“From High C’s to High Seas” – the life of Eduard Ingriš

Eduard Ingriš

In 1947, at the age of 42, Eduard Ingriš had already lived what most would call a full life. He was one of Czechoslovakia’s foremost composers, with several hundred pieces to his name. He had been composing since he was 15 years old, and he was a rich man. His musical “The Capricious Mirror” enjoyed 1,600 performances in Prague, a record untouched even on Broadway. As it turns out though, his life was just getting started.

An “instant hit”, from a musical, say, is not usually so instant that the audience stops the premiere, demanding to hear the song again. That was the case, however, with Ingriš’ “The Wistful Roar of the Niagara”, first performed in 1932 in the operetta “Tramp Love”, is to this day one of the Czechs’ best loved campfire songs, as Eduard Ingriš’ widow, Nina, knows very well:

“If I want somebody to be nice, and I say, ‘do you know Teskně huči Niagara, the Niagara Song?’, they say ‘of course, of course!’, because since 1931 all the generations down to the youngest one still sing it, and still know it. And I say ‘That was my husband who composed it.”

Ingriš is often unfairly forgotten as the author of the famous Niagara melody, which many think is an old folk tune. Indeed, for all his success, it is not so much music that Eduard Ingriš would come to be remembered for. The rise of communism in 1947 would set him on a new course into an uncharted new future.

“After the war they had a big meeting of composers and musicians, and of course this communist idiot comes on and he says ‘this bourgeois music will now end and you will have to follow the Soviet type of music’, and he played them these Soviet popular songs. So they looked at each other and they said, ‘my God, this doesn’t look good at all.’ His brother was in the military, and he told him, ‘get out of here.’ In his diary, he had written in 1944, when of course he didn’t know that communism was coming, ‘If this country ever becomes free again, I will fulfil my dream and I will go to South America and to the Amazon especially.’”

The communists allowed him to take 50 dollars – out of his vast fortune – to take a ship to South America, and he left with no idea in his mind that he would never see his homeland again.

“He’d wanted to go to Argentina. He went off the ship in Rio de Janeiro – he couldn’t miss Rio de Janeiro he was such an adventurous character! And of course then February 1948 came and his passport became invalid. He got stuck there.”

A happy encounter with a Peruvian consul finally resulted in a visa for the essentially stateless Ingriš, but how to get there from Brazil? Well, by travelling the river’s 4000 miles in canoes and rafts, hacking through the rainforest befriending natives and head-hunters, and documenting it all on camera.

As it turned out, Eudard Ingriš’ greatest gift may not have been musical talent but insatiable curiosity. And when coupled with a sharp sense of beauty and harmony and what can only be described as “spunk”, those qualities in his post European life become the recipe for a great photographer. And in the end, the destination of Peru became not so much a place of residence as a base from which he could launch further expeditions into the jungle.

He was attacked by a puma and declared dead, a fact he discovered on the front page of a newspaper in Lima, and Radio Free Europe aired a special on him in memoriam. He nearly did die in the jungle from a snake bite. He was also nearly forced to marry an Indian princess as a chief wanted to trade her for his dachshund. His stories were endless and they brought him great fame and encounters with interesting people, namely Norwegian scientist-cum-adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, who had recently been catapulted into fame by personally proving his theory that the Inca could have colonised Polynesia by crossing the Pacific Ocean in rafts.

“Because he was such a famous photographer in Peru, he was recommended to Thor Heyerdahl. And Eduard became enthusiastic when he told him about the raft voyage of the Kon-tiki and Thor Heyerdahl needed another crazy person who would prove his theory. And Eduard said ‘I’ll do it, I’ll do it!’”

He called the raft Kantuta, after a flower that symbolised deathlessness to the Incas. And its first voyage stared death down and won. The group was caught in a whirlpool in the middle of the ocean for more than 6 weeks grappling with starvation and madness until miraculously rescued by an American warship.

“He felt that he had ruined Thor Heyerdahl’s theory and that instead of helping him prove it, he had ruined him. And everybody said ‘Haha! We told you it was impossible!’ and so on. So he sold everything he had and put his own money into it because nobody wanted to help him on a second trip. They said ‘you’re crazy, why would anybody put money into your second trip?’ And they didn’t want to so he financed it all by himself.”

The second time, however, was a charm. After a 4 month trip on which two crewmembers abandoned ship, murderously taking the water supply with them, the typhoon-battered raft sighted land. It was the last island the current could have taken them to, before bringing them as skeletons to Australia. They left the ship and swam for shore, and in reaching it proved, again, that the world’s greatest ocean could be crossed by raft.

“They went into the centre of the coral island and they built a little cabin there. And drank coconut milk and ate coconuts, they caught some fish. And then one day they saw fires in the distance and smoke. And they said, goodness, according to the pilot book this was an uninhabited island. So they went to see what it was and there were three natives, who took them to the opposite side of the island where there was a whole village of them! So there was a celebration, the natives went over to see the raft and they had big festivities. The chief gave them new Polynesian names, but they couldn’t remember them! I said ‘Why didn’t you write them in your diary?’ but he said he forgot them they were so complicated!”

Ingriš had been a member of high society in Peru, not only for his jungle exploits and traversing the Pacific, but for conducting the National Symphony Orchestra. But his ties had been strengthening with America. A dawning adventure market in the United States created a lot of demand for his exotic photographs, and he began making travel films and directed a Hollywood film, “Jungle Sabotage”. It was he who Ernest Hemmingway sought out for advice on the filming of “The Old Man and the Sea”. He moved to America in the early 1960s and there spent the rest of his life, and there his immortality ran out, at the age of 86.

A decade later his widow Nina moved back to her hometown of Brno, bringing with her over one tonne of films, photographs, awards and music that her husband left behind.

“Between us the binding thing was the music. I learned a lot from him. We did a lot together. And I miss him terribly.”

Czechs are only now beginning to hear about “Eduard Ingriš, the adventurer”. And really, for all the colossal endeavours of his long life, perhaps it is still fitting that his homeland knows him best for that “Wistful Roar of the Niagara”, a song he wrote when he was only 19, because perhaps with its beautiful artistry and wandering spirit it encompasses the essence of him; and he goes on living Kantuta-like in the firelight of roving campers dreaming of strange worlds.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on August 12, 2009.