Josef Klička’s Fantasia on the St. Wenceslas Chorale

Saint Wenceslas

The cult of St Wenceslas is ever-present in the Czech Republic, not least in the field of music. Many people are probably familiar with the Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas" about a Bohemian king who goes on a journey, braving harsh winter weather, to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen. But possibly fewer people abroad have heard of the St Wenceslas Chorale.  

The Saint Wenceslas Chorale is a church hymn and one of the oldest known Czech songs which is part of the cult of St. Wenceslas in music. Its roots date back to the 12th century. The content of the hymn is a prayer to Saint Wenceslas, Duke of Bohemia and the Czech patron saint, to intercede for his nation, to help protect it from injustice and ensure its salvation. The hymn is still sung today, usually on special occasions such as St Wenceslas Day.  In 1918, when Czechoslovakia was established it was even discussed as a possible theme for the national anthem.

Josef Klička | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1895, Josef Klička, a Czech organist, composer, conductor and pedagogue at the Music Conservatory in Prague, composed a concert fantasia on the St. Wenceslas Chorale.

As a professor of organ music Klička was fortunate enough to be able to give concerts on a newly built organ in the Rudolfinum. It was the sound of this instrument that inspired him to start composing works that were to change the character of Czech organ music. In his compositions the organ became a concert instrument capable of replacing a symphony orchestra.

Unlike his contemporaries, who produced minor preludes and fugues in the spirit of church conventions, Josef Klička came up with concert fantasias in a freer, virtuoso mode that reflected his Late Romantic orchestral sensibility.

The Concert Fantasia on the St. Wenceslas Chorale received excellent reviews.

An announcement in the period press, Národní politika [National Politics] of the 28th of September 1913 was full of praise for him: “The piece is the Prof. Klička’s most ambitious yet, and in the distinguished virtuoso interpretation of Mr. Wiedermann it made an unforgettable impression on the audience. As far as the technique is concerned, the piece has no equal in organ repertoire. Its astounding structure, onomatopoeic elements and symphonic character give the Fantasia great power.”