Prof. Michael Beckerman receives Gratias Agit Award for promoting Czech music abroad

Michael Beckerman

Eleven people received the 2021 Gratias Agit Award for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic abroad. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, most of the awards are being handed out at Czech embassies or cultural centres in the recipients’ home countries.

In New York on Tuesday representatives of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs presented the award to leading musicologist Prof. Michael Beckerman, who has for decades successfully promoted the greats of Czech classical music among professional musicians and the broad public in the US and elsewhere.

Although Prof. Michael Beckerman does not devote himself exclusively to Czech music, it has become a lifelong passion. His deep understanding of Czech composers, his inspiring and provocative reflections on the works of Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček, Bohuslav Martinů, as well as more contemporary composers, have opened the world of Czech music to millions of people worldwide.

Michael Beckerman has authored six specialized volumes about Czech music and written hundreds of articles on Czech music greats as well as lesser known composers. He actively promotes the so-called Terezín Composers, and is regularly consulted by leading American concert and opera halls (Metropolitan Opera in New York, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, San Francisco Opera) when they stage works by Czech composers.

For his contribution to Czech musicology and the promotion of works by Czech composers in the USA, Michael Beckerman was awarded the Bohuslav Martinů Foundation Prize in 1990 and the Antonín Dvořák Society Prize in 1991.

He was appointed an honorary member of the Leoš Janáček Foundation Board in 2003 and a year later, he was granted an honorary doctorate degree at Palacký University in Olomouc.

Miroslav Konvalina | Photo: Pavel Kachlík,  Czech Radio

The head of Czech Centre New York, Miroslav Konvalina, interviewed Prof. Michael Beckerman at the Bohemian National Hall where he received the 2021 Gratias Agit Award.

If you were to list a couple of reasons why European classical music and Czech music especially are so appreciated in the US, what would they be?

"There are several "Czech musics."  One of them is simply the sum total of all works written by composers who identify as Czech.  But another is a more select group of works that are thought of as somehow "sounding Czech" in the ears of audiences, and these make up a goodly proportion of works performed in this country.  And these latter works are valued by audiences because, although they stem from the same fundamental source as the core repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, etc., they also showcase a different aesthetic which audiences find compelling."

Tell us how you came to love Czech music so deeply. What sparked your interest in Czech composers?

"From a fairly early age I loved Dvorak's chamber music, but it was not until I went to work in a record store around 1973 that I was broadly exposed to Czech music.  One of the sales people from Supraphon Records approached me with a problem.  He had, he said, all these fantastic recordings, but no one could pronounce the names of the composers and no one knew the repertoire. Would I, in exchange for free recordings each month, listen and learn, and if I like particular recordings, try to sell them to my customers.  So that began my "romance" with Martinů and Mysliveček, Suk and Novák, and many more composers.  By the time I got to graduate school a year later--originally intending to study Mozart--I had become, at least according to my classmates though not in my own mind, an "expert" in Czech music.  As they say, all it takes is a little knowledge to know how much there is to know."

In your opinion: are there any visible trends in the popularity of compositional styles and composers that are now more appreciated than before?

"I'm not sure how much reshuffling there has been over the last two decades or so.  I suppose the most notable shift in my lifetime was the increasing popularity of Janacek, almost unknown in this country in the 1950's, and whose chamber, orchestral and operatic works have become part of the repertory.  I have hopes that composers such as Kapralová, Suk, Novák, Fibich, Ježek and many others will gain some position in the repertory, and that the quality and traditions of Czech music will be respected and treasured."

Let's look to the Czech contemporary music scene: Is it hard for the music to reach a wider audience? For instance, would you agree there are no contemporary Czech composers who are successful in having their music performed by major opera houses in the US?

"Considering, and no disrespect meant to them, that most audiences go to concerts to be entertained, and a great deal of contemporary music requires a good degree of patience and acclimation, the relationship between new music and audiences can be problematic.  I mean, not only is a piece heard for the first time something like an experiment, asking the question, "is it worthy of our time" (something not usually asked of, say, a Beethoven string quartet), but often the idioms of new music can be challenging.

"That's one reason why perhaps the most popular style of new music is, loosely speaking, minimalism.  We can add to this the fact that "modern music," if by that we mean compositions which depart from traditional tonal schemes, is already more than a century old.  So the good news is that there are many wonderful composers whose works could and should be introduced to American audiences, figures such as Ivana Loudová, Viktor Kalabis, Petr Eben, Miloš Štědroň, Jindřich Feld, and the list goes on.  Whether there are Czech contemporary operas that could or will appear at the Metropolitan Opera or other large houses in New York is an open question, but I saw a fascinating production of Mirek Srnka's "South Pole," at the Staatsoper Munich, and Aleš Březina's "political" chamber opera Zitra se bude/Tomorrow the People Will Be, is a deeply moving production."

What can Czech cultural institutions and artists do to have more visibility in the US and worldwide, extending beyond the traditional Czech musical giants of the past?

"That's a difficult question.  I suppose it probably requires some combination of "home court" and "away court."  By that I mean that it is vitally important for Czech organizations in the United States and elsewhere to nurture and encourage new artistic creations, and provide a "safe harbor" where performers and composers feel comfortable.  So, concerts, or other kinds of artistic events, featuring entirely new Czech repertory, will play a role in the process.  But it's also important to try to get pieces by Czech artists programmed in concerts and events outside of the Czech sphere, to coexist and even "compete" with other works.  I believe it is the same for those trying to advance research on Czech music.  Having specialized publications is all well and good, but we must also try to place our works in elite international journals and presses.  In the end, we are lucky to have the Bohemian National Hall and Czech Centers worldwide as our "safe harbors" for presenting Czech culture, but the job is not done until we also take our creations on the road."

How do you feel about receiving the prestigious Gratias Agit Award?

"I'm not about to write a syrupy memoir titled, "Czech Music is My Life," but Czech music has been one of the most important forces in my life.  I treasure the sounds and personal connections that have become part of my life through my study of such figures as Janacek, Michna, Dvořák, Gideon Klein, Mysliveček, Kapralová, Martinů and Pavel Haas; my personal contacts with gifted artists like Petr Eben, Rudolf Firkušnýy, Jarmil Burghauser, Boris Krajny, Michael Pospíšil, Jiří Bělohlávek, Martin Kaplan, Pepík Fiala and Jaromil Jireš; and all the many people and organizations who have helped me along the way, especially Alena Němcová and Oleg Podgorny of the Český hudební fond.  Honestly, I feel like I should be the one awarding prizes to my Czech colleagues for making my experience on this journey so incredibly rich.  And in the end I hope that this great honor, rather than allowing me to sit around saying "job well done," will spur me to continue my work around Czech music and culture with even greater energy and dedication."

Authors: Miroslav Konvalina , Daniela Lazarová
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