Petr Eben

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Petr Eben (Žamberk, 22 January 1929; died Prague 24 October 2007) was a Czech composer and organist. Many musicians think of him as the most important Czech composer of the late 20th century. He was known world wide for his organ playing. He was especially good at improvisation.

His Life[change | change source]

Eben grew up in Český Krumlov in south Bohemia. He learned to play the piano, and later the cello and organ. Because his father was a Jew he had to leave school in 1943 and spent the rest of the war years in concentration camp in Buchenwald. In the camp he saw many terrible things, including graves into which the Nazis were throwing lots of murdered Jews. These terrible things influenced his music in later years. He had a strong faith and this helped him to survive during 40 years of living in Czechoslovakia under communist rule.

After the war he went to Prague Academy for Music where he studied the piano with František Rauch and composition with Pavel Bořkovec. In 1955 he got a job as lecturer at Charles University in Prague. He stayed there until 1990. He was the country’s best composer, and he should have had promotion, but the communist politicians did not allow this. He went to church every Sunday with his family. This did not help his career in a communist state.

After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when his country became free from the Soviet Union, he started to become a national hero. He was made Professor of Composition and president of the Prague Spring Music Festival. Many music festivals performed his compositions, and he traveled to hear the concerts in spite of the fact that he was starting to become ill. His music was often played in England, where he had spent two years as professor of composition at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester from 1978 to 1979. In March 2007 the BBC Symphony Orchestra under their Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek performed his Vox Clamantis, a work he had written in 1968 which shows the Czech people’s longing to be free.

His compositions[change | change source]

Eben continued during his lifetime to develop the style of music in which he wrote. He was interested in Czech folk music and he wrote down many folk songs that he heard in Moravia. He listened to plainchant in church music. All this helped him to develop his own style of composition. He is best-known abroad for his organ music, especially works such as Musica Dominicalis (Sunday Music) which includes a popular piece called Moto Ostinato. Other organ works include Faust (1980), Job (1987) and A Festive Voluntary which is a set of variations on the tune of Good King Wenceslas, written for the reopening in 1986 of the organ at Chichester Cathedral which had just been restored. He also wrote a lot of music for orchestra as well as chamber music. He composed some beautiful music for children’s choir, including church music called Liturgical Songs.