The film score genius Zdeněk Liška

Zdeněk Liška, photo: archive of Czech Television

Some of the best Czech films of the 1960s and 70s, such as Markéta Lazarová, Shop on Main Street, and The Cremator, have one thing in common, besides the country of origin: the author of the score, Zdeněk Liška. Only a few recordings of his music came out independently; most recently, the British label Finders Keepers published his soundtrack of The Little Mermaid. In this edition of Panorama, we look the life and work of this prolific composer, and one of the most versatile artists in the field.

Zdeněk Liška,  photo: archive of Czech Television
Zdeněk Liška is a familiar name to most fans of Czech cinema. But albums with his music only appeared after he died in 1983, at the age of 61. In the 1990s, a Prague publisher put out the soundtracks for two very famous films by František Vláčil – The Valley of the Bees and Markéta Lazarová.

Zdeněk Liška’s cooperation with the director František Vláčil on Markéta Lazarová was very fruitful; the 1967 historical film was voted all-time best Czech film. Film critic Tomáš Baldýnský says some directors would only want to work with Zdeněk Liška.

“There were film directors who wanted to work exclusively with him. One of them was the Czech surrealist director Jan Švankmajer who, after Liška died, refused to use any other living composer because he said there was nobody to replace him. Since his death, Švankmajer has only been using classical music.

“I would say that the most famous was his cooperation with František Vláčil on Markéta Lazarová. On the other hand, one of his pieces became really popular – the communist TV series about Major Zeman. He composed the intro for the series which is now played by rock bands because it’s so distinctive and has such a great melody that everyone knows it by heart in this country.”

'Markéta Lazarová'
The opening tune for the 30 Cases of Major Zeman, a nasty, truth-distorting series about the history of the communist police force, might be for many Czechs the one instantly recognizable motif from Zdeněk Liška’s work. But as Tomáš Baldýnský points out, Liška did some other remarkable things.

“He was exported. Czechoslovakia had great relations with Iran, and Liška was sent there to compose a piece that the shah of Iran wanted to become the country’s national symphony. So a Czech composer wrote the Iranian national symphony.

“The problem was that during the communist regime, he worked all the time, and he could be blamed as anyone who lived in that era and wanted to be creative. You had two options – to be an underground artist, but Liška wasn’t the type. He liked money, he liked good food, he liked to dress in style. Or you could be part of the propaganda machine. I think Liška was lucky that he was a composer. If he had been a writer, he would be blamed a lot.”

Zdeněk Liška came from a musical family. Both his grandfather and father played in a brass band in the town of Smečno, some 30 km west of Prague, where Zdeněk Liška was born in 1922. He attended the Prague Conservatory during the war, and then got a job at the marketing department of the Baťa shoe corporation in Zlín. Tomáš Baldýnský believes that was a turning point of his career.

'30 Cases of Major Zeman'
“I think that the most important thing, the thing that made him, was the fact that he worked at Baťa as the composer for commercials and short movies. He was able to compose so many different pieces of music and he was so fast that I believe he learned everything there.

“He spent a big part of his life in Zlín, and even when composed in Prague, he commuted from Zlín, which is some 300 km away. People would say he wrote his music on the train, and that parts of his music had the rhythm of the train and it was faster when the tracks were straight, and slower when the train was in a curve. But I believe that Zlín made him.”

Zdeněk Liška’s gift for film music was based on his ability to create tension and drama even on small space, whether the films were meant for children or for adults. Liška also used a wide range of musical styles, from brass music to electronica. Pavel Klusák is a Berlin-based music critic.

“He mastered many styles. He used electronica very early on despite being of a generation that was educated on modern symphonic and chamber music. He loved making variations on low genres and folk music, like in the series The Sinful People of Prague, and elsewhere. Whenever he had a special task, he did something special, like the psychedelic illustration of Juraj Jakubisko’s movie Birds, Orphans and Fools, or the very experimental score for Věra Chytilová’s Fruit of Paradise.”

Tomáš Baldýnský,  photo: Filip Jandourek
One of the music styles Zdeněk Liška liked and knew how to use well was brass music. This kind of music was at its height in Liška’s time, and the composer knew how to work with it.

“Brass music is very popular in Bohemia and Moravia. However, there was a very narrow range of what brass music should sound like despite the fact that there were thousands of brass bands. That made Liška’s light composer hand very precious; he was able to vary these notions, to create some sort of dreamy brass music, and to approach it without dogmas.”

Folklore music and urban folk was another source of inspiration for Zdeněk Liška, particularly in the songs he wrote for many films and TV series. One of the them was Dejte mu zahrát, pane inšpektore that appeared in the 1968 crime series The Sinful People of Prague.

Some critics have argued that today, when the film industry is private and can no longer relay on generous state support, there wouldn’t be much room for film score composers. Tomáš Baldýnský says contemporary Czech films can not really afford the kind of scores Zdeněk Liška excelled at.

“I think that Czechs are not that interested in film music mainly because now, or in the last two decades, there is much less film music composed, and it’s much less important, and it’s much less important. Most Czech films just use songs by Czech or foreign bands. So Czech film music is not really in its height.”

'The Valley of the Bees'
That might be one of the reasons why the only albums with Zdeněk Liška’s music came out in the Czech Republic in the 1990s. Also, the editors of the soundtracks for Markéta Lazarová and The Valley of the Bees had to work with the complete audio tracks of the films. It therefore surprised many when in January, the British label Finders Keepers put out the soundtrack for the 1976 fairy-tale movie, The Little Mermaid. Pavel Klusák got in touch with the publishers but was unable to find out where they got the actual track.

“I think that it was this combination that caught the attention of the editors, and this is how the first ever album came about dedicated solely to Zdeněk Liška’s music. If we had archives with soundtracks, we could also work with them. But this is the mystery: we really don’t know where the British editors got the recordings. There were no soundtracks put out here in the 1960s and 70s, and after all the privatizations, the Barrandov archives and those of the Film Philharmonic Orchestra no longer exist.”

Zdeněk Liška’s score for The Little Mermaid was not the first Czech music to be published by the London-based Finders Keepers. They put out soundtracks for other films of what is sometimes referred to as the new wave of Czech film.

“This British label focuses on archive rarities; it publishes Asian music, Persian funk and soundtracks to Bollywood movies, and so on. Some four years ago, they noticed the Czech film music and published the soundtrack to Jaromil Jireš’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Finders Keepers then went on to put out music to Daisies, by Věra Chytilová, followed by The Girl on the Broomstick, and recently, Zdeněk Liška’s music for The Little Mermaid.”

'The Sinful People of Prague'
Zdeněk Liška was certainly one of the most original figures of Czech cinema. In many films, his music played a role as important as the image itself. Although he composed music for some 500 films, it seems that Czechs are only now beginning to appreciate his talent. But for now, they have to look abroad for more albums with his innovative and original music.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on April 14, 2011.