UK composer Julian Anderson on his symphony inspired by Josef Sudek’s photos of Prague

Julian Anderson, one of the most distinctive composers of his generation, has never been to the Czech Republic, yet he knows more about the country than the vast majority of Brits. Although he has never set eyes on Prague, he has fallen in love with the city and is currently composing a symphony about it. Called Prague Panoramas, it was inspired by Josef Sudek’s black and white photographs of the city, and is due to premier this spring in Prague’s Rudolfinum Music Hall.

Jaromír Marek, Czech Radio’s correspondent in the UK, paid a visit to the British composer to discuss the symphony as well as Julian Anderson’s long-time fascination with Czech music and culture.

“This isn’t my first piece about Prague. I wrote a piece in 1996 for a string orchestra called Past Hymns. A friend of mine showed me a beautiful black and white photograph of the Jewish cemetery in Prague.

“I am Jewish and I was extremely struck by this. I didn’t know about that cemetery before. I was very impressed and wrote a very violent and tense piece for strings about that.”

Julian Anderson has never had any family connection to the Czech Republic. His father’s family came to Britain from Lithuania and his interest in Czech music is purely instinctive, he says, triggered by his father’s great love of Dvořák and Smetana.

“He collected many recordings of Supraphon from that time. One of the first that I heard was a piece that I now realize is not very well known. It was the Fourth Symphony, which Dvořák withdrew and hadn’t published during his lifetime.

“My father had a recording of Czech medieval melodies, which I have known since I was three.”

“But I know it well, even better than the very famous latest symphonies of Dvořák, because of this recording. I think it was Václav Neumann conducting the Prague Symphony Orchestra.

“Also, the covers of Supraphon records were full of photographs of Czechoslovakia, very vivid ones of Prague and Brno and countryside photographs around Hukvaldy.

“I remember the symphony by Honegger, which had this wonderful panoramic photograph of Prague on the front and it said in Latin: Prague, the Queen of Music, which I think was rather nice.”

Despite having no links to Czechoslovakia, Julian Anderson recalls a strange episode from his family’s life which involved his father, a well-known microbiologist, and a Czech man who turned out to be a spy:

“There was some episode, where someone from Czechoslovakia made a contact. He visited quite a bit and even came around to dinner to our home. I can’t remember the details of how but they discovered he was a spy and he had to be thrown out.

“But not before they had actually taken photograph of his notes. There was somebody in the lab who read Czech and was able to translate that professor Anderson was married, had three sons and I was one of them.

“The funny thing is that we lived literally round the corner from the Czech ambassador’s residence in Hampstead, so one imagines that this person was probably reporting back to him.

“But we still have this very elegant glass cut ashtray that this man gave to my parents when he was visiting.”

Through his father, a music lover and an amateur violinist, Julian Anderson discovered not only the music of Antonín Dvořák, but also the works of other Czech composers.

“My father had a recording on Supraphon of Czech medieval melodies and it had two hymns Svatý Václave, which I have known since I was three.

“Janáček came later. There was a huge explosion of interest in Britain in Janáček mainly due Sir Charles Mackerras, who really convinced us to love Janáček. And when we decided to love him, belatedly 50 years after he had visited this country, we then never let go.”

During his teenage years, he also discovered the music of Bohuslav Martinů. It was after hearing his Fourth Symphony, he says, that he fell in love with his music:

“Martinů has been a huge influence on my work. I got to know his symphonies and his operas Julietta and The Greek Passion. I also knew about his friendship with Vítězslava Kaprálová, or in fact more than friendship, who was an amazing composer in her own right.

“So it’s sort of now part of my DNA, you could say, just because it was music that I have known and loved all my life. And when I started to try and write music, I think it was pretty much because of that music.”

Anderson says it was not only Czech music, but Czech culture in general that has always surrounded him, mentioning his love of Švejk or the paintings by Antonín Slavíček. But it was not until 2005 that he first discovered the black and white photographs of Josef Sudek:

“I saw a photographic exhibition in London where there was this strange elongated book in the middle of a room in a glass case and I thought: What’s that book?

“And I looked and saw the most beautiful black and white panoramic photographs of Prague by Sudek, who I didn’t know anything about until then, and I immediately fell in love with them.”

“You don’t have to know anything about Sudek to appreciate the music, I hope.”

The book in question was Prague Panoramic, which was first published in 1959 and then in 1992. It is considered to be Josef Sudek’s masterpiece and is still highly valued among collectors.

Many years later, Anderson finally acquired a copy of his own. It was at that time that he was approached by Semyon Byčkov, who was just appointed chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, with a request to compose a symphonic piece for the orchestra.

Anderson immediately got back to him, saying that he wanted to write a symphony about Prague, inspired by Josef Sudek’s panoramic pictures of the city and the specific look of those photographs:

“Sudek was using a Kodak panoramic camera, which was from about 1894 and which was by the time he used it long time out of production. He had to get film manufactured specially to fit it.

“It had a lens which turns 180 degrees from left to right and the image that comes out has no focal point. Everything is in focus. And that is what struck me when I saw these photographs.

“It was the breadth of them, the incredible sharpness of the image which is in a sense slightly surreal, because you don’t see things that way. There is no vanishing point, like in a normal perspective.

“And when I looked at them, I thought it looked like a symphony orchestra, which is a huge semicircle. And then I began to hear sounds in my head, my imagination.”

Julian Anderson has been working on the piece on and off for about two years now. He says the pictures don’t cease to fascinate him and whenever he looks at them, he finds something new:

“It is, you could say, programme music, in a way. It is illustrative music, but I would say it’s a little like music with dance, which I have written many time. Good dance music is music which is good even if there is no dance.

“So I would say the same with my Sudek piece, with my panoramic symphony. It can be considered totally without any knowledge of Sudek and it should make musical impact with that.  You don’t have to know anything about Sudek to appreciate the music, I hope.”

Anderson says there are also other things from Czech culture that infiltrated his Panoramic Symphony, or Symphony N. 2. He was inspired by Czech Youtube Channel Honest Guide, created by Janek Rubeš and Honza Mikulka, which he has closely followed since the pandemic.

“They made a crowdfunding campaign to make a replacement bell for one of the churches in Prague. It was lacking a bell since Nazi time, because the Nazis melted the bell down for ammunition. They eventually went to Innsbruck to get the bell from a local factory.

“They processed the bell across the Charles Bridge and struck it before it was put up in the belfry. I took the recording of the bell and analysed it using a computer programme and that has infected the harmony in my symphony quite a bit.”

The other event that inspired Anderson’s symphony is when the Honest Guide creators planted new grass in the little square facing Prague’s Dancing House, which has been trampled down by tourists taking photos of the famous building.

“At the height of lockdown to see this grass growing was something symbolic, something very aspirational. And at the end of that video, Rubeš sang a tune I didn’t know, Travička Zelená, which is I think a children’s song. I liked it and that features in my finale.

“But I have to say I changed it quite a lot, so people probably wouldn’t hear it that way. I think what they will hear more in the piece are the two Svatý Václave melodies. As I say that’s really because I just knew those as a kid, which is kind of strange, so the whole story is strange, if you ask me.”

If everything goes according to plan, Julian Anderson should finally visit Prague this April, to attend the premier of his new symphony Prague Panoramas, performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at the Rudolfinum.