Jan Jakub Ryba’ songs celebrating Christmas season and birth of infant Jesus

Photo: Supraphon

Christmas in this country wouldn’t be complete without Jan Jakub Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass from 1796, one of the most popular piece of Czech Christmas music ever written. But the small-town teacher and prolific composer created hundreds of other compositions, including dozens of pastorals, celebrating the Christmas season and the birth of the infant Jesus. In today’s programme, you can hear at least some of them, performed by the famous Kuehn’s children choir from Prague, accompanied by Dvořák Chamber Orchestra.

Jan Jakub Ryba was born in 1765 in the village of Přeštice in West Bohemia to the family of a village teacher. He studied music in Prague and dreamed of becoming a composer, but his father's illness forced him to return home and earn his living as a village teacher.

Jakub Jan Ryba

In 1788, Ryba got a teacher's position in the small town of Rožmitál, where he lived for the rest of his life with his large family. In his free time, Ryba composed over a 1,000 pieces, including dozens of pastoral compositions for soloists and chorus with a small orchestra, mostly with Czech lyrics. The earliest preserved pastoral, Wake up, Shepherds, dates from 1788.

Just like the Christmas Mass, Ryba’s songs are characterized by simplicity of expression and colourful instrumentation, which evokes a mood of joy.  
The texts, as well as the musical conception and the vocal setting of the pastorals suggest that he addressed several of his Christmas pieces explicitly to his pupils at the Rožmitál school.

Unfortunately, Ryba did not live to see the success of his work. As an advocate of social and educational reforms he got into conflict with the local authorities in Rožmitál. He could no longer bear the mounting pressure and the struggle to feed his large family and in 1815, he took his own life. However, his charming Christmas music continues to resound in churches, concert halls and thousands of Czech homes during every Christmas season.