Robert Kurka: "The Good Soldier Schweik Suite"

The Good Soldier Schweik Suite

  1. Overture

  2. Lament

  3. March

  4. War Dance

  5. Pastoral

  6. Finale

Robert Kurka

Born: December 22, 1921, Cicero, Illinois

Died: December 12, 1957, New York, New York

Instrumentation: Fourteen winds, timpani, and percussion

Composed: 1956

Duration: 20 minutes

The SUITE was inspired by THE GOOD SOLDIER ŠVEJK, the brilliantly realistic anti-war satire by the Czech novelist and journalist Jaroslav Hašek. Written shortly after the First World War, it is essentially the story of the civilian, the common man, forced to become a soldier who must fight for a cause for which he has no sympathy. Although he is classified by his German masters ("the authorities") as "feebleminded" (that is, someone who doesn't quite appreciate their reasons for waging war), Schweik is, in reality, crazy like a fox, exposing the arrogance, stupidity, and hypocrisy of these "authorities" by his seemingly idiotic behavior. In spite of the indignities to which Schweik is subjected, his optimism manages to emerge indestructible and triumphant. He is, therefore, not only a single individual, but also the symbol of the common people and their resistance to a war which they can derive no benefit, only suffering.

Each of the six short pieces which comprise the SUITE represents a general idea or theme which reoccurs throughout the book, rather than any specific episodes. Thus, the OVERTURE is a character sketch of Schweik, the good-natured common man, the genial collector of homeless dogs. The LAMENT represents the element of sadness and seriousness which underlies many of the episodes, such as the outbreak of war. The MARCH, of course, represents the soldier's chief means of getting from place to place - Schweik does quite a bit of it. The WAR DANCE represents the "authorities," both civilian and military, and their fanatical pounding of the war drum. The FINALE is Schweik's optimism, triumphant and indestructible in the end.

- Robert Kurka

Curiously, Kurka omits any mention of Movement V... "Pastoral" is an ironic title. The movement's musical weight in no way brings to mind a peaceful idyllic scene of shepherds tending their flocks. Rather, it depicts the oppression of the common man, the "shepherd" in the role of serf.

- Jeffrey L. Traster

Kurka was very close to his Czech roots and grew up on Jaroslav Hasek's great novel, The Good Soldier Švejk (the Czech spelling), which was published in 1920, 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 Švejk. Seemingly guileless and simple-minded, always eager to obey, Švejk 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 Švejks." 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. 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." 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... 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.

- Joseph Stevenson

I. Robert Kurka, The Good Soldier Schweik Suite

The Atlantic Sinfonietta, Andrew Schenck, conductor

II. Robert Kurka, The Good Soldier Schweik (Opera)

Chicago Opera Theater Ensemble, Alex Platt, conductor

Additional Resources:

- 2010 UMWO Blog Post

- Robert Kurka (Wikipedia)

- The Good Soldier Švejk, by Jaroslav Hašek (Wikipedia)

#kurka #umwo #programnotes

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