Pavel Haas: My Yearning Keeps Me Awake (1/3)

In case of the Suita op. 17, Pavel Haas leaves us with one us the most puzzling pieces in oboe literature. The more answers it gives, the more questions are posed by it. What remains for us is nothing more than a fragment – yet, just the way Haas revisits the Suita in his last recorded oeuvre proves, which key position it must have had for him.


The Munich Agreement from 29th September 1938, which commanded Czechoslovakia to surrender the Sudetenland to the Third Reich and vacate it within ten days, was a shock for the country. It was concluded by the heads of state of the Third Reich, Italy, France and the United Kingdom: Hitler, Mussolini, Daladier and Chamberlain – without consulting the Czechoslovakian government at all. The British and French governments hoped to appease Hitler with this policy and thereby avert a potential war. Nevertheless, this agreement also meant a de facto end of multinational Czechoslovakia. Thousands of refugees coming from the border regions overcrowded the inland and the public cultural life came to a preliminary halt. At this point, Pavel Haas lived and worked in Brno as a freelance composer and had already established a name for himself through numerous commissioned pieces for radio and television and the Brno Theatre. Moreover, as a student of Janáček, he became his predecessor as chairman of the “Klub Mährischer Komponisten”. Haas must have been conscious of the issue that his being a Jew in this new political situation could mean the end of his public activities. As a matter of fact, his music aired for the last time during his lifetime on Czech radio on 28th January 1939. Already, he was looking for ways to leave the country and unsuccessfully applied for a professorship at the new conservatoire in Teheran. In his study on Tryzna, the funeral music for his late mother, he notes down: “Continuation 24/02/1939 in a difficult, very difficult time”.



Pavel Haas with his wife Soňa and daughter Olga. Source:


In March, the events come thick and fast. Haas and his wife expected an occupation of their hometown of Brno and had decided to seek refuge in Prague with their one-year-old daughter. In the meantime, Adolf Hitler had given the order to “shatter the rest of the Czech Republic” and directed to occupy the state’s rest; the occupation army arrived in Prague on 15th March – the same day as the Haas family. This, eventually, forced them to already return to Brno after just one night. There, they failed to be granted visas for the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom or the USA due to the high demand and waiting lists which meant years of waiting.


The coming months were characterised by constant uncertainty. Hugo Haas, the composer’s brother, had succeeded in fleeing to Paris with his wife. Since they had to leave behind their newborn son in Prague, Pavel brought him to Brno to stay with them. During this period, on 18th July 1939, he began composing the Suita. Already at first glance, it becomes clear that the handwritten manuscript was originally not conceived for oboe but that it must have rather been intended for voice and piano (→ confirm Pavel Haas: The Manuscript (2/3)).


It is very unfortunate that the songs’ texts have not been handed down to us. What preoccupied the composer’s mind so intensely during these months that made him set it to music? Only few passages come with short text fragments. These, however, do not suggest the content. Nevertheless, there are some musical symbols as well as notes by the composer which are unambiguous: Haas cites two very old hymn tunes, which both possess a very strong symbolic power. Almost the entire composition is steeped in the Saint Wenceslas Chorale (Svatováclavský chorál). It is a medieval hymn with roots dating back to the twelfth century. This sacred song, a simple intercession to Saint Wenceslas, who is the patron saint of Bohemia, developed into the symbol of Czech statehood and the protest against foreign rule. Lastly, it was even discussed whether it should become the national anthem in the beginnings of the Czechoslovakian state in 1918. Moreover, in a prominent part of the second movement, Haas employs the Hussites’ most significant battle song “Ye Who Are Warriors of God” (Ktož jsú boží bojovníci) – a clear symbol for (military) resistance and a national struggle for freedom.


Haas uses different parts of the Saint Wenceslas Chorale at innumerable key points; at first, hidden in the first movement, e.g. already in the first four notes of the oboe part or in the last beats of the piano postlude as well. In the second movement, then, it becomes more specific: Here, a significantly longer section forms the motivic material of the lyrical middle part.



Saint Wenceslas Chorale in square notation (lower half of the page). Source:


During the period of the composition of this movement, major events, which directly influenced the score, took place. The oppression of the Jewish population began having a direct impact on the life of the family. They were deprived of their livelihood because Haas’ wife Soňa had to close down her doctor’s practice. Pavel’s possibilities to privately teach were becoming more and more scarce and his music could not be publicly performed anymore. When all radios have to be handed over, Haas writes in the scores: “Today, we have to hand over our radio (for ever) 29/09/39”. First and foremost, the German attack on Poland took place and thereby started the Second World War. The aggression against Poland was already over by the beginning of October and as a sign of their victory, the Germans commanded a bell-ringing in Brno. Haas notes down at the end of the second movement: “04/10/39, today, they ring the victory over Poland”.


Bell-ringing, war-related events as well as turmoil of war – all of it is audible in the score. All of a sudden, the fragment of the Saint Wenceslas Chorale emerges. It develops an intoxicating maelstrom, until, even more unexpectedly, the Choral of the Hussites breaks out from the events. Here, Haas employs the same version as Smetana in his cycle Má vlast (my homeland) – maybe as a support for the fighting Poles or as a call to resist in his own country? Yet, as soon as it emerged, it perishes in the chaos. Now, Pavel contrasts this mazy, migrant structure with a distinct symbol: The last movement begins with the complete citation of the Saint Wenceslas Chorale. Not a single beat of this movement is not derived from the Choral and ultimately, Haas drives it to develop apotheotic power – like a most intimate prayer.



Pavel Haas’ Suita op. 17 and the Saint Wenceslas Chorale


Therefore, the Suita can be regarded as a symbol for freedom, or also for hope for protection of his country. Maybe, this also explains why no text has been handed down: Did Haas not note it down in the score in order to hide it from the occupants? Perhaps, this circumstance lead to the music finding its contemporary form for oboe and piano. Lastly, Haas, in his last preserved oeuvre, a few months before his death, refers to the Suita and leaves us one last hint for the interpretation of this piece (→ confirm Pavel Haas: Songs from Theresienstadt (3/3)).

translation Martin Schlünder


sources / further reading

Lubdomír Peduzzi. Pavel Haas. Leben und Werk des Komponisten. Hamburg: von Böckel Verlag 1996

Klaus Döge. Pavel Haas. in: Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Zweite, neubearbeitete Ausgabe, hrsg. von Ludwig Finscher, Kassel u. a. 1999