage to the famous choral have used it as well. But Smetana was the first to do so. The composer also humorously dealt with the Hussite choral in the final part of Libuše, his “festival opera”.

Ktož jsú boží bojovníci became known largely thanks to Smetana. Although the song was not totally unknown at the time he was composing Má vlast or Libuše, some people were first made aware of the song due to the attention it received from patriotic writers of the second half of the 19th century. The first attempts at the musical reconstruction of its notation played a part as well.

Jaroslav Krček and the Jistebnice Hymn Book

Miloslav Kabeláč,  photo: archive of Czech Radio

Its melody inspired more than a handful of composers to write new variations of the piece. Ones that would be different from the patriotic or classical sounding takes on Hussite music. The choral has featured many times in modern Czech music. It’s not that these newer pieces do not draw connotations of the Hussite era, they just use it as a bit of a metaphor.

A perfect example is a cantata composed by Miloslav Kabeláč entitled Neustupujte! (Do Not Retreat! in English). Other modern-day composers also took inspiration from the choral, such as Luboš Fišer, who masterfully stylized it into a variation with multiple singers.

The chorus of Ktož jsú boží bojovníci is quite fitting for an all-male ensemble, and Luboš Fišer’s variation is no exception. But we have one more excerpt before we finish. It’s an adaptation from Jaroslav Krček. His piece utilizes a choir of women as well as men. And it’s quite authentic, as Krček is among the foremost experts on the Jistebnice Hymn Book.

Lastly, one more bit of information: the instrumental of Ktož jsú boží bojovníci is played during Czech Army parades. During the First Czechoslovak Republic, the song was also played at official ceremonies when raising and lowering the state flag.

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.