Karel Bohuslav Jirák was born in Prague, Czech Republic on January 28, 1891 and died in Chicago, Illinois on January 30, 1972. He was a Czech composer who studied with Vítězslav Novák and Joseph B. Foerster at Charles University and the Academy of Music in Prague. Following his studies, he was appointed conductor of the Hamburg Opera in 1915 and from 1918-1919, was the conductor of the National Theater in Brno. From 1920-1930, he became professor of composition at Prague Conservatory after which time, he became music director of the Czechoslovak Radio from 1930-1945.
In 1947, he was invited to Chicago to deliver some lectures at Roosevelt University, but after the Communist take-over in 1948, he decided to stay in the USA. From 1948 until 1967, he was Chairman of the Theory Department at Roosevelt University. And following that, from 1967 to 1971, he served as Professor of Composition at Chicago Conservatory College.
Karel Jirak has composed over 90 works among which are 1 opera, 6 symphonies, 7 string quartets, "Symphonic Variation" (1941), "Piano Concerto," "Concerto for Violin and Chamber Orchestra" (1957), "Violin Sonata," Viola Sonata," Flute Sonata," "Wind Quintet" (1928), "Clarinet Sonata" (1947), and "Requiem" for solo quartet, chorus, organ and orchestra (1952). He is the author of a textbook on musical form (1924) and between 1945-1946 while still in Prague, wrote monographs on W. A. Mozart, Zdeněk Fibich and Jan Herman, the Czech piano virtuoso. Later on, while in the USA, he wrote a small study about Antonín Dvořák for a SVU presentation.
Symphonic Scherzo for Band, op. 65a was dedicated to Louis M. Blaha (d. 1953), conductor of the J. Sterling Morton High School concert band in Cicero, Illinois, who commissioned this work from Jirák. It was completed in August of 1951 giving the Morton High School Band an opportunity of taking on its challenge for the premiere in the spring of 1952.
Joseph Frantik (Bb Clarinet) and Anthony Jandacek (F Horn), students at Morton who played this work, both recall the tremendous challenge that "Scherzo" gave their band. "I remember how exciting it was for us to play a premiere," recalls Frantik. "It was the most difficult piece we had ever seen! For the largely Czech audience of parents used to the harmonies of Sousa, Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák and Josef Suk," recalled Jandacek, "Jirák's writing was challenging to their ears but nevertheless, even though their reaction was a bit uncertain for this avant-garde music in 1952, it was well received."
On March 25, 1961, Frantik, principal clarinetist who had played in the premiere as a student and completed his B.M. and M.M. at Northwestern Unversity, now had the honor of selecting Symphonic Scherzo for his "conducting debut" as the new assistant to David McCormick on the Morton High School band faculty. Karel Jirák visited Morton in February 1961 during the preparation of the Concert Band’'s performance with Frantik and McCormick of Symphonic Scherzo and Smetana'’s "Vltava" (Moldau). Jirák proudly attended the March 25, 1961, performance in Cicero’'s large Morton East Auditorium.
Frantik, who remained his entire professional life at Morton, recalls telling Jirak of his student days’ memory. "I was very touched by the performance of Rudolf Firkusny’'s solo encore of Jirak’'s 'Lullaby, op. 24,' when he played with the Morton Orchestra in 1954. I don'’t recall the concerto, but the memory of the 'Lullaby' has never left me. I was not able to conduct 'Symphonic Scherzo' in April 1961 at MENC because we were expecting our first child, but Jirak remembered our chat and sent me a copy of his 'Lullaby' congratulating me upon our child'’s birth." In a letter written on April 12, 1961 accompanying this gift to conductor Frantik, Jirak, writing from Roosevelt University said, "Please accept my sincere congratulations on the performance of my 'Symphonic Scherzo' and thanks for everything you did for this composition. Convey also, please, my thanks and congratulations to the boys and girls who really did a very beautiful job."
Morton High School Band Director, David C. McCormick, recalls this visit of Jirak to Morton High School. "Jirak came to the rehearsal to hear our Concert Band play 'Symphonic Scherzo' and even conducted part of the rehearsal. He was very pleased when I said, 'You had a more virile interpretation than I had!' At the same session, Jirak rehearsed 'Vltava,' since I had programmed it as our final work. It was quite a remarkable opportunity for me, Frantik and the students. I conducted this work, in lieu of assistant conductor Frantik, on April 10, 1961, at the MENC North Central Division Conference in Columbus, Ohio. Enroute to Columbus, we played a full concert at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana which included the Jirak."
McCormick recalls having conversations with Jirak about the texture/instrumentation of the work. "Jirak said he scored it with more doubling that he would have preferred, but only because Blaha had specifically instructed him to keep everyone busy. You well remember that style of band music— students who play all the time have no opportunity to misbehave!"
Jirak also orchestrated this work for symphony orchestra, opus 65b, and it was performed first by the Chicago Symphony in 1953 with Rafael Kubelik conducting and then in 1969 by the FOK Prague Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Vaclav Smetacek.
David McCormick loaned out "Scherzo" from the Morton High School Band Library to the United States Army Band of Washington, DC, Lt. Col. Gilbert Mitchell, conductor. Later on, McCormick'’s successor at Morton, director Joseph Frantik, further loaned it to John Paynter of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ilinois.
Jirak’'s widow, Blanka, had unsuccessfully tried to get the work published in Czechoslovakia. Years later, when Jirak'’s disciple and personal friend Professor, Dr. Jeronym Zajicek was assisting her in sorting through her husband’'s scores, he offered to help by submitting it for publication to Alliance Publication, Inc. which specializes in music of Czech composers. Alliance Publications, Inc. is now proud to make "Symphonic Scherzo for Band" available to concert bands throughout the world.