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Today at Twilight



I got a last minute invitation to a special pre-Christmas concert this evening. The Brno group Javory (Maples) was performing at the Svratka kino in Jundrov this evening. (You can enjoy their vintage velvet curtains in the picture at left, as well as the sponsor's sign.) Their December concerts very popular and usually sell out in advance, but I have connections, you know, and was able to get in. The group is basically centered around the siblings Hana and Petr Ulrych, who were joined by a cimbalom player, violinist, and bassist. Their music doesn't appeal to everyone, but it's very popular in Brno and around the Czech Republic. It's a rather eclectic mix of acoustic folk, Moravian folk, chansons, opera, and a bit of choral singing thrown in. They have also been featured recently as the basis for the orchestra in two musicals at the Brno City Theater, so there is even a bit of musical theater.

Most of the pieces were Christmas-related. Most Moravian traditional Christmas music is about virgins giving birth (not always explicitly to Jesus either, it seems), and somehow the songs also seem to usually work in well-trodden paths, though it is presumably not the virgins who are walking them as the virgins are always white and clean. Other popular songs were the group's famous pieces, which are mostly songs that the Ulrychs have made famous over the course of their careers. Many of these songs are about nature (trees, water) and folk customs, some are based on traditional texts, and others (e.g., "Sumaři, Sumaři") use texts by Czech poets.

The Ulrychs are, as the cliché goes, living legends. What's more, they are Brno legends.* They have been singing together since recording one of their first songs together in 1964 at Czech (then Czechoslovak) Radio Brno. Petr also composes songs, and his pieces have been some of their biggest hits.

Their Brno roots go somewhat deep. Their father, Jaroslav Ulrych, was a tenor in the Brno opera. And they are also known for combining traditional Moravian songs with early-Beatles rock and roll (or "bigbeat" as it was called in Czech) and, later on, with other styles influenced by American folk and country music.

Their album Nikolas Šuhaj loupežník (Nikola Šuhaj the Outlaw, released 1974 on Panton) is known as their first "exploration" into Moravian folklore. The songs on the album loosely follow the events of the title character of Ivan Olbracht's novel of the same name, which was, it is claimed, based on a real-life robber in Transcarpathia (today a province in western Ukraine but when Olbracht was writing it was the Romanticized frontier at the far eastern end of interwar Czechoslovakia). The songs also formed a musical about Šuhaj; this has recently been produced at Brno's Městské divadlo (City Theater) in collaboration with Stanislav Moša. (The Šuhaj story was also the inspiration for another famous 1970s musical in Brno with music by Miloš Štědroň.)

In Ulrych's version of the Šuhaj story, Nikola's ballad Až jednou červánky (When someday at twilight) is the emotional centerpiece. Nikola has been magically immune to the bullets of the police who are hunting him, but after offending a forest spirit, he loses this immunity and is vulnerable to their bullets. He knows this and, sensing that he will soon be shot, sings a message for the birds to deliver to his mother. In 1974, this song was recorded with a chamber group from Brno Radio's folk instrument ensemble led by Jindřich Hovorka. It was a nicely done slow piece that had a lot of simple harmonies, violins, and a few cimbalom sections.

But the version for Javory, which was probably done for the City Theater's musical, is by far my favorite, and they sang this version tonight. The instrumentation is much simpler, just cimbalom, guitar, and voice. It begins very quietly with voice and guitar, moves into a more flowing section for both voice and cimbalom, and closes with a sung verse accompanied only by plucked cimbalom (a very soft timbre). The arrangement is cheesy but affecting, and I've cried before while listening to it. Petr Ulrych's voice is dry, but has just enough color to really make the song work. Tonight's performance was memorable.
Až jednou červánky
potkáte mamičku
vzkažte že nepříjdu
po lesním chodníčku;

Vzkažte ať zajde si
zvečera do hory
že ju tam žežulka
ode mě pozdraví;

Vzkažte ať nepláče
že jenom chvílenka
a život uplyne
jak bystrá voděnka.



When one day at twilight
You meet Mom
Tell her that I won't be coming
Along the little forest path;

Tell her to stop by
The mountain in early evening
And that the cuckoo
Will give her a greeting from me;

Tell her not to cry,
That only a short moment
And life will pass by
Like a quick stream.

It's been an emotional last few days and somehow this seems just the thing. You'll have to pardon the rough translation in English, which really does not truly convey the sentiment of the Czech version. The English here sounds a bit trite and infantile while I think the Czech does not sound that way, but you'll have to take my word for it.


*They are so famous, in fact, that Moravian Television (better known as MTV) was even there to interview them. Probably the biggest happening in Jundrov (a distant suburb) since last Christmas.
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