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The Good Soldier Schweik

An Opera by Robert Kurka


Before Catch-22 and M*A*S*H there was the story of “The Good Soldier Schweik.” This uproarious military satire, based on Jaroslav Hasek’s 1923 novel, follows the misadventures of the solider Schweik as he stumbles through World War I. Schweik always tries to do the “right” thing, even if his good intentions destroy his superiors. Robert Kurka was one of the most promising voices of American music before his tragic death at age 35, shortly before the premiere of his opera. With its mix of jazz, brassy music and contemporary opera idioms, Kurka’s witty score is in the heritage of Kurt Weill  The opera premiered at New York City Opera in 1958 shortly after the composer’s death.

Robert Kurka - composer

Robert KurkaRobert Kurka was born in Cicero, Illinois on December 22, 1921 and died in New York City on December 12, 1957. After studying violin with Kathleen Parlow and Hans Letz, he attended Columbia University and received his M.A. degree in 1948. Although largely self-taught in composition he studied briefly with Otto Luening and Darius Milhaud. From 1948 to 1951 he taught music at The City College of New York and later taught at Queens College and Dartmouth. Among his honors were a Guggenheim Fellowship, an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and, shortly before his death, Brandeis University's first Creative Award "to a composer on the threshold of a promising career."

Lewis Allan - Libretto

Abel Meeropol - Lewis AllanAbel Meeropol (1903 - 1986) was an American writer and inadvertent song-writer, best known under his pseudonym Lewis Allan and as the adoptive father of the young sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg [The Rosenberg's were Jewish American communists who were executed in 1953 after having been found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. The charges were in relation to the passing of information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Their execution was the first of civilians, for espionage, in United States history]. Meeropol wrote the anti-lynching poem, Strange Fruit, which he subsequently set to music. The song was performed by Billie Holiday.  Billie Holiday (or rather her ghostwriter) claimed, in Lady Sings the Blues, that she co-wrote the music to the song with Meeropol and Sonny White, but in fact, Meeropol was the sole writer of both lyrics and melody to this haunting plea for civil rights.

Meeropol was the writer of countless poems and songs, including the Frank Sinatra hit The House I Live In. He taught at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, and on the side was an ardent, but closet, Communist. Meeropol chose to write as Lewis Allan in memory of the names of his two stillborn children. Meeropol died on October 30, 1986 at the Jewish Nursing Home in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

Lewis Allan about Robert Kurka and his opera

Robert had been' planning to write an opera based on The Good Soldier Schweik for several years. This famous novel of World War I by the Czech author Jaroslav Hasek appealed so strongly to the composer that he could not wait until he had a libretto. The desire to write the music was so compelling that in the spring of 1952, he completed The Good Soldier Schweik Suite scored for a small band.

I met Bob for the first time in 1955 when we discussed the possibility of collaboration. When he suggested the Hasek book as a subject, I responded eagerly for I shared his enthusiasm for the hilarious and biting satire.
Robert Kurka was an American-born Czech whose understanding of the Czech language, the folk music of the country and its people was considerable. This background of Czech folk heritage and the modern idiom, which his music reflected, proved to be a most arresting combination of influences in his score for the opera.
Robert Kurka's choice of Hasek's novel is an index to the man himself. For The Good Soldier Schweik is not just a funny story about the misadventures of a Czech private during World War I. If it were only that and nothing more, I doubt whether Bob would have chosen it as the subject for his opera. Although Schweik's adventures are often hilarious and occasionally Rabelaisian, the book is also a keen satire with profound undercurrents of bitterness against militarism and war. Robert Kurka had a rich sense of humor, an appreciation for the ludicrous in life, but he was at the same time deeply serious with a real concern for man's inhumanity to man.
During one of the meetings we had together, we were enjoying the illustrations of Joseph Schweik in the original Czech volumes. "You know," he said, "I look like Schweik, don't I?"

First Cousin

He grinned at me and chuckled with almost shy embarrassment. And suddenly I became aware that there was a similarity, the broad face with its friendly smile and ingenuous expressions was first cousin to that of his fellow Czech, the irrepressible, unpredictable, perpetually optimistic Schweik.

When Bob was engaged in serious discussion or involved in his work to which he was stubbornly devoted, the fleeting resemblance vanished. He had intense earnestness and a capacity for applying himself creatively with sustained and exacting concentration. But he had humor and compassion as well as seriousness and these gave dimension to his music. Through the sardonic laughter of music scored for a small band, one hears the shout of anger and the cry of anguish. This music of the suite spoke to me clearly without words.

Bob never had very much in his wallet but he did carry in it several items that he ,cherished, snapshots of his 'wife, Mae, and their little girl, Mira—a list of Czech tongue twisters—and of course, a drawing of Joseph Schweik, which he had copied from the book. I am sure that Schweik represented to Bob the indestructibility of Man, the long-tried, abused, victimized, patient common man who somehow always manages to survive the brutal stupidities of his rulers, rebuild his world and laugh.

Immigrant Opera

Even before The Good Soldier Schweik was completed, Bob spoke about planning for a second opera based on immigrant American-Czech life, which interested him very much. The subject appealed to me and I began to give it some preliminary thought. Then suddenly, one day, he suggested putting it off for a while. I did not learn until later from his wife that Bob knew time was running out for him. He realized that he was doomed but gave no indication to his friends of anything seriously wrong. He told his wife he did not want people to feel sorry for him. On Dec. 12, 1957, Robert Kurka died of leukemia at the age of 35. Some months earlier, on March 5, 1957, he had been honored as the first winner f the newly established Brandeis University Creative Arts Award. The accompanying citation reads: "To Robert Kurka, a composer on the threshold of a career -of real distinction."

The Good Soldier Švejk - The Novel by Jaroslav Hašek

A number of literary critics consider The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War) to be one of the first anti-war novels, predating Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. Furthermore, Joseph Heller said that if he had not read The Good Soldier Švejk, he would never have written his novel Catch-22. Hašek originally intended Švejk to cover a total of six volumes, but had completed only four (which are now usually merged into one book) upon his death from tuberculosis in 1923.

The novel is set during World War I in Austria-Hungary, a multi-ethnic empire full of long-standing tensions. Fifteen million people died in the War, one million of them Austro-Hungarian soldiers. Jaroslav Hašek participated in this conflict and examined it in The Good Soldier Švejk.

Many of the situations and characters seem to have been inspired, at least in part, by Hašek's service in the 91st Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army. However, the novel also deals with broader anti-war themes: essentially a series of absurdly comic episodes, it explores both the pointlessness and futility of conflict in general and of military discipline, specifically Austrian military discipline, in particular. Many of its characters, especially the Czechs, are participating in a conflict they do not understand on behalf of a country to which they have no loyalty.
The character of Josef Švejk is a development of this theme. Through possibly-feigned idiocy or incompetence he repeatedly manages to frustrate military authority and expose its stupidity in a form of passive resistance: the reader is left unclear, however, as to whether Švejk is genuinely incompetent, or acting quite deliberately. These absurd events reach a climax when Švejk, wearing Russian uniform, is mistakenly taken prisoner by his own troops.
In addition to satirising Hapsburg authority, Hašek repeatedly criticises corruption and hypocrisy in the Catholic Church.

Švejk became the subject of comic books, films, a musical, statues, and the theme of many restaurants in a number of European countries. The Good Soldier Švejk inspired Bertolt Brecht to write a play - during his exile in California - continuing his adventures in World War II. It was aptly titled Schweik in the Second World War. The Harry Harrison science fiction series 'Bill, the Galactic Hero' (1965) is a retelling of the Švejk story updated to a future galactic war.


Act 1

On the eve of World War I: At Schweik’s apartment, he banters with Mrs. Muller, a cleaning woman, about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria.  Later in the local tavern, Schweik and the tavern keeper, Parivec, are arrested for disloyal talk about the Emperor.

SchweikIn prison, Schweik is examined by a trio of maniacal psychiatrists.  Schweik's nonsensical but assured answers to the psychiatrists’ nonsensical questions convince them that the man must be committed to a men­tal institution.  In an asylum, Schweik proclaims, “When you're in here you can do anything. You’re free to laugh and dance and sing,” leading his fellow mental patients in a lively dance.  Convinced that Schweik is only pretending to be feebleminded, the asylum doctors discharge him.

Back home, Schweik tells Mrs. Muller he has been drafted, and that he is prepared to serve despite a severe attack of rheumatism.  Schweik parades through the streets in a wheelchair, brandishing his crutches in the air and yelling "To Belgrade!" A crowd quickly gathers to cheer him on.

Act 2

As Schweik is treated for his rheumatistm in the field infirmary, the head doctor suspects him of being a “malingerer,” who has mutilated himself in order to avoid military duty.  After watching the true malingerers devour a glutinous feast, the doctor is convinced that their constitutions are strong enough for them to join the fighting. Schweik and the malingerers are promptly marched to the guardhouse.

SchweikAt the guardhouse chapel, Schweik becomes the Chaplain’s new orderly, but only until the Chaplain loses him to Lieutenant Henry Lukash in a game of cards.  In the lieutenant’s service, Schweik’s good intentions get the better of him and he unwittingly turns Lukash’s home into a madhouse, getting both himself and Lukash sent off to the front.

On their way to the front, Lukash asks Schweik to deliver a love letter to Madame Kakonyi, "and no one else,” but when Schweik reaches the Kakonyi home, Mr. Kakonyi answers the door and suspiciously grabs the letter out of Schweik's hand.  The ensuing tussle for possession of the letter becomes a complete free-for-all as people pile into the street to join the melee. Schweik ulti­mately gets the letter back, immediately puts it in his mouth, and furiously chews and swallows it while the brawl continues unabated.

After thanking Schweik for disposing of the letter, Lukash gives the soldier his orders: front line patrol. The scene then changes to the front itself: "A scene of stark dev­astation.”  Into this hell wanders a group of "ragged soldiers." They sing a moving chorus about the emptiness of dying in war: "No sound of drums when they come . . . no flags at the gate." Schweik arrives at the scene and refuses to follow orders. He finally decides: "I'll take a quiet road,.. for birds and butterflies I won't need my gun." He leaves his gun behind and wanders off the wrong road and dissapears. "In one place or other he's sure to be found. I woulnd't be surprised if he's somewhere around."