Tomáš Svoboda Obituary, Death – Tomas Svoboda, a longtime resident of Portland and a composer and pianist, passed away on November 17, 2022. He suffered a severe stroke in 2012. His Wikipedia entry claims: “More than 50 of his pieces have been recorded and are now being performed all over the world. Svoboda’s Piano Trios CD recording was given a 2001 “Critics Choice Award” by the American Record Guide, and the Oregon Symphony was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2003 for his Marimba Concerto.”
Regarding the passing of composer Tomas Svoboda, 45th Parallel Universe posted the following: We are grieved to learn of the demise of composer Tomas Svoboda, a real classic of Oregonian culture. Tomas was a great musical force of nature and made immeasurable contributions to Portland’s cultural scene. Tomas, may you rest in peace. We send our condolences to your family during this trying time. We’ll play Tom’s exquisite “Chorale” at our event at The Reser Center on December 1 as a tribute. We appreciate Thomas Stangland, publisher of Svoboda, for providing the image. Czech Mix performance tickets are available at www.45thparallelpdx.org.
James Bash spoke with him in the early stages of OMN’s existence in October of 2009. It continues to be one of the most intriguing conversations on OMN: One of the best composers in the country, Tomas Svoboda, resides in Portland and has been producing more music than ever. That’s not a bad accomplishment for a man who fled Czechoslovakia and eventually settled in the US as a music professor. After 30 years of music instruction at Portland State University, he retired. I loved his large-scale symphonic composition, “Vortex,” which the Oregon Symphony debuted in March, and I felt it was past due to speak with him about it.
JB: Tell me about your recent projects. Svoboda: I recently finished 30 quick harp pieces. They were my gift to the Oregon Symphony’s principal harpist, Jennifer Ironsides. JB: Wow! How much time did you spend writing these? Svoboda: Two months or so. This is due to the fact that she gave me roughly two months’ notice before getting married. Thus, it is a unique present. Although I don’t play the harp, it is related to the piano, which is my instrument because it is a percussive instrument. The harpist’s relationship to the two hands is different from a pianist’s, so a few items in the harp score will be modified. Therefore, it’s possible that some pitches will be switched between the top and bottom staff. Some of the compositions might be simpler for a harpist because playing the piano requires crossing your hands over one another.
JB: You began composing music at a young age. What inspired you to begin? Svoboda: I consider myself quite lucky because my father is a musician. He was a master sight reader and a terrific pianist. For the Prague Symphony Orchestra, he also played the timpani. So I used to turn the pages for him when I was ten years old while dad was playing Chopin and other wonderful music. My father had many musical acquaintances because he lived in Prague, a city known for its musical culture. I was surrounded by the sound of musical instruments.
I was seven years old when I first decided to make music, and I’ll never forget that day. My dad had played Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture on the record player as he prepared to leave for work and I was feeling a little under the weather. That music has always been a favorite of mine since it makes me think of colors like violet and white. After he departed, I got out of bed and tried to write some notes on some of my father’s music paper (he occasionally composed stuff). To me, they resembled potatoes. It was actually rather humorous.
My desire to express oneself musically was the cause. It was three measures long, in A minor, and a long way from being good. My father, though, urged me to write every day from that point forward. So I got all obsessed. I had a musical dream. I enjoyed examining key signatures. 50 flat pieces and 30 sharp pieces were in my dream. The beauty of notation surrounded me completely. At home, we had a lot of musical notations. We had Beethoven’s symphonies’ scores. So by the age of nine, I could read them. I would provide the score as my dad played the album.
JB: Can you recall your very first composition?
Svoboda: Yes, “A Bird,” my first keyboard piece, has been published. It was for piano. When I was nine years old, I wrote it. Although I’ve always played the piano, I did pick up the organ while attending the Prague Conservatory. In the conservatory’s underground catacombs, they had these magnificent practice rooms for the organ. I’ve also written some pieces for the organ.
My knowledge of organs was useful when I moved to the US. In 1964, my parents and I fled the communist government in Czechoslovakia, and a few years later, I began my master’s program at USC. I got hired as the organist at the Maywood United Methodist Church, which offered me some spending money. Organ is therefore a dear friend.
Halsey Stevens and Ingolf Dahl were my professors at USC. I did accept a request to write some film music, but when I arrived at the movie studio, a man handed me a script and inquired about the type of music I would write for it before taking a phone call. He showed me a scene in which a man and a woman were having an intensive conversation. I informed him that those two pages didn’t need any music after he hung up the phone. He thanked me and said, “Thank you; we may call you back,” but he never did. That was my interview with Hollywood, and I now chuckle about it. Thank goodness it turned out that way since writing music for movies is a completely different experience. That kind of work is highly demanding, and I believe that if I had chosen that path for my career, I would have regretted it.
You risk losing your capacity to write music for concert halls once you start writing for movies. It’s quite challenging to write music without watching a film, according to some of my colleagues who have experience in the cinema music industry.
JB: When you moved to the US, did you anticipate making a career as a college professor?
Svoboda: I was so happy to be out of that communist system when I first arrived here. That was a significant triumph. As a family, we fled Czechoslovakia, so I did talk to my parents about the path I would take. The greatest option appeared to be to work as a teacher or a pianist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But I understood that it would be challenging for me to focus on creating my own material if I practiced piano and listened to the music of other composers. I came to the conclusion that teaching would be preferable. That would be better for me because making handouts for kids required that I write anything.
But neither my parents nor I were very fond of Los Angeles. I therefore sent out 200 letters to apply for teaching jobs when I received my degree from USC. That occurred in 1970. I was invited to two interviews, one of which was in Hawaii and the other at Portland State. We decided it would be best to remain on the mainland, so I accepted a visiting professor position at PSU.
We looked after the poet Bill Stafford’s home near Lake Oswego during my first year in Portland. Everything worked out well, and I spent 30 years lecturing at PSU. I’ve had more time to dedicate to recording my music since I retired. I was exhausted while I was a teacher. I was a five-course instructor. Everybody wanted to study with me during the final three years before my retirement. I had 52 students for keyboard harmony, 40 students for orchestration, and almost 30 students for composition. Extra chairs had to be brought into the classroom. When I arrived home, I was exhausted.
JB: I noticed on your web site that your song is getting played on the radio a lot. Svoboda: Recently I got the news from BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) that I’m among the most broadcast composers in the US. My average right now is three broadcasts a week. JB: Are you becoming really wealthy from all this? Svoboda: [Laughs] Yes, but I also receive royalties. I received a check for $60! Actually, the fact that my music is being played on the radio makes me happy. There are 20 recordings I have available.