Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
My primary influences are my Catholic faith and the art and folk music of the Slovacko area of South Moravia, to which I am connected through both my parents.
Teachers: the composer Miloslav Ištvan (with whom I studied at the Janáček Academy in Brno) and the way of life of St. Francis of Assisi,
From the European music tradition: Gregorian chant, Moravian folk music, the late orchestral works of Antonín Dvořák and the late works of Leoš Janáček.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The greatest challenge in my career has been (and continues to be) exploring the possibilities of unison technique since the end of the 1990s. It has also been a challenge to hide away and completely concentrate on composing to the best of my ability and as much as my own character, my family life and my teaching profession allow.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?
Without a doubt a most special experience for me was my collaboration for over 30 years with the Schubert Ensemble – both with the Ensemble as a whole and with its individual members. This collaboration brought me an independence from the music life of Brno; it is a very important thing in a composer´s life to be independent of one’s position in one’s own birthplace.
I should also mention an important collaboration in Brno throughout my whole working life with the excellent percussionist Martin Opršál
Of which works are you most proud?
My proudest creative works are my three daughters, Magdalene, Veronika and Miriam, and, at one remove, my granddaughter Julia.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
It is not easy to answer this question: I try to clear a path from the mess of complexity to the order of simplicity
Tell us more about your 24 Preludes & Fugues for solo piano. What was the inspiration behind this set of pieces? Were the templates set by Bach and Chopin influential at all?
From the very start the inspiration for my Preludes and Fugues was the Bible. From the point of view of the musical form, I was influenced more by the thinking of Anton Reicha than by the counterpoint of J.S. Bach or by Chopin’s Preludes. But everything I have written is strongly connected to the classical European tradition.
During my military service in Prague (1981-2) I wrote a single Prelude and Fugue for piano, which stands alone. In 1989 William Howard asked me to write something for him. I composed two Preludes and Fugues and the cycle continued from there. The inspiration for the cycle from the very beginning was the Bible.
Pianist William Howard has recorded the entire set. What was the experience of working with William on this music?
My collaboration with William was like my real composition degree course. Thanks to his extraordinary patience in studying and re-studying my endless corrections, I had the chance to pursue and to develop my own musical imagination – and not just in writing for piano. But certainly it also helped me to develop a new feeling for piano composition, which has continued in further piano pieces (a left hand piece for Steve Warzycki and my 6th and 7th Sonatas, both for William), and has influenced other aspects of my composing. William’s experience as both a soloist and a chamber player has given him a sense of colour and a rhythmic precision that you can admire in the recording of the Preludes and Fugues.
As a composer, how do you work?
I try to imitate the great composers of the past, composing every day, but the result is a bit different. They wrote hundreds of fantastic pieces in an extraordinarily short time. I add five bars in the morning and cross out seven bars in the afternoon every day…
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I remember some successful premieres (my piano quintet ‘Royal Funeral Procession on Iona’ at Wigmore Hall with the whole Schubert Ensemble, the premiere of my Third Symphony for piano and strings at Dartington with William at the piano, the UK premiere of the Preludes and Fugues at St. Giles, Cripplegate in London), some great occasions, friendly audiences, nice reviews, perfect recordings, ongoing collaborations with musicians…. but then I think of Schubert and of Van Gogh and reflect that there are other ways to define success in the world of art. Maybe for the composer success is also the perfect score, the ideal piece, without the need for any response from the world around. And for a painter it is the ideal picture, regardless of how it is perceived in the artist’s lifetime.
What advice would you give to aspiring composers?
1. Write the first version of your pieces by hand. It is all too easy these days for us to become greatly estranged from our own work.
2. Rewrite pieces by classical masters (e.g. Perotinus, Bach, Webern). By following every note of their scores your imagination will develop and you will be able to compare your own solutions and your own ideas with their way of thinking. I am worried that two thousand years of well-tried and tested techniques are in danger of being lost.
3. Maintain a basic classical music education; play a string instrument and sing in a choir. When composing you can easily lose connection with live instrumental and vocal performance.
4. Do not interpret your own music! Sit in the audience and listen. Players have quite different worries from composers.
5. Sit at home and work every day. Do not organise performances of your pieces – they will come by themselves.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?
In the Czech Republic, programmes for bigger ensembles and for orchestras could be improved – they repeat famous pieces from famous composers again and again. They should play more early works by well-known composers (e.g. the early symphonies of Dvořák and Ives…..) and they should perform more early music on modern instruments (e.g. Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Bach…..). Glenn Gould showed us how to play this repertoire on a modern instrument in his recordings of early music.
What are your most treasured possessions?
My faith, my family, my musical gift.
Pavel Zemek Novák’s “dazzlingly original” 24 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano is now available in a newly published edition, available as a digital download from Music Haven Ltd. Find out more
Pianist William Howard has recorded the 24 Preludes and Fugues on the Champs Hill Records label