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František (Frank) Slavík and his Compendium

by Jan Matys

Dipl. Ing. František Slavík (1911 – 1999), by profession specialist in processing of ceramic materials, devoted about 40 years of his life to the viola d’amore. He didn’t treat this instrument as a historical instrument, but he tried to put it across as a fully valuable modern instrument, capable of further development. His endeavors to achieve top virtuosity and fully utilize tone potentialities of the viola d’amore are incorporated in Concert Preludes (Caprices) by him.

Being son of a prominent industrialist, he studied commerce in parallel with music – the violin class at Prague Conservatory in the class of Prof. Rudolf Reissig, composition privately at Josef B. Foerster. He started to play a marvelous viola d’amore, contained in his father’s collections. After the communist upheaval in 1948 his father’s factories were etatized and František had to move to the border region and do some unqualified job. Nevertheless, thanks to his friends, he was later offered to solve a risky strategic task and after having solved it successfully, he won the State Prize. Since then, he could travel abroad and he utilized his business trips also for propagation of the viola d’amore via concerts, lectures and teaching students, mainly in Germany, Bulgaria and India. In 1984 Mr.Slavík attended the Viola d’amore Congress in Stuttgart, where he performed his brilliant Capricces and String Quartet by J.V. Stamic for viola d’amore, violin, viola and cello that he found in Kromí Archives. Fr. Slavík also cooperated with Czech composer Jan Novák on his composition “Orpheus e Euridice” for voice, viola d’amore and piano.

F. Slavík summarized his articles on viola d’amore in his Compendium of the Viola d’amore, originally written in German and translated later in English by Jan Matys (revised by Mr. & Mrs.Thomasson). The Compendium, a “handbook for higher-striving students”, covers a wide range of problems showing author’s profound knowledge of many disciplines – history, musicology, mechanics, acoustics, psychology, composition and education. The explanations (60 pages) are accompanied by many pictures, tables and music examples. As a supplement, there are Study Tables for daily training, and the Concert Preludes by the author. The book was edited privately, a few copies are deposited at Universitní knihovna (University Library) and at Ceské muzeum hudby (Czech Museum of Music) in Prague, where one can also find the Slavík-Achive.

The spectral range of the viola d’amore lies much lower (than that of violin) causing a softer and less striking tone. The best instruments always have a rich and carrying tone, due to the amplification of the strings’ aliquot tones by individual parts of the body that vibrate in various modes generating a spectrum of characteristic frequencies. A good viola d’amore has a homogenous spectrum lying in the higher frequency range, while a bad instrument has an inhomogeneous spectrum shifted to the lower frequency range.
The richer is an interpreter’s spirit, the more he seeks and finds. This is what determines the interpreter’s general standard, i.e. his conception of the work and his ability to become its co-author. Few people realize, how long and thorny the path is from technical perfection to real mastery. The life of an interpreter is a life of constant self-education; this is the only way an artistic personality can mature. Paradoxically, an interpreter must find his artistic spirit through an apparent de-personification. “Concertare” – to fight – a performing artist undertakes a permanent fight, primarily that with himself.
In the literature for viola d’amore, chords are quite a common means of expression. This is related to the fact that the “flat” bridge of the viola d’amore (small bow-angle differentials) enables playing three tones at once, i.e. playing unbroken chords. To play, however, one must properly choose the bow/string contact site, which depends on the length of the stroke…
In contrast to violin or viola, the viola d’amore enables chordal playing on its 7 strings that obeys rules of either classic, or modern harmony. For this reason, the harmonic component of music is more important here. If one excludes homophony and church singing, every simple melody achieves its effect after harmonization.


A Decalogue of a viola d’amore player:

1. It is better to take a rest than to practice thoughtlessly
2. If you must concentrate on execution, you haven’t finished your studies of the work yet

3. Constantly pay attention to intonation!

4. Any tension in any body part is harmful

5. Elasticity of the left hand’s fingers is more important than their pressure
6. As you are getting on in years, you must devote more time to the bow-technique
7. You should keep bow-rustle down by observing the bow/string contact site

8. Play by memory all the studied material, not only works intended for performance!

9. The fuller your fortissimos and the finer your pianissimos, the stronger will be the impression on the audience

10. Autosuggestion is the best means against stage-fright

Sound tracks:

1. F. Slavík: Cadenza to Concerto No.1 by Karel Stamic
2. Vítzslav Novák: Melancholic Serenade, arr. Rudolf Reissig

3. F.Slavík: Caprices, “Double Trill”.
4. ----“----: Caprice, Thema con Variazioni

5. ----“----: Caprice, Toccata

Rudolf Reissing was a soloist, chamber musician, conductor and teacher. He also concerted on viola d’amore and was probably the one, who induced Janácek’s passion for this instrument


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