Petr Eben

Petr Eben
22.01.1929 - 24.10.2007
Period:Contemporary classical music


Petr Eben (22 January 1929 – 24 October 2007) was a Czech composer of modern and contemporary classical music, organist and choirmaster.

Born in Žamberk in northeastern Bohemia, Eben spent his youth in Český Krumlov in southern Bohemia. There he studied piano, and later cello and organ. The years of German occupation and World War II were especially difficult for him. Although Eben was raised as a Catholic, his father was a Jew and in 1943 Eben was expelled from school and interned by the Nazis in Buchenwald for the duration of the war.

After the war he was admitted to the Prague Academy for Music where he studied piano with František Rauch and composition with Pavel Bořkovec. He graduated in 1954. Beginning in 1955 Eben taught for many years in the music history department at Charles University in Prague. In 1955 he was appointed to the staff of the Music Department of the University of Prague. From 1978 - 1979 he was professor of composition at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester. In 1990 he became professor of composition at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and President of the Prague Spring Festival.

Throughout his life Eben refused to join the Czech Communist Party and continued openly attending church, thus forfeiting many career advancements. After the Communist government crumbled, however, he was given several important appointments and awards, among them presidency of the Prague Spring Festival (1989) and the Medal of Merit (2002). Among Eben's most important late works is his 1992-1993 oratorio "Posvátná znamení" (Sacred Symbols). Despite declining health from a stroke in his final years, Eben remained busy, composing mostly organ and choral works. He died in Prague on October 25, 2007.

Eben's works are often performed in both Europe and overseas, especially in the USA, Canada, Japan and Australia. In 1991, Petr Eben was awarded the title of Knight of the French Ministry of Culture, Arts and Letters. Since 1989, he was honorary president of the Society for spiritual music. International Petr Eben International Organ Competition has been organized since 2004 in Opava.

Eben was a productive composer of music in several genres. Eben's earliest large works included his 1954 First Organ Concerto (the Second came in 1984) and Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1960–1961). Petr Eben produced a substantial output largely of vocal, choral, symphonic, piano, and chamber works, but the majority of his works is represented by organ music. Among his most important commissions were the oratorio Apologia Socratus, the ballet Curse and Benediction (Kletby a dobrořečení), written for the Holland Festival 1983, the orchestral works Hours of the Night (Noční hodiny) and Prague Nocturne (Pražské nokturno), for the Vienna Philharmonic, the Organ Concerto No. 2 for the dedication of the new organ for Radio Vienna, the mass Missa cum populo for the Avignon Festival, the oratorio Holy Symbol (Posvátná znamení) for Salzburg Cathedral, and the Church Opera Jeremiah. He also wrote some enchanting children’s songs such as Sníh, a song about snow which won an award for Best Children's Choir Song in Illinois.

Eben was considered a master at improvisation on the organ and piano, but composition remained his main area of interest. His music has been widely performed and recorded since about 1980, with his popularity still apparently on the rise. Stylistically, his musical language can be considered as "neoexpressionistic" in many ways, however in some works we can hear some kind of new forms of impressionistic tendencies. He is usually compared with Olivier Messiaen (what confirmed relatively frequent combination of those two composers in organists recitals and on discs), but in other than organ works remains less experimental.

The majority of Eben's works has been published by Czech label Supraphon. Some recordings of his organ pieces were performed by himself. The Norwegian organist Halgeir Schiager has recorded five CDs of Petr Eben's organ music on Hyperion Records. The German organist Gunther Rost has recorded 6 discs of Petr Eben's organ music on label Motette. The interpretation recorded on this CD-SACD series was largely influenced by the composer's personal suggestions and comments. The series compiles all of Eben's works for solo organ which have been published to this date, played by Gunther Rost on various contemporary instruments. The speaker in both cycles, Job (vol. I) and The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart (vol. V, which will be published in 2006)[dated info], is the late Gert Westphal, one of Germany's most important contemporary reciters. Some of his CDs feature works by Sieglinde Ahrens. Petr Eben's Moto Ostinato from "Sunday Music" is played by English organist Gillian Weir in her "The King of Instruments" series (Priory Records' PRDVD 7001). The Canadian organist Philip Crozier, playing the Fulda Cathedral organ, has also recorded a number of Eben's works on the Azimuth label.

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