The Chorale Fantasy I (‘O Boze veliký’) is based on a chorale published in 1659 in the Amsterdam Hymn Book by the bishop and pedagogue Jan Amos Komensky (1592–1670, also know by his Latin name Comenius). He set a new Czech text to an old Polish hymn of repentance (‘Almighty God, all beings obey Thy laws, and must sing Thy praises at all times’). I, however, adhered to the content of the original text, which begins: ‘Mysl, covece, vzdycky, jak smrt bere prec vsecky’ (‘Remember, O man, at all times, that death snatches every man away’).
Thus the introductory forte plunges in two waves down into the low piano regions, in which the theme of the chorale is quoted twice. The sombre, threatening sextuplets lead into a series of variations (as yet without mixtures), which develop into more and more agitated rhythms as the crescendo increases. These rhythms should never be allowed to lose their impetus or develop into a scherzando; the staccati should retain something of the nature of a Dance of Death leading to the strict repetition of the chorale in the final forte–fortissimo.
By way of contrast I chose an entirely different type of chorale of the Chorale Fantasy II (‘Svatý václave’). It is one of the oldest Czech melodies, probably from the thirteenth century, although judging by a comment made by the chronicler Benes Krabice z Weitmile it may well go back to the twelfth century. It is an invocation of the Czech national patron Saint Wenceslaus (‘Saint Wenceslaus, forefather of Bohemia, our prince, intercede for us with God and the Holy Spirit’); the hymn was always sung at the coronations of the Bohemian kings and is still sung in church today. With the exception of the short, quiet trio in the middle section, this piece is full of solemn emotion and majestic in character and can to some extent be registered with festive reed stops; the motifs are similar to fanfares and the rhythms are often reminiscent of the sound of drums.
The second Fantasy was originally an improvisation made for a recording to the memory of Jan Palach after his tragic death in 1968.
from notes by Petr Eben © 2005
English: Roland Smithers