Jaroslav Jezek

Jaroslav Ježek [1906-1942] was an important composer, performer and conductor during the inter-war period in Czechoslovakia.  As leader of the Ježek Big Band and composer for the Liberated Theater, his popularity was immense.  Forced to flee Prague ahead of the Nazis in 1938, he settled in New York where he composed his final works, including a compelling Sonata for Piano.  He died of kidney failure on January 1, 1942.


Ježek was born on September 25th, 1906 (the same day as Dmitri Shostakovich). He was born with poor eyesight, and a series of operations left him nearly blind for his adult life.  In addition he suffered from ear infections that impaired his hearing.  He attended a special school for the blind, where he learned to play piano, cello, clarinet and guitar.  Ježek tried to gain admission to Charles University to study musicology, but did not have the requisite background and was not admitted.  Despite his skill, he was also refused admission to the piano department of the Prague Conservatory due to his poor eyesight, but was admitted finally for composition, and he studied there with Karel Boleslav Jirák (for more on Jirák see:ák.htm#engl).

Jirák arranged for Ježek to have a stipend so he could have some experience with musical life in Paris, and it was there that he encountered jazz as played by jazz musicians, as opposed to its stylization in the works of Stravinsky, Milhaud and others.  It was also in Paris where he heard Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue which made a profound impression on him.  Like Gershwin, Ježek became one of the few composers—Leonard Bernstein, Mel Powell, and André Previn come to mind—who had double careers as composers in both “jazz” and “classical” worlds.  And it is only Ježek and Powell, perhaps, whose “classical” careers were as modernists.  Indeed, Ježek was to have close connections with two artistic movements of considerable power: Devĕtsil and the Manes group.

Ježek completed his studies with Jirák with the composition and performance of his examination piece, the Piano Concerto, in 1927.  In addition to his lessons with Jirák, Ježek also studied with Josef Suk at the Prague Conservatory, and he completed his studies there in 1929.  It was at just this time that Ježek fell in with two other artists who were to play a critical role in the remainder of his musical life.  Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich had begun their fruitful association the year Ježek finished his composition studies with Jirák.  They quickly created a trademark combination of edgy satire, comedic Dada, and virtuoso intellectual clowning that became the core of the Liberated Theater (Osvobozené divadlo).  Ježek was the perfect foil, at once perfectly pedigreed as a classicizing musician and bringing another zany personality into the mix.  Over the next decade Ježek wrote hundreds of songs for twenty different shows and reviews, as well as music for several films.  In addition to this, he kept up his career as a modernist composer with a sonata and a concerto for violin, the Fantasy for Piano and several other piano works.

In 1934 the Liberated Theater had presented Kat a blázen (The Executioner and the Fool), which was reviled in the right wing press, and marked the participants as leftists in the minds of audiences and bureaucrats.  It was certainly this status, as well as Voskovec's Jewish ancestry, that caused the trio to leave Czechoslovakia in 1939 in advance of the Nazi invasion.  After a brief stop in Paris, Ježek settled in New York where he became a piano teacher and the conductor of a Czech choir.  In poor health, Ježek composed a Sonata for Piano in 1940 and entered it in a kind of competition organized by the ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music).  Despite being informed that the piece would be performed, it was taken off the program and replaced by a piece by Viktor Ullmann.  Ježek's sonata is nonetheless one of his great works, and its fate was surely a great disappointment to him.

Ježek's health continued to decline, and he died on New Year's Day 1941 at the age of 36.


Despite a certain overlap, Ježek's works divide easily into those that are meant for the concert stage, and those that were part of the reviews and shows of the Liberated Theater.  This overlap, however, is part of Ježek's distinction as a composer, because, often, his popular songs feature certain kinds of touches usually associated with art music, and his concert works feature “jazzy” elements.

Popular Works

Ježek's collection of songs, interludes and ballet pieces for the Liberated Theater is long and varied.  Ranging from traditional foxtrots, to Latin-influenced compositions, and presented in both improvisatory and carefully composed styles, this body of work is at the very top level of contemporary European song and stands alongside the creations of Weill, Gershwin and Irving Berlin.  While it is difficult to meaningfully separate Ježek's contribution to these songs from those of Voskovec and Werich (since many are true collaborations), there are some observations we can make about Ježek’s popular style.

One of Ježek's first big hits, and a piece that remains popular today, is the Bugatti Step.  Written as a tribute to (or to capitalize on) the success of the racecar driver Eliška Junková, and her vehicle of choice, this rag-like work combines edginess and elegance.  Beginning with the klaxon horn stylizations suggesting the car itself, the piece proceeds with a theme which is simultaneously restrained and zany.  Meant perhaps to suggest the speed and sleek lines of the Bugatti, the second series of phrases creates an increasing intensity, easily read as the race itself.  Ježek's combination of traditional popular style with dissonances based on the honking horn motives that open the piece become a kind of personal signature.  Songs like “Život je jen nahoda,” (Life is Just Coincidence), Svíta (Shining) and “Tmavomodrý svĕt” (Dark Blue World) have become classics, and each of these uses this tendency to link popular song tropes with innovative harmonic designs (“Coincidence” uses parallel chords that forecast bop stylizations; the main theme of “Shining” is harmonized with a 6/4 chord; and “Dark Blue” jostles back and forth between two chords a third apart). “Dark Blue World” is considered by many to be Ježek's most personal work, autobiographical even.  The double pun of the title becomes triple when Ježek's poor eyesight is taken into consideration.  At best, the world looked “dark blue” to him.  He famously composed in a space known as “The Blue Room,” which is today a museum devoted to the composer.

Various other songs involve satire and patter, such as “Šaty dĕlaj človeka” (Clothes Make the Man), Tři Strážníci (Three Policemen) and “David a Goliaš” (David and Goliath).  The last of these, a hysterical send-up of the famous Biblical story was part of the show “Tĕžka Barbora,” (Heavy Barbara—referring to a piece of artillery, not a person…) and was presented as a clear reference to world events.

Though clearly Ježek's songs have models among the works of Gershwin and others (Svíta appears to be based somewhat on the Gershwin tune “Nobody but You”), there is a level of originality and freshness throughout.

Concert Works

Starting in the late 1920s and continuing for the rest of his life, Ježek wrote concert pieces, including works for orchestra and small ensemble and, occasionally, art songs.  From the jazzy Piano Concerto of 1927 to his final piano sonata of 1941, Ježek wrote a collection of pieces that ensure him an important position in the history of Czech music between the wars. 

Although he does not shy away from lyricism, he is not its servant.  In such pieces as the Sonata for Violin of 1933 we can hear a potent synthesis of jazz and blues, local song stylizations, both popular and “folk” and the fundamental character of what might be called “Slavonic modernism.”  This refers to a fusion of dissonant musical language with an essentially tonal vocabulary of the kind found in Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Janáček and Martinů, and Bartók.  All these composers have a tendency to avoid traditional musical notions of sentimentality.

We can hear this notably in some of Ježek's marvelous slow movements, whether the Lento e Religioso from the 1931 Wind Quintet with its alternation of funereal chorale and piercing piccolo lines, or in the exquisite blues-inflected moment buried in the center of the slow movement of the Piano Sonata, completed in 1941.  In fact, we might wonder how someone with such considerable physical challenges managed to keep his spirits up, and what he might really have thought about his lot.  This is impossible to say, but, while speculative, we may look for evidence of this in his slow movements, both in the way they are constructed and the nature of the material.  A notable example is the Sonata for Violin which has a slow movement (Lento) in the second place, followed by another slow movement even slower, a Largo!  Both of these movements are extraordinarily reflective and brilliantly uncompromising in a search for depth that is simultaneously objective and utterly personal. 

Ježek's outer movements and scherzi are brilliant in style, matching syncopations—both jazzy and folk (the Piano Sonata scherzo, the Violin Sonata finale)—with powerful toccata-like elements.