MARCH 2019

The one who helped Martinů to return home. Emil Leichner passed away

At the age of 80, the eminent piano teacher, pianist, former long-time member of the Board of Directors of the Bohuslav Martinů Foundation and great proponent of the music of Bohuslav Martinů Prof. Emil Leichner passed away. To commemorate his artistic legacy, we are publishing an interview by Věroslav Němec that Harmonie magazine recorded with Mr Leichner three years ago, when he was awarded the Medal of the Bohuslav Martinů Foundation.

Emil Leichner died. He had a love for Martinů and deeply human relations
Written by Věroslav Němec

He grew to fame both as an excellent soloist and much-desired chamber musician and as a superb piano teacher – he taught at the Prague Conservatoire for over fifty years and at the Academy of Performing Arts for more than twenty-five – and through the course of his long artistic and pedagogic career, he became a true legend in the Czech piano community. He also gave an extraordinary contribution to the history of Czech music as an interpreter and promoter of the compositional oeuvre of Bohuslav Martinů. He recorded almost all of the composer’s works for solo piano, all five of his piano concertos, including the Concertino; he initiated the Bohuslav Martinů Festival and its accompanying music competition, established the B. Martinů Piano Quartet, and held a post in the Board of Directors of the Bohuslav Martinů Foundation for a number of years.

You devoted yourself to Bohuslav Martinů from your days as a student at the conservatoire and remained true to him your whole life. What brought you to this composer? I come from a musical family – my father was the founder and violinist of the Czech Nonet. The ensemble’s repertoire was dominated by twentieth-century music. And because their rehearsals usually took place at our home, I heard a number of works by prominent contemporary composers practically at the moment of their conception. Thence comes my interest in modern music.  And so it was no wonder that I had been aware of the name of Martinů from a very young age. For one, it was quite uncommon, for another, my interest was piqued by the fact that Martinů was born in a church tower. But his music was hardly played at all at the time because he lived abroad, and print editions of his compositions were practically unavailable here. My affinity for the composer thus came mainly from following his turbulent life, which appealed to me. And at quite an early age I secretly promised myself that I would help him come home at least by playing his works.

Which of his works did you start with? With none other than Fantasy and Toccata. And even now I am proud that the composer entrusted me with the Czechoslovak premiere of this work. Mr Šebánek brought me the music from him. The performance earned me a personal note of recognition from the author, and the musical salutation he appended to it is a precious keepsake of mine. I included the composition in the programme of my graduation concert when I concluded my studies at the Prague Conservatoire; in fact, I even played it at the Casella Competition in Naples, with Rudolf Firkušný – who initiated the work – sitting in the jury. Personally, I consider Fantasy and Toccata to be one of the most momentous of Martinů’s piano works ever, and it is no exaggeration to say that it has been with me my whole life.

Your most important recording projects include a representative three-disc set of Martinů’s works for solo piano. Did you manage to record every single composition of his for piano?That was not really possible. For one, Martinů was a prolific writer who wrote a vast amount of piano works, and then, not all of his compositions really deserve to be revisited. Sometimes he wrote occasional pieces without any great ambition. For instance, when Martinů lived in Paris, he was often glad to be invited to dinner somewhere – and he repaid his host’s kindness by writing some minor piano piece for him. But I did not make the selection for the recording on my own, I was helped by my dear friend, Dr Jaroslav Mihule, one of the greatest experts on Martinů. He advised me on what to record and what we could do without. Nonetheless, Martinů’s major piano works are certainly all present on those discs.

So what can a listener hear on your recordings? The composer’s late Piano Sonata No. 1 could not have been left out, for sure. I must add that Martinů never wrote any other piano sonata. Besides Fantasy and Toccata, it is the composer’s second most momentous piano work. The author dedicated it to the famous pianist Rudolf Serkin, who appreciated it so much that he included in his recitals alongside Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata. Special note should certainly be made of the Puppets cycle, which is extraordinarily pure music in both style and expression and very popular with pupils of music schools. Martinů composed Puppets while enamoured with Impressionism, but the cycle certainly does not feel Impressionist at all. Whereas Butterflies and Birds of Paradise, which comes from the same period as Puppets, sounds like it was some Impressionist piece by Debussy. Martinů composed it after visiting the painter Max Švabinský, who owned a collection of exotic butterflies and birds-of-paradise. The composer was enchanted by them. He dedicated his piano cycle, inspired by the collection, to Švabinský’s wife Ela. Three Czech Dances are clearly a nod to Smetana, but it is interesting to compare how Czech folk dances were approached by Smetana and how the same dances were reflected by Martinů less than fifty years later. Czech folk dances also influenced the cycle Borová, whereas Eight Preludes, which are from the same period, already include Blues or Foxtrot. We can hear jazz inspirations in Three Sketches as well. The pre-war Windows to the Garden is imbued with the Martinůs’ summer stay in Vieux Moulin, France, where they had a beautiful view of a garden full of roses. The brilliant six-part Ritornellos were avidly promoted by Rudolf Firkušný. And another of the composer’s masterpieces can certainly be found in Etudes and Polkas, which enjoy extraordinary popularity among pianists, both for their exquisite instrumental texture and for their impressive, demanding technique.

Besides solo compositions, you also recorded all five of Martinů’s piano concertos and his Concertino. In no other field of the composer’s oeuvre, in my opinion, does his artistic evolution show so vividly than in the case of these five piano concertos. The first four came about gradually in almost regular ten-year intervals between 1926 and 1956. Each of them represents both the various periods of their composition and the different stages of the composer’s life. I think that it will not be making too far-fetched a claim if I call the first piano concerto “Czech”, the second “French” (with the charming Concertino in close vicinity). the third “American”, and the fourth – Incantation - “otherworldly”. Martinů could not wait another ten years to write the fifth piano concerto, titled Fantasia concertante, so he composed it a mere two years after Incantation. Its poignant second movement is streaked with the presentiment of imminent death. I recorded the concertos with the Czech Philharmonic and Jiří Bělohlávek. It was a magnificent collaboration, and I gladly remember it to this day.

Martinů’s name also appears in the piano quartet that you founded together with your father. That is quite an interesting history. In 1964, when I was studying at the Academy, my classmates and I – the violist Josef Čurda and the cellist Antonín Duda – decided that we would like to do some chamber music. And we invited my father along, who had just concluded his participation in the Czech Nonet. And so the original Bohuslav Martinů Piano Quartet was made. We received permission to bear the composer’s name from Mrs Charlotte Martinů herself, and of course I carefully preserved her letter, in which she gave us her approval. It was an enormous win for us that Dad accepted our invitation and joined us. He had enormous performative experience from the Czech Nonet, which he had led the whole time, and lots of personal connections all over the world. We played together for about ten years and toured the whole of Europe. Then Dad died and the ensemble disbanded.

But the B. Martinů Piano Quartet still exists today. A peculiar coincidence occurred. We were recording the complete Beethoven piano quartets for Supraphon with members of the Vlach Quartet – the violinist Josef Vlach, the violist Josef Koďousek, and the cellist Viktor Moučka – and my colleagues enjoyed the cooperation so much that we continued the collaboration with the same line-up as the B. Martinů Piano Quartet. Those were wonderful times. The members of the Vlach Quartet were so perfectly coordinated that it was enough to meet up and play through what was needed – without too much rehearsing. This second phase of the Martinů Quartet was short lived, unfortunately – Koďousek left, Vlach died, and it was just Moučka and me. But in the end we were lucky enough to find new colleagues: the violinist Antonín Novák and the violist Karel Špelina. But that is also history. In the current iteration of the Martinů Quartet, I play with the violinist Bohuslav Matoušek, the violist Pavel Peřina, and the cellist Miroslav Petráš.

I guess there is no point in asking if your repertoire includes Martinů’s Piano Quartet That is of course part of our core repertoire. All in all, we mainly wanted to promote Czech music with our ensemble. Dvořák has two piano quartets, we even recorded those; Josef Suk composed a beautiful piano quartet, and an amazing quartet was written by Jan Ladislav Dusík. And of course we have played lots of works by contemporary composers: Zdeněk Lukáš, Karel Reiner, Jan Kapr, Jan Hanuš, Václav Kučera… We even initiated a number of compositions – it would be an understatement to say that we have presented new works of thirty composers. Those were not just Czechs, we also approached composers from Japan, Germany, Poland, Austria… And speaking of composers who wrote works for us, I must not forget to mention one extraordinary case: Karel Husa. It is about six, seven years back that we played his piano quartet at Prague Spring. A work in a very modern style, yet excellent music – like everything that Husa ever wrote, in fact. But I have one lovely memory specifically regarding this composer. His parents had a shoe shop in Vodičkova Street. And when I was a year old, Mr Husa presented me with shoes from their shop as a gift. And when I met with Karel Husa many years later, when he came for his first post-revolutionary visit to Czechoslovakia from America, he said: “Oh. So that’s you. You’ve grown a fair bit. I wonder if you know that I sent you shoes years ago? I wonder if they gave them to you?” He hadn’t forgotten! He had kept this tiny incident in his memory for all those years.☺

Your biographies state you studied at the Academy under two of our legendary pianists – František Rauch and Josef Páleníček. That was an excellent period of my life. We had more of a family relationship between us.

How long did you stay under the one and the other? They had a joint class, so I studied under both of them at once.

That is very unusual. I know. But that is what they had agreed on. Because they were always gallivanting around the world – and our classes were constantly getting cancelled. So I naively hoped that if there would be two of them, I would have twice as many lessons. Wrong! Both of them just kept touring all over the world, and neither of them came to the lessons. So that’s how it was in the end. But otherwise they were amazing professionals and great people. I cannot forget them – how they were able to pass on their art. I am deeply honoured to have studied under them.

Who did you start learning the piano from? I don’t think you will believe me. As a boy, I was taught by none other than Jan Panenka! That’s how famous a teacher I had! He was about fifteen years older than me, and he was living just a few doors away from us. And I remember quite vividly that he was giving me a piano lesson just when they phoned him from the maternity ward that his son was born. Panenka also prepared me for my entrance exams to the conservatoire. I went to give it a go – and I passed. But otherwise I must admit that, like every other boy, I preferred to play football. I enjoyed that a lot.

You yourself taught many young pianists in your decades of tenure at the Prague Conservatoire and the Academy of Performing Arts. Do you know roughly how many No. I never counted them. But when you consider that just at the Prague Conservatoire, I taught for fifty years, then even if it was only two students a year, that would be a hundred. But if I was to start talking about my students, it would make for a chapter of its own. So I will at least name at least a few, because I am sure to omit many of them: Barbora Sejáková, Petr Jiříkovský, Jiří Kollert, Michal Mašek, Hanuš Bartoň, Lenka Dombaiová, Roman Timoščuk, Robert Kapr... You know, it is a wonderful thing to work with young people. Because those were never standard teacher-pupil relationships. Those were deeply human relations – because you see those students twice, thrice a week for a number of years, you empathise with their woes and joys. In short – it is nice to be with them…