The birth of Hlahol dates back to 1860 when restoration of Austrian constitutional life gave an impulse to lively expansion, when contemporary political events were followed in quick succession by various events of national importance in the public and cultural sphere. These were the years of construction of the building of the Czech National Theatre, of emancipation of music and of the concert stage, of the foundation of societies dedicated to the enrichment of the national revival.
Hlahol was founded by Jan Ludevít Lukes, famous Prague singer and brewer, whose private choir transformed, at the beginning of 1861, into a public society – and performed for the first time under the name of “Hlahol” (the occasion was the funeral of the poet Václav Hanka in January 1861). At that time it had 120 members, all men.
In 1862, the Czech national painter Josef Mánes drew the Hlahol standard bearing the slogan “Sing to reach the heart, the heart to reach the motherland”, invented by Josef Sklenář, then a student of law.
The first choirmasters were J.L.Lukes and Ferdinand Heller, renowned author of the Česká Beseda. The first elected president of the choir society was an aristocrat – count Rudolf Thurn-Taxis.
The choirmasters in 1863 were F. Kaván and B. Smetana, and in the following year F. Heller and B. Smetana. Hlahol moved to the “Queen of England” house in Široká street (today’s Jungmannova).
Directed by P. Křížkovský, Hlahol performed the conductor’s imposing cantata Cyril and Method in Brno in 1863.
Po Smetana was followed as conductor by Karel Bendl, who was then 27-years-old. His term was marked by a decline in the number of parties and festivities and focus on the true mission of the society – singing (in the artistic sense of the word). The then president of the Hlahol society, Josef Huleš, was also Prague burgomaster. The first female “reinforcements” joined on March 9, 1873, when the mixed choir sang Dvořák’s “Hymnus”.
The soirée in the New Town theatre on May17,1870 was organized on the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone of the National Theatre, where Smetana’s “Rolnická” was performed. Besides Hlahol, 211 other song choirs took part in the performance celebrating the event.
In May 1872, Hlahol went on tour to Dresden at the invitation of the Czech Vlastimil choir. Hlahol gave its own concert for a wide German audience and decided to donate the revenue from this concert to the pension fund of the Dresden opera choir.
In 1876, JUDr. J. Fleischmann was elected president of the society; in 1877, the choirmaster was 24-year-old Karel Knittl. Hlahol moved into the building of the St Wenceslaus Insurance Company in Řetězová Street, and from there into the Douša building on Wenceslaus Square. Knittl deserves great credit for the establishment of the women’s choir – called the “Ladies Section” – incorporated into Hlahol in the autumn of 1879. The number of female members rose to 143; the male choir had 200 members.
Knittl’s era culminated with the performance of Dvořák’s Stabat mater (30.11. and 2.12.1884) and Berlioz’s Requiem (19. and 26.4.1885). Other important performances were Dvořák’s Wedding Shirt (8.11.1885), Fibich’s Spring Romance (3.6.1886), Bendl’s Christmas Eve (also 3.6.86) and Klička’s Funeral at Kaněk (12.12.1886).
Hlahol serenaded Tchaikovski during his visit to Prague in February 1888. In return, the Russian composer promised to compose a new choral for the choir, which he eventually did send with Bendl.
In 1886, the emperor awarded the choir with the “Literis et artibus” gold medal.
In 1889 Hlahol performed Dvořák’s Mass in D major (25.3.) together with Schubert’s Song of Spirits over Water and Mendelssohn’s Motette for three female voices.
A large assembly of choirs was held on the occasions of the Ethnographic Exhibition in Prague in 1895. The first prize from among 13 participants was awarded to the Pilsen Hlahol, Vinohrady Hlahol and the Svatopluk choir from Uherské Hradiště. Klička resigned as choirmaster in 1897 (the year when Bendl died). Knittl once again conducted the choir in the four years that followed; in 1901, however, he became the administrative director of the Prague conservatoire and resigned, for the second time, as choirmaster of Hlahol. Hlahol was then conducted for two years by K.Douša, followed by Adolf Piskáček, who performed Berlioz’s Requiem, Bach’s Mass in H minor and Beethoven’s Missa solemnis.
In 1901 Hlahol went on tour to Zagreb, and in 1910 to Ljubljana.
The most important event of Piskáček’s term, during the presidency of Antonin Adámek, was the construction of Hlahol’s own building. In November 1902 the board proposed the purchase of a plot (which occurred on September 25, 1903) and adopted the plans of board member and architect F. Schlaffer including ornaments designed by J. Fanta. Both did the work for free.
Construction started on May 3, under the guidance of master-builder Č. Gregor. The first rehearsal of Hlahol under its own roof took place on September 18, 1905. The opening ceremony took place later, on November 4 and 5, and was celebrated by a concert and ball at Žofín island (November 4, 905) and Sunday mass in the Týn church. At 11 a.m. the building was solemnly handed over to serve its new owner. The interior design of the Large Hall was complemented in 1921 by Alfons Mucha with his last large major work – the lunette “The Song” (not however installed in the Hlahol building until 1934).
From the architectonic point of view, the Hlahol building is one of the purest and most prominent art nouveau monuments of its kind. The embankment façade is decorated with two large mosaics and boasts original carved doors; the rear, restored façade bears the name HLAHOL executed in large gold letters. Due to their significance and original decoration (including the busts of choirmasters and individual pieces of furniture), the premises of the Hlahol choir were declared a monument of cultural heritage.
Piskáček was an extravagant and generous figure, so in 1911 a competition was announced to find a new choirmaster. It was won by the 29-year-old choirmaster of the Vinohrady Hlahol, Jaroslav Křička. The latter conducted Hlahol for 9 years, including the period of the Great War. He produced the Missa choralis by Franz Liszt, Dvořák’s Hymnus, Novák’s Tempest and Wedding Shirt, Fibich’s Spring Romance, the lyrical oratorium Les Béatitudes by César Franck and Dvořák’s Requiem and Bach’s cantatas.
Hlahol sang at the funeral ceremonies of Czech poets and artists Sládek, Vrchlický, A. Bráf, Mikuláš Aleš, and of the 88-year-old founder of the choir Ferdinand Heller, of the composer Malát and former society president V. Srb.
As choirmaster, Křička insisted strictly on punctuality and discipline – two prerequisites for the successful outcome of artistic activity. Serious misdemeanours were punished, sometimes by erasure from the membership list.
The tension between choir members and choirmaster (who demanded individual tests of all singers) resulted in Křička’s resignation in June 1920. But it is his merit that Hlahol continued to perform as a mixed choir.
A tour to Yugoslavia took place in 1921. The choir sang Foerster’s Czech Song and From the Fate of Hands and Great, Wide, Homeland Fields, Vycpálek’s Our Spring and Křička’s Advent and Old Town Tower.
In December 1921, 50-year-old Jaromír Herle was called in from Vienna, where he headed the Lumír choir, to take up the baton. Among the Hlahol performances at large funerals, ceremonies to commemorate František Ondříček on May 2,1922, in the Pantheon of the Regional Museum, funerals of A.Heyduk and A.Rašína in February 1923 deserve special mention. In 1925, the choir society exceeded the number of 1000 members.
In 1927, Hlahol went on tour to Frankfurt am Mein, with a stop in Nuremberg; in 1952, the choir toured Yugoslavia to attend the Slavic festival held on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Glasben matica society in Ljubljana. Eight concerts were given during the tour.
In the 69th year of Hlahol, Herle recruited, as his assistant, choirmaster P. Miloševič, a Yugoslavian, to be followed two years later by composer and pianist Josef Stanislav, and, in its 74th year, by Dr Václav Smetáček, conductor and oboe player, former 1st choirmaster of Typografie.
The 70th year of Hlahol was the year of the 60th birthday anniversary of Vítězslav Novák. His Two Ballads for a Mixed Choir and Orchestra (Ranosha and the Enchanted Daughter) and the Wedding Shirt were performed.
During the 75th season (1935-1936), the Council of the Capital City of Prague awarded the Hlahol society the Sucharda commemorative plaque for meritorious work for the country and nation. The president of the society received the plaque from the hands of the Lord Mayor of Prague K. Baxa.
Hlahol, too, had a jubilee plaque made for this occasion. The plaque, which was the work of prof. J. Drahoňovský, was then donated to Hlahol’s honorary members, clubs and corporations.
The celebration of the 60th birthday of the president of the society J.Stanislav was an occasion of the first performance of the children’s choir.
Choirmaster Václav Smetáček had a very keen interest in Czech chorals and capella music.
After the outbreak of the 2nd World War, the activities of the mixed choir subsided. The choir developed artistically under the communist regime, but there was little contact with other countries; the Hlahol building fell into disrepair.
A permanent museum of Hlahol society souvenirs, documents and trophies was installed on the first floor of the house on the embankment.
In 1941, the Hlahol board purchased equipment for reproducing gramophone records and had it installed in the rehearsal room. The loudspeaker was used both to listen to recordings of classical cantatas and oratoria, and to play light dance music during Hlahol parties and the social gatherings of the Community Department.
Dvořák’s jubilee culminated with the performance of the complete St Ludmila oratorium on June 7, 1941. On January 13, 1941, the Hlahol board decreed that the male choir should abandon the use of aristocratic dress suits as concert attire and in future perform in dinner jackets. A fun boat trip to Zbraslav was organized for members on June 28, 1941.
On November 10 and 11, 1942 Hlahol performed the Mass for the Organ by F. Liszta (in Leoš Janáček’s arrangement). December 18,1942 was the day of the first performance of Křička’s “Thyme” and “Angelus”.
The extraordinary rehearsal on June 11,1943 was used as an occasion to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Hlahol’s international triumph at the singing competition in Amsterdam, where it had won the first – most cherished – prize in the mixed choirs section.
Alas, an official inspection of the premises on September 27 and 29 resulted in the issue of a notification by the Regional President in Prague to immediately vacate the hall, cloakroom and all amenities, the gallery, office and meeting room, which were then allocated to the Todt – Einsatzgruppe VII, Oberbauleitung organization in Prague IV.
Hlahol found temporary accommodation from October 20,1944 in Štěpánská Street 35.
This was when choirmaster Vratislav Vycpálek started giving courses of children’s choral singing, attended by 164 children. At the end of the successful course the children went on a boat trip to the Vranská dam.
Hlahol got the keys of its building back on January 8 and 9, 1945, and on January 1, 1945 rehearsals started “on home soil”.
But the bad days were not yet over. On April 20, 1945 the defense department of the Prague city authority sequestered the hall and cloakroom for the Odkolek company to store flour there.
On May 9,1945 Hlahol took part in a large national rally in support of the Czech border region of Červený Hrádek near Chomutov, a place where in 1938 the decision had been made “about us without us” and where the secession of the border regions from the republic had been designed. On September 15, 1945 the “Czech Song” was sung, besides the national anthem, in the Tyrš building, at a gathering of the Czechoslovak Sokol Community held in memory of Sokol founder Miroslav Tyrš.
After a long absence, Hlahol was invited by Czechoslovak Radio to record Foerster’s oratorium “Saint Wenceslaus”on September 23, 1945.
Dr V. Smetáček resigned, and with him his deputy J. Bubeníček. After another conductor crisis, this time concerning A. Dolinský, a new conductor was appointed at the end of 1945 – professor Cyril Pecháček.
The 70th anniversary of the death of F. Palacký on June 8,1946 was celebrated by the performance of Praus’s “Choral of the Czechs” and Smetana’s “Solemn Choral” and “Prayer”.
Immediately after the revolution, Hlahol donated 12,000 crowns for the restoration of the Old Town Hall and 5,000 crowns to the composer B. Krawec, who had lost all his belongings as well as the manuscripts of his compositions in the bombing of Dresden.
The mixed choir, under the direction of J. Kasal, sang at the opening of the “30 Victorious Years of the U.S.S.R.” exhibition at Myslbek pavilion on Na Příkopě Street.
As a part of the Prague Spring festival, Hlahol performed A. Dvořák’s oratorium “Saint Ludmila” on the third courtyard of Prague Castle on May 15, 1948. Six other choirs took part, accompanied by the Czech Philharmonic orchestra combined with the FOK orchestra and conducted by R. Kubelík.
The men’s choir together with other Prague singers sang at the funeral of president E. Beneš on September 8, 1948. They choir sang the Praise of the Merciful Lord on Tylovo Square, behind the National Theatre.
The new choirmaster Z. Tomáš (born 1915) was assisted from March to September 1948 by Jan Kasal, the second choirmaster. On September 27, the latter, however, joined the Orchestra Association of Prague Teachers. Z. Tomáš proved his abilities as the principle of the music school in Rakovník and the conductor of the amateur opera in that town.
The Hlahol rehearsal on May 21,1948 was visited by its former second choirmaster in Herla’s time (1929-1931), P. Miloshevich, a Yugoslav, currently professor of the Belgrade Academy of Music. He was greeted with a song after which he conducted Smetana’s “Motto”.
On May 10, 1949 Hlahol, together with other singers and conducted by Z. Tomáš, sang Smetana’s Freedom Song at a charity concert dedicated to the restoration of the Prague Emauzy complex that had been badly damaged by aerial bombing.
On May 28 to 29,1949 Hlahol toured the Karlovy Vary and Mariánské Lázně spas. There were some 180 participants.
On June 20,1951 Hlahol performed in the Wallenstein gardens, singing Dvořák’s hymnus “The Heirs of White Mountain” under the direction of J. Stárek.
The house in Liliová Street, which Hlahol received as a legacy, was in the end donated to the State. Hlahol was, in fact, forced to do so, because the revenue from concerts and from rent of Hlahol properties did not cover the cost of maintaining this building.
There was also no possibility at all of organizing competitions of contemporary choir music, which had been one of the main cultural missions of Hlahol. This role was assumed by other institutions – especially the Union of Czech Composers, where however there was no interest in composition of new choir music. The formerly regularly allotted subsidies from the government also stopped in the new era.
On October15, 1951 Z. Tomáš produced Dvořák’s “Wedding Shirt” cantata.
On September 19, 1952 Hlahol, together with the FOK orchestra, prepared a joint celebration of the 70th birthday of professor Jaroslav Křička. The orchestra, under the baton of dr. V. Smetáček, performed Křička’s overture “The Blue Bird” and his 1st Symphony “Youth”; the second part of the concert was conducted by Z. Tomáš and included Křička’s “Moravian Cantata”. The composer then conducted Smetana’s “Motto”.
The main event of the 93rd season (1953-54) was the autumn concert on November 23 and 24,1953, when H. Berlioz’s “Faust” was performed.
On July 1,1954 Hlahol became the choir of the Municipal House of Enlightment (Městský dům osvěty, MDO), a situation which lasted until the 98th season (1958).
Financial difficulties and adherence to a balanced budget was but one problem. Another was ideology – the involvement of Hlahol in public and political life.
June 30,1951 was the last day of business at the pub in Hlahol’s property in Vojtěšská Street. The tenant withdrew from the lease and, since there was no new tenant interested in keeping the pub open, the Prague district authority cancelled the license issued in the name of Hlahol.
Hlahol at this time had 197 members (129 women and 68 men).
However, there was no revenue from the buildings and, moreover, the latter required maintenance. At the same time, overhead costs were rising. Tickets were sold by members. The children’s choir was self-sufficient only thanks to the fact that its members paid an enrolment fee, which then paid for the rehearsal costs. The Hlahol budget was very tight and its repertoire started becoming one-sided, purely classical, with the dominance of church choirs and, only as a kind of appendix, folk songs.
November 19 and 20, 1956 saw the performance of Liszt’s “Die Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth ” oratorio conducted by Z. Tomáš. Alas, this event resulted in a loss of 630 crowns. But none of the non-professional Prague ensembles could afford to present such a great work..
M. Venhoda followed professor M. Doležil as choirmaster of the Prague Teachers Choir and resigned as head of the Hlahol children’s choir. He was replaced by Čestmír Stašek, thereto choirmaster of the Prague Children’s Choir of the Central House of Pioneers in Prague – Vinohrady.
The Hlahol rehearsal rooms were used also by the Orchestral Association of Prague Teachers and, temporarily, by the Bohemian Singing Choir. Dance courses and exercise sessions of Z. Zabylová’s ballet studio took place there as well.
The premier of the cantata “War and Peace” by the Sorbian composer B. Krawec (1861-1948) was on January 24, 1957.
On April 23 and 26, and on May 2,1957 Hlahol performed Rossini’s opera “William Tell”.
Choirmaster Z. Tomáš proposed the establishment of Hlahol’s own orchestraas an independent section of the society, to function on an amateur basis, yet to be proficient enough to accompany the choir during most of its performances. This is a similar milestone in the history of Hlahol as had been the addition of the female choir to what had originally been a purely male Hlahol choir.
Hlahol had 206 performing members (146 women and 60 men). The numbers of singers in individual voice categories in the female choir were 47, 30, 40, 29; in the male choir 14, 15, 18, 15. The symphonic orchestra had 70 members.
In 1959, Hlahol lent the score of Dvořák’s “Requiem” to Solothurn in Switzerland, where the work was produced thrice by the local orchestra and choir.
On June 8 and 4,1960 Hlahol produced the populist “Evening of the Most Beautiful Waltzes”, which turned out to be an erroneous repertoire policy. The performance was conducted by Z. Tomáš. Hlahol gave the same performance for the participants of the Spartakiada mass calisthenics festival on June 14, at the Prague Střelecký Island.
G.F. Händel’s oratorio “Alexander’s Feast” was performed on February 1961 and conducted by J. Kasal.
On March 27,1961, the Hlahol orchestra, conducted by Z. Tomáš, performed three concerts by L. van Beethovena and the piano concert in A Major by F. Liszt.
The general assembly of the society elected the new president of Hlahol on June 16, 1961 – dr. František Šišma, who remained in this post until 1972. In 1961, Hlahol issued its new badge designed by the sculptor Arnošt Košík.
In 1962, Hlahol rehearsed Verdi’s Simone Boccanegra. It also produced Kabeláč’s works for the children’s choir and the mixed choir and the Maryka oratorium by the composer Hurník and, in 1965, Händel’s Messiah and Černohorský’s Praecatus est.
In 1967 Handel produced Händel’s oratorio L Allegro.
Even at this very complicated period Z. Tomáš managed to prepare a reasonable repertoire for Hlahol and ensure a good standard.
Due to the financial difficulties of the ensemble, especially after 1970, it was not possible to give so many concerts with the orchestra and, in 1978, the orchestra had to be dissolved.
The new artistic director and main choirmaster appointed in 1980 was professor Jan Kasal. He focused on the artistic quality of the singing and capella and, infact, restored the choir to the essence of its existence. In 1982 he rehearsed B. Martinů’s “Field Mass”, and in 1983 “Opening of Springs”.
In 1984, J. Kasal founded the strings orchestra.
By rehearsing J.S.Bach’s Cantata No. 31, professor Kasal set out on a new artistic course which he had no intention of leaving. This meant that a part of the membership (mainly elder members) had to leave.
In 1986 Hlahol had 94 members of the mixed choir, 50 members of children’s choir (artistic head M. Hájek), 18 members of the chamber ensemble of Czech madrigalists (head Frant.X. Thuri). The chamber orchestra was headed by Pavel Rabas.
The Offertorium and Qui tollis composed by V.J. Kopřiva and K.B. Kopřiva was produced on April 14,1986 in the Mayakovsky Hall in Prague.
Večerní Praha published an article on October 1,1986 “”Prague Hlahol Celebrating its 125th Anniversary”.”
The chairman of Hlahol, baritone Ing. Jan Nič, has been a member of the ensemble for 66 years. He is most proud of the participation of Hlahol at the laying of the National Theatre foundation stone ceremony when, on May 15, 1867 Hlahol together with other choirs embarked on garlanded and lighted boats on the Vltava and when, on the second day, 212 singing choirs, under 81 association banners, assembled in Prague at its invitation. Three thousand singers marched in procession towards the building site of the National Theatre where they gave a concert.
The Prague of today has also had the opportunity to witness monumental concerts conducted by Jan Kasal and Jiří Bělohlávek, at which 1200 members of many ensembles sang together Smetana’s Czech Song.
On October 27, 1986 a concert took place at the House of Artists. It was introduced by dr. Václav Holzknecht. The program included works by Czech composers O.F. Korte, Jan Novák and Vítězslav Novák.
A scenic performance of a series of Czech Christmas carols was performed on December 19,1986. The dramaturg was Pavel Czikrai.
Hlahol took part in a special concert titled “The Rose from Lidice” held on May 24,1987 as a part of the Prague Spring festival and, on November 17, 1987 in the concert of choirs in the Large Hall of Slovanský Island in Prague.
M. Raichl’s “Loving without Meeting” was performed on June 23,1988 as well as folksongs arranged by P. Eben.
The long-serving Hlahol board member Karel Polák died in October 1988; Hlahol’s president Jan Nič died in November of the same year and was buried on December 27,1988 into the Hlahol tomb at Vyšehrad cemetery.
1On December 13,1988 Hlahol performed the compositions of G.M. Palestrina, D. Buxtehude, P. Eben (Carol Singers from Těšín), Kasal (This Night in Bethlehem) in Benátky nad Jizerou
The Christnmas concert took place on December 5, 1989 in the Smetana Hall of the Prague Municipal Building. The program included D. Buxtehude’s Cantate Domino, J.S.Bach’s Cantata No. 57 and Suite No. 2 in H-Minor, and J.J.Ryba’s Czech Christmas Carol.
The very successful term of professor Jan Kasal was followed in 1992 by the no less successful term of professor Zdeněk Šulc. The latter achieved recognition of the Hlahol Singers’ Society abroad, as proven by the following quote:
Article in Meridional, Journal de Marseille, on the Hlahol concert in Malaucene (France) on August 11,1995.
Malaucene hosted the Prague choir of the Hlahol Singers’ Society founded almost 140 years ago and deemed one of the most prestigious choirs in the Czech Republic. It was a moving experience to find that the choir singers are continuing a long tradition of emitting the shining light of each performed composition.
The concert program consisted of 15 works. Some very short, like the “Audite, silete” by Praetorius or Orff’s “Odi et amo”. Others were longer, like Saint Saens’s “Ave verum” or Dvořák’s “Moravian Duets” as arranged by Janáček – a series of beautiful Moravian songs, or Zdeněk Lukáš’s “Salute to Artists”. All the compositions are marked by their extraordinary emotiveness, purity and depth.
The audience were invited to meditate, moved by the noble influence of singing, or to participate in the exultation of the voices expressing, with evident spontaneity, a fervent passion.
The choirmaster Zdeněk Šulc has the ability to evoke naturally all the emotions inspired by the music. With an inherent feeling for the most refined details he guides the choir as needed, with spontaneity. His direction is never forced, it streamlines the dynamics, awakens the taste of beauty and guides the choir singers towards greater heights, as if the brilliant sound of the singing required even more radiance.
Zdeněk Šulc does not look into the score in front of him. He prefers immediate contact with the singers and streamlines the fusion of the most beautiful voices in the choir with the accuracy of a disciplined and unique interpretation.
The orchestra enters the scene.
Two surprises were prepared for the intermission. The first was the production of Chopin’s Polonaise in F sharp Minor by Karel Martínek. The young pianist was endowed with a passion that at times concealed the distinctness of notes, never however the sensitivity of expression.
And Michaela Havlíčková, the choir’s charming soprano, with a notable expression of emotion, performed Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. Another instrument of the concert, the flute, added an extraordinary radiance of joy as emitted by Fibich’s “Beatus vir”.
The two encores demanded by the enthusiastic audience culminated in a fervent “Alleluyah” to mark the end of a wonderful concert.
During his time as artistic head of Hlahol, professor Zdeněk Šulc renewed the collaboration with a symphonic orchestra composed of mainly young musicians (members of the Czech Philharmonic, FOK, SOČR). Thus the repertoire was broadened by cantatas, masses and oratoria performed both in the
Prague Hlahol Hall
, and in the Smetana Hall, the Rudolfinum and in churches and cathedrals both at home and abroad. The Hlahol repertoire also includes a large number of compositions and capellas by domestic and foreign composers. Currently, the choir has 60 members; the average age of the choir is 35 years.
Since 2001 the singing society has been headed by choirmaster
Since 2006 she has been working as the assistant choirmistress
Compiled by Drahoslav Čítek from the following sources:
- the Smetana journal (ca. 1930)
- Hlaholské jubileum (1941) [The Hlahol Jubilee] by Milada Lejsková-Smetáčková
- translation of article from the French periodical into Czech (1995), provided kindly by friar Věk
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