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Kurka: "Good Soldier Schweik" Suite

Another piece that might be unknown to people who are only familiar with the more traditional wind repertoire is Robert Kurka's Good Soldier Schweik Suite. Good Soldier Schweik draws its inspiration from a novel by the Czech author Jaroslav Hašek. You can find more information on the novel by following this link to a Wikipedia article.

Kurka, an American composer who died a tragic early death at the age of 35, composed the suite as a series of character studies based on the novel. Below are notes on the suite and the opera version by Joseph Stevenson. Kurka composed the operatic "Good Soldier Schweik" in 1958 shortly before his death (he did not witness the premiere). You can find more information on the operatic version here from the Long Beach Opera.

The Good Soldier Schweik is one of the most frequently produced of American operas. It is a tonal work in a style that is a direct descendent of the stage works of Kurt Weill, Werner Egk, Paul Dessau, and Darius Milhaud. It is tuneful, witty, and edgy, a convincing operatic presentation of the prototypical "service comedy." Robert Kurka (1922 - 1957) was a prolific composer until his untimely death ten days short of his 36th birthday. (The orchestration of the opera was completed by composer Hershey Kay.) He was born in Cicero, IL, a suburb of Chicago, the son of a Czech immigrant father and an American-born Czech woman (i.e., both her parents were Czech immigrants). He was very close to his Czech roots and grew up on Jaroslav Hasek's great novel, Good Soldier Svejk (the Czech spelling), which was published just two years before Kurka's birth. The novel is the wellspring of virtually all service comedies since then. Whenever the protagonist is a lower rank outwitting -- or just surviving -- his superiors, he is a descendant of Josef Svejk. Seemingly guileless and simple-minded, always eager to obey, Svejk accepts what he cannot change with generally good grace, but usually manages to change things to his benefit. In 1968, with Czechoslovakia briefly appearing about to prevail through its gentle revolution over the armament of the Russian Army, the Soviet general on the scene was heard to complain that the place was "Nothing but a nation of Svejks." The Czechs were proud. Kurka composed a six-movement suite in the form of character studies of Hasek's novel in 1956, scoring it for seven woodwinds and percussion. This interested the composer and the New York City Opera in the novel as an opera. Kurka completed the two-act opera -- about the length of La Bohème -- but died with the orchestration incomplete. He expanded the scoring for 16 winds, including brass but not strings. The libretto was by Lewis Allan (real name Abel Meeropol). The first performance was in New York on April 18, 1958, and seems to have been a large success. The style is brisk, jazzy, and syncopated. The dryness of sound is reminiscent of Weill's The Threepenny Opera and Mahoganny, and there are aspects of its libretto that are adaptable to Bertolt Brecht's style of theater. It calls for "singing actors." They don't often get lyrical moments (the opera can be called anti-lyrical), but they do get entertaining fast numbers and strong opportunities for comic acting. After its premiere, it was picked up almost immediately by two of Europe's greatest companies, both of them associated with Brecht: the Komische Oper in Berlin and the Dresden Opera. By the year 2000, it had received nearly 100 productions in more than 12 languages. The opera follows Schweik's adventures as he is rounded up for making "traitorous" remarks, goes through a police station, an insane asylum, a military hospital, and finally into the Army. At the end, he is marching off with his fate unknown and his name a legend.

Below is a live performance from the 2009 Marrowstone Music Festival. This recording only features the overture and more complete recordings can be found below.

Below is a link to the Naxos database available to University of Maryland students. This recording is by the Cincinnati Wind Symphony under the direction of Eugene Migliaro Corporon. There is also a link to Amazon below that where the same recording can be purchased or downloaded.

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