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Meet the Composer: Vaclav Nelhybel

Instrumentalist Staff | March 2020

From the July 1982 issue of The Instrumentalist.

    Vaclav Nelhybel is a favorite composer among student musicians and is also a colorful guest conductor. He has written some of the most widely played instrumental works, such as Trittico, Sine Nomine, and Symphonic Movement for band. Players delight in his inventive rhythms and use of antiphonal choirs.
    Nelhybel (whose full name is pronounced VAHTS-clahv NELLY-bell) was born in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) and studied music in Prague, even though his parents tried to discourage him. His main instrument was organ, but he also studied many others (everything, he admits, except double reeds, saxophone, percussion, and string bass).
    He gained valuable orchestration experience when he was house composer for Radio Prague, and he later got to experiment with electronic music while writing film scores as musical director for Radio Free Europe. He came to the U.S. in the late 1950s and it wasn’t long before he "discovered" music education and began writing for school groups.
    A dynamic man with a great sense of humor and dozens of fascinating anecdotes, he continues to be "interested in anything and everything."

What kind of musical opportunities did you have in school?
    Absolutely none. Some students took private lessons, but there were no orchestras or any organized ensembles. I recruited my own group at the boarding school where I stayed so I could learn how to compose for an orchestra. At the same time I was devouring books about music, harmony, and counterpoint.

All on your own?
    Yes, because I had no teacher, and my parents did not want me to go to the conservatory. I went to the university first in about 1938 and studied musicology. My parents thought I was actually a philosophy student.
    But this was at the time of the Second World War, and Hitler soon closed the university. Then I was accepted as a student at the conservatory. It was an oppressive period musically, because Hitler wasn’t allowing performances of works by Jewish composers, American composers, Stravinsky, or even Debussy and Ravel.

When did you write your first professional composition?
    I was about 19 when I first heard the Czech Nonette, a woodwind quintet plus violin, viola, cello, and bass. I like the combination of instruments and so I wrote something for them; it was my first composition to be played by professionals.
    From then on things seemed to go very fast. I had many compositions performed, including a combination ballet-opera when I was 27 years old. Once you get public recognition, commissions start coming in and everything rolls along.

Why did you start writing for school groups? Well, in about 1962 when I’d been in the U.S. for five years, someone dragged me to my first music education convention. I was fascinated with what I heard, especially the bands, which were a new medium for me. In Europe bands are just functional marching units.
    The first band I heard played a piece by Persichetti, and it was so good I just caught fire. I was fascinated with the possibilities of what you can do with half an acre of clarinets, half an acre of flutes, and half an acre of percussion. So I said, why not try it? I did, and it seemed to open new creative channels in my mind. What really inspired me was the great enthusiasm of the students, and after I visited a few schools I tried writing one or two pieces for them.
    The first piece was Chorale, the second was Prelude and Fugue, the third was Trittico. By then I was hooked forever on writing for students. I was also hooked because of the enthusiastic reaction from band directors; I especially love the way they all refer to "my kids," never to themselves.

You never studied percussion yourself, and yet your writing shows such great insight into what it’s like to play the instruments. How did you learn that?
    When I was first starting to write for bands I experimented with a band at a school in New York City. I realized that when the percussion stops, the whole band stops. The percussion preserves the pulsation of the music. Very often composers use percussion as a kind of counterpoint against the rest of the band. What I did differently was to treat the percussion as a partner on the same level with the melody instruments. I never use percussion just to make noise or to cover something up – it is carefully chosen for structural reasons.
    Percussionists tell me they like my music because they feel they are doing something important in it. Many of them have said, "You know, when I start playing, I feel as though the whole band is turning around to listen to me." That’s happened often, with many different instruments. Music with interesting parts can make the players feel important.

Do you mean that everyone is a soloist at one time or another?
    Not necessarily an actual soloist, but one who feels like a soloist. Once a young boy came up to me at a rehearsal and said, "Thank you for writing that solo for me." I thought he was a horn player or something, but it turned out that he was an alto clarinet player. Just because his part was slightly different from the third clarinets, he thought he had a solo part.

How do you begin writing a composition?
    I am a composer 24 hours a day. I don’t have certain hours when I sit down and say, "Now I will compose." I am always collecting ideas, and I keep them in about 300 folders according to instruments, structure, rhythm, and so on.
    How do I start a composition? There are two ways. First, if someone comes to me requesting a piece for string quartet and orchestra, certain channels in my brain are activated. Practically speaking, I will go home and take out my string quartet and orchestra idea folders, and see what happens. When I look over the ideas I immediately tune into something. That’s why I’m a composer and not a bricklayer.
    It is different every time. Sometimes the melody comes first, other times the harmonic structure, orchestration, or rhythmic pattern. I just start putting it all down on paper. Finally I sketch it out somehow, and then I put it away for awhile.
    At first I have created a chunk of music. Then I begin to think about the musicians. I go back to make sure I didn’t neglect the tenor saxophone or something. I think to myself, this player is sitting here and he hasn’t played for 25 measures. Should his entrance be here or there? Loud or soft?

Do you compose at the piano?
    No, I compose completely without piano, so when I write down something, it’s always specifically for xylophone, trombone, clarinet, or tuba. Whenever I conceive a musical idea, I think of it in terms of the tonal color of a specific instrument.
    As for musical material, I have always liked to incorporate modal scales, going back to Gregorian chant. My music also has always had enormous fluency with rhythm and meter; even in a simple piece the time signatures may constantly be changing between five, four, six, three, two, or four beats per measure.
Have you had any "magic" moments of discovering something about music?
    I remember one, when I was rehearsing a band in a lousy little bandroom where the students didn’t know me, they weren’t playing my music, and I could hardly speak English. But I suddenly realized that I could actually move them with the music. It was a shake-up for me, a major revelation. I felt that I was really accomplishing something.
    Students have sent me thousands of letters, and I never will be blasé about them. Those letters mean so much to me. I’m close to 60 years old, but I don’t think of the students as 12 or 16. They are people who want something bigger than life. I love to turn them on, to excite them. I want to addict them to music.