To describe Bohuslav’s beginning in music as “inauspicious” would be an understatement. He entered the Prague Conservatory at sixteen to study violin, but he washed out before graduation. The official record states that he was “expelled for incorrigible negligence”. Immaturity almost canceled out his extraordinary talent, but undaunted, he secured a chair in the Czech Symphony as a second violinist.
In 1923 he made his way to Paris where fortunately he found his compositional voice studying with Albert Roussel, an accomplished composer himself and a gifted pedagogue. About his time with Roussel, Bohuslav wrote, “With friendly and almost tender understanding, he divined, discovered, and strengthened all in me that was unconscious, concealed, and unknown. I went to him in search of order, clarity, balance, refinement of taste, accuracy, and sensibility of expression, the qualities in French art I have always admired and with which I wished to become thoroughly intimate.”
Bohuslav remained in Paris until the Nazis invaded. Like many artists, he fled to the United States where he became a citizen. To augment his income, he taught students in New York City, including six-time Grammy and three-time Oscar winner Burt Bacharach. He was never able to return to his native Czechoslovakia because, after WWII, the communists condemned him as an “emigrant traitor”.
During his celebrated lifetime, Bohuslav composed an enormous quantity of music – almost 400 pieces – including six symphonies, 14 ballet scores, 17 concertos, numerous operas, piano pieces, and an impressive array of smaller works. He was quite famous during his lifetime.
Written in 1932 in Paris, Bohuslav’s Serenade No. 1 demonstrates his ingenuity and his interest in exploring the potential of unusual combinations of instruments. It features a clarinet, horn, three violins, and one viola. The serenade form harkens back to Mozart, and he dedicated the four serenades, of which this is the first, to “The Society of Mozartian Studies of Paris”.
This piece exudes charm and quirky originality. It shows clarity and precision that is characteristic of French music of the period, which consciously rejected the “German sound” from across the border. It looks and sounds like a piece that would be as fun to play as it is to hear.