By Peter Davison
When the name of the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) is mentioned, many claim to know nothing about him. Yet point to a piece of his work, and almost everyone quickly recognises its iconic features.
Mucha was one of the fathers of Art Nouveau and the creator of a poster-style that is still imitated today. There are of course many other reasons to value the work of this formidable creative personality. While Mucha first made his name in Paris in the 1890s, he remains to this day the national artist of the Czech Republic. The range and depth of his work extends well beyond ornament, advertising and nationalism. He was a symbolist and a mystic, who absorbed many of the radical new ideas of his day.
Mucha’s path to prominence in the visual arts was far from straightforward, and he could easily have become a musician. As a child he was, for several years, a chorister at the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul in Brno, the capital of Moravia. It was here that he first met the composer Leos Janáček, then a choral conductor and teacher working in the city. Young Alphonse was also at this time profoundly impressed by the atmosphere generated by the vaulted Baroque architecture and stained glass of the cathedral, as well as the plainchant and incense associated with the Catholic liturgy that filled his daily routine.
For me the notions of painting, going to church and music are so closely knit that often I cannot decide whether I like church for its music or music for its place in the mystery which it accompanies.
Mucha would later attempt to recreate this potent fusion of music, art, aroma and architecture in his Paris studio. It was arranged like a chapel with an array of screens and drapes, the smell of incense hanging in the air and a harmonium near to hand which Mucha knew how to play. He often appeared like a priestly figure engaged in a mystical rite as he painted.
If this seems rather theatrical, we should not be surprised, because Mucha had worked for two years in Vienna for a company making stage-sets. Among the company’s many clients were Vienna’s famous Ringtheater and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Mucha admired the power of theatre to weave a magical influence upon its audience, bringing together many creative elements in the manner of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk.
Alphonse Mucha had moved to Paris in 1887 to pursue his studies. It was then a melting-pot of innovative thinking about art, spirituality and the destiny of humanity. Many believed that mankind was on the verge of a spiritual revolution and the arts would play a crucial role in this transformation. This creative fervour had been largely stirred up by Wagner’s powerful music-dramas and the Symbolist poetry of Baudelaire. Among Mucha’s close circle were the composer Frederick Delius, the painter Paul Gaugin and the experimental Swedish dramatist August Strindberg.
All were strongly influenced by the Symbolist creed which proclaimed that art should be atmospheric not realistic, symbolic rather than literal in meaning. Theosophy had also taken root in France through the arcane writings of Madame Blavatsky, encouraging Mucha to experiment with Spiritualism and other esoteric practices. Mucha also became a Freemason in 1891 which, in those days, was a closed religious brotherhood characterised by its use of archaic symbols and rituals. From these varied sources, Mucha developed a unique spiritual outlook, grafting unorthodox beliefs onto his Catholic background.
From Theosophy Mucha learned that the world was the creation of Universal Mind, often described as the ‘world soul’. He believed this divine presence to be feminine, and it is represented in his many delightful images of young women embodying health, beauty and pure Nature. Their curvilinear forms express ideal beauty which has the power able to raise humanity to higher spiritual planes. Mucha observed:
Visible nature, seen through our eyes, surrounds us with rich and harmonious forms. The marvellous poem of the human body, those of animals, and the music of lines and colours emanating from flowers, leaves and fruits are the most obvious teachers of our eyes and taste.
Mucha’s most profound expression of his ‘new age’ spirituality is Le Pater (1899); a book of elaborately illuminated pages depicting The Lord’s Prayer including his own unique interpretation of the text. In Le Pater, God is not a moral force but nourishes the human soul; a more maternal role than is customarily found in Christian belief. Many of Le Pater’s ornate symbols are derived from Freemasonry and Mucha’s own compendium of Art Nouveau motifs based on leaves, flowers and abstract forms. The pictorial element is full of shadowy images of humanity’s struggle to reach the divine, as well as the invisible forces that control human existence.
In Symbolist art and Theosophy Mucha also found confirmation that the human imagination responds well to multiple sensory stimulus, as he had witnessed in Brno Cathedral and the theatres of Vienna in his younger days. Theosophists argued that human emotions could be expressed as sound or light, because they originated from the same vibrational source. Here Mucha found a direct link between music and the visual arts. In his aesthetics, sensuality and spirituality are one. Music, theatre and the visual arts can represent the ultimate transcendent unity of all things through symbols that directly address the unconscious mind.
My own fascination with Mucha and his circle owes a lot to serendipity. In the Summer of 2017, I found myself at an exhibition of his work in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. There was the full range of his oeuvres, from his commercial posters to the magnificent dramatic scenes of his Slav Epic. Towards the end of the exhibition, some recorded music for flute and piano was playing discretely in the background. I tried to place it. Something by Ravel perhaps, or was it more Eastern European? It had a lilting, lyrical quality. The only clue to its origin was a small plaque stating that the music was by Geraldine Mucha. Was this Mucha’s daughter, wife or some other relative?
Further research revealed that Geraldine Mucha (1917-2012) was Alphonse’s daughter-in-law, the second wife of his son Jiří. Her maiden name was Thomson and, although born in London, her ancestry was Scottish. She had studied piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music, taking lessons from Sir Arnold Bax and the flute-playing William Alwyn among others.
At this point in the story, I contacted a flautist friend, Emily Beynon, and asked her if she knew the piece, which was called Naše Cesta – ‘Our Journey’. Emily was eager to find out more about a possible new addition to the flute repertoire, so she contacted the Mucha Foundation, acquiring a copy of the work’s hand-written original. The piece had been completed in 2008, but never formally published, although it had been performed by its dedicatee, the principal piccolo of the Czech Philharmonic, Jan Machat.
The question then was how to present this little-known music to the public? We came up with a programme exploring cultural connections between Paris and Prague; a sequence which would be performed against a backdrop sequencing the full range of Alphonse Mucha’s artwork. The project was called The Colour of Music, and it aimed to illustrate the relationship between music and the visual arts, including the phenomenon of synaesthesia – the ability to see colour while composing or listening to music. The concert was introduced by Mucha’s grandson John, who runs the Mucha Foundation and lives in the UK.
So it was that his mother Geraldine’s Naše Cesta received its UK premiere in Manchester on 6 October 2018, alongside works by Fauré, Debussy, Janáček and Martinů. Emily went on to edit the manuscript assisted by her accompanist Andrew West, and the work was eventually published in the summer of 2019 by Edizioni Riverberi Sonori. Our journey, to coin a phrase, had been from a haunting snippet of music heard in Liverpool to something that could be held in the hand and which was available to a wide public.
Geraldine‘s husband Jiří was neither a painter nor a musician, but he did spend time in Paris where he was a close friend of the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů. Jiří provided the libretto for his Field Mass, which was a tribute to Czechs fighting for France during the Second World War. Jiří’s first wife was Vítězslava Kaprálová, also a prodigiously talented composer who had been Martinů’s pupil and lover. She died in 1940 of a mysterious illness just two months into her marriage. To bring this story full circle, during the war, Jiří Mucha was compelled to live in Britain and this is how he met Geraldine Thomson. The ageing Alphonse meanwhile had remained in Prague, where his status as national artist posed a threat to the Nazis. They did not imprison him, but he died in July 1939 after an intense interrogation by the Gestapo.
Since those awful times, subsequent generations of the Mucha family have gradually restored what was lost. Jiří and Geraldine returned to Prague in 1945, where Jiří eventually became a successful novelist and a champion of his father’s work. Geraldine was a loyal wife, who struggled to obtain Jiří’s release from jail in 1954, after he was accused by the Communist regime of spying. But she also kept composing, even after Jiří’s death in 1991.
Several of her pieces have now been recorded, and her work is waiting to be discovered by a wider public who will be beguiled by her hybrid musical style. Her Scottish and Czech backgrounds blend seamlessly in folk-like rhythms and attractive melodies, while her harmony encompasses Ravelian sensuality and occasional spiky Bartokian dissonance. What her music lacks in grand ambition is more than compensated by her amiability and natural lyricism.
I feel a special gratitude to Alphonse and the wider Mucha clan, because of a chance occurrence in a Liverpool Art Gallery in 2017. One thing led to another, unlocking a fascinating world of historical and creative significance. Some elements of the concert programme which Emily Beynon and Andrew West performed in Manchester in 2018, including Naše Cesta, will be played again in a recital at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 2 February 2020. John Mucha will be there once more to say a few words about his illustrious forbears. Unsurprisingly, the concert is sold out, but please do explore the rich heritage of the Mucha family via the Foundation’s excellent website and, if you are a flautist, why not add Geraldine Mucha’s charming piece to your repertoire?
Peter Davison is a cultural commentator, concert programmer and musicologist who was Artistic Consultant to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall from 1996 to 2018.