10 Of The Greatest Czech Composers You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Amazing composers have sprung up in various countries around the globe. The Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia is no exception. These are 10 of the greatest Czech composers of all time.

1. Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves in 1841.

The Romantic Era composer was showing signs of being musically gifted by age 6.

He started as a violinist, but he didn’t start having his own pieces performed until 1872.

Just 2 years later, he began to receive international recognition.

Dvořák entered Austrian composing competitions and excelled, winning in 1874, 1875, and 1876.

Composer Johannes Brahms was on the board along with music critic Eduard Hanslick.

They were both so impressed with Dvořák’s work that they helped to get his music heard outside of Czechoslovakia.

Once achieving international success, Dvořák did some international travel.

He began premiering his pieces in various European countries and even spent a few years living in the US.

Dvořák composed some pretty diverse music including choral pieces, symphonies, chamber music, and operas.

His passion was writing for string instruments which led to him composing quite a few pieces for string quartets and quintets.

Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” is one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music of all time.

Some of his other great works include “String Quartet No. 12,” “Slavonic Dances,” and “Cello Concerto.”

Dvořák’s health began to decline in the early 1900s.

He returned home during this time and was living in Prague.

He died from flu complications in 1904.

2. Bedřich Smetana

Bedřich Smetana

Bedřich Smetana was born in Litomyšl in 1824.

Smetana was a composer by nature.

He started premiering his pieces when he was only 6 years old.

The composer was a pioneer of his style and is sometimes called the father of Czech music.

While globally, most consider Dvořák to be the most influential Czech composer, locally, most would argue that Smetana takes that title.

Despite his strong start, Smetana didn’t receive much support in Prague so, in 1856, he decided to travel to Sweden for more opportunities.

He returned to Prague after 3 years to find his wife’s health declining.

His music continued to get mixed reviews throughout the entirety of his career.

He’s best known for “Má Vlast” and his opera The Bartered Bride.

Even as his health went downhill, Smetana continued composing.

During this time, he received more recognition than at any other point in his career.

In the early 1880s, Smetana had a mental health crisis, diagnosed as senile dementia, from which he never recovered.

In 1884, this led him to be institutionalized.

He died of syphilis a few months later.

3. Leoš Janáček

Leoš Janáček

Leoš Janáček was born in Hukvaldy in 1854.

Like many great composers, Janáček showed musical talent from a young age, starting with choral singing.

Shortly after beginning to study music, he proved to be a very talented pianist as well.

In the early 1870s, he decided to commit to music composition.

Janáček was a huge fan, and later friend, of Dvořák.

A lot of his works were actually inspired by him.

While there was a decent amount of deviation, Janáček primarily wrote choral and piano pieces since those were his own affinities.

However, his operas were some of his most renowned works; starting with Jenůfa.

Some of his most popular works include Káťa Kabanová,The Cunning Vixen, “String Quartet No. 2,” and Glagolitic Mass.

In August 1928, Janáček came down with pneumonia while on vacation.

He never recovered and died within a couple of weeks.

The 74-year-old composer’s final opera, From The House Of The Dead, was found finished at the desk that he died at.

4. Bohuslav Martinů

Bohuslav Martinů (CC BY-SA 3.0 CZ)

Bohuslav Martinů was born in Polička in 1890.

He was a sickly and shy child with a strong passion for the violin.

Many musicologists argue that Martinů likely had ASD.

He started performing public concerts by the age of 15 and began releasing his compositions in 1907.

While he was musically trained in romanticism, the Modern Era composer broke away from those roots early and created his own style.

The prolific composer released over 400 pieces including chamber music, concertos, orchestral works, ballets, operas, and more.

Martinů moved around a decent amount in his career having spent time in Prague, France, and the US.

His most beloved pieces include “Symphony No. 4,” “Violin Concert No. 2,” and “Memorial to Lidice.”

Martinů developed gastric cancer and died in 1959 in Switzerland.

His remains were moved back to his hometown of Polička, Czechoslovakia; where they remain to this day.

5. Julius Fučík

Julius Fučík

Julius Fučík was born in Prague in 1872.

A student of Dvořák, Fučík was a multi-instrumentalist who played bassoon, violin, and various percussion instruments.

Fučík was known for his marches, waltzes, and polkas.

He is often compared to John Philip Sousa stylistically.

Fučík’s most popular pieces are “Entrance Of The Gladiators” and “The Florentiner March.”

The composer moved around a little but struggled to find success in larger cities away from home.

Fučík’s success was mostly in Prague and Berlin.

Fučík’s health and success both declined at the beginning of World War I.

In 1916, Fučík died at the young age of 44.

The cause of his death isn’t known for certain, but it is widely believed that it was a heart attack that took his life.

6. Jan Dismas Zelenka

Jan Dismas Zelenka was born in Louňovice pod Blaníkem in 1679.

The Baroque Era composer began as a musician who played the now obsolete violone.

His earliest known composition was from 1704, but even that is incomplete so it’s unclear exactly when Zelenka began composing.

Zelenka was known for writing creative harmonies in his pieces.

He composed mostly sacred music; primarily masses, hymns, and litanies.

The composer spent most of his career in Vienna and Dresden.

While many of his works have been lost to the ages, some of the most influential pieces remain.

These include “Sub olea pacis et palma virtutis,” “Missa Votiva,” and “Missa Sanctissimae Trinitatis.”

Late in life, Zelenka became rather close with fellow composers Bach and Telemann.

He died of dropsy near the end of 1745 when he was 66 years old.

He had no next of kin so his estate was bought by the Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony.

7. Jakub Jan Ryba

Jakub Jan Ryba

Jakub Jan Ryba was born in Přeštice in 1765.

The classical composer was also a teacher to make ends meet, but his true passion was music composition.

Ryba wrote almost exclusively secular works; particularly masses and pastorellas.

His most famous piece is “Czech Christmas Mass,” which is sometimes referred to by the alternative title “Hey Master!”

“Czech Christmas Mass” is still commonly played worldwide but this is the only piece that’s regularly circulated today.

Ryba struggled with his lack of money, success, and support.

The exhaustion of it all got to the composer and he ended up committing suicide in 1815 by slitting his throat with a razor blade.

8. Josef Mysliveček

Josef Mysliveček

Josef Mysliveček was born in 1737 in Prague.

The classical composer is known for being a mentor of sorts to Mozart.

For this reason, many of Mozart’s early pieces are compared to those of Mysliveček.

Mysliveček started his career as a miller like the rest of his family since they owned a prosperous mill.

However, he decided to leave the family business to become a classical composer in the early 1760s.

Mysliveček spent most of his career as a composer in Italy, rarely returning home to visit Prague.

Since he came from a wealthy family, he never took on a formal position as most composers do.

The prolific composer created diverse works including opere serie, symphonies, oratorios, chamber music, and concertos.

Some of the composer’s most cherished compositions include “6 String Quintets,” Il Bellerofonte, and “Isacco figura del Redentore.”

Even though he was successful, Mysliveček was known for being financially irresponsible and not very good at fostering relationships.

This led to him dying broke and alone in 1781.

The cause isn’t known but is believed to have been syphilis based on some of his letters to the Mozart family.

9. Vítězslava Kaprálová

Vítězslava Kaprálová

Vítězslava Kaprálová was born in Brno in 1915.

She was the daughter of the composer Václav Kaprál and the singer Viktorie Kaprálová so music ran in the family.

She was a conductor in addition to being a composer but, unlike most composers, she was not known to play any instruments herself.

One of the few female composers, Kaprálová composed pieces of all sorts.

Some of her most beloved works include “Military Sinfonietta,” “Dubnová preludia,” “Trio for Oboe, Clarinet, and Bassoon,” and “Waving Farewell.”

She was considered to be a prolific composer during the relatively short time that she was active.

Kaprálová had an unfortunately short life.

She fell ill and was misdiagnosed with miliary tuberculosis.

This led to her passing not long after in 1940 at only 25 years of age, only a couple of months after getting married.

10. Petr Eben

Petr Eben was born in Žamberk in 1929.

The modern composer started learning piano, cello, and organ in his youth.

His musical journey was halted in 1943 when he was captured by Nazis.

He was imprisoned in Buchenwald until the end of World War II in 1945.

Eben started studying at the Prague Academy for Music upon being released.

Shortly after, Eben began composing; releasing his first piece in 1950.

After his experiences during youth, Eben refused to join a political party in his adulthood.

This limited his opportunities for advancement through much of his career.

However, it didn’t stop him and his music still became famous worldwide.

Eben spent his entire adult life composing pieces of all sorts.

Some of his most recognizable works include both of his organ concertos, “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” “Posvátná znamení,” “Apologia Socratus,” Kletby a dobrořečení,” and “Pražské nokturno.”

Petr Eben lived a relatively long life until his passing in 2007.

At 78 years of age, Eben died of a stroke.

Summing up the Best Czech Composers

Few could argue that the Czech Republic has produced many talented composers over the years.

Whether you prefer classical or more modern music, there is no shortage of musical talent coming out of this great country.

We hope you enjoyed reading about each composer and recommend you check out more of their music on spotify or youtube.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.