In latter Czech history, village teachers and choirmasters, especially those who also composed music, held a special place in the hearts of villagers. Even if the name and fame of those musicians never reached much farther than the city limits.
But one 18th century Czech composer – never in a league with the Mozarts of the time – still remains near and dear to Czech hearts. The name Jakub Jan Ryba still strikes a chord with Czechs; his “Missa Pastoralis” in D Major, or “The Christmas Mass,” is still performed during the holiday season throughout the Czech Republic. Quirky, ironic, sad, and charming are all words to describe the Mass and the life of its composer.
Jakub Jan Ryba was born in 1765 to the family of a village school teacher in Prestice, a small town in West Bohemia. When a young boy, Jakub and his family moved to Nepomuk; here he learned to play the violin, piano, and organ. His uncle, a priest and tenor, hustled young Jakub off to a Piarist Gymnazium in Prague to further develop Jakub’s music career. As a young man, Ryba also learned to play the cello, performed in a quartet, sang in a choir, and attended the opera. In fact, he even conducted Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” there.
Alas, his father fell ill and the young Ryba was returned right back where he had started, to Nepomuk, and worse, he was employed as a village school teacher. That might have been the end of the story of an obscure life. But two years later, in 1786, Ryba accepted a teaching position in yet another village, this time Mníšek. And he started composing. No fewer than four Masses and a hymn were his first products.
In 1788 Ryba moved yet again, taking a teaching position in Rožmitál, where he lived for the rest of his life. In his free time he found a wife, had nine children, and incidentally composed the remainder of his more than 1,400 works, including 30 masses, plus arias, sonatas, quartets, concertos, and symphonies.
The “Missa Pastoralis” in D Major survives today partly because it is the only Czech Mass using Czech language texts (as well as Latin), with music based on popular carols and Czech folk tunes. Pastoral scenes are included in interchangeable sections, whose placement is sometimes the basis for debate. The opening words of the Mass are “Hey, Master, get up quickly!” to introduce a Bohemian farm worker trying to wake up his master to see the strange, heavenly light shining in the sky over the Czech lands. Ironically, the words “Hej, Mistř” have sometimes mistakenly been interpreted in English as “Hey, Master,” to imply that a commoner was calling to the Lord.
In 1815 Ryba met a sad end. Apparently depressed following run-ins with local authorities on his proposed educational and social reforms, and under pressure to be more successful in order to provide for his family, Ryba shot himself. Yet, his music – most notably the “Christmas Mass” – lived on. Ironically, that was partly due to the Socialists who would come to power more than 130 years later.
During Socialist times, Russian culture and socialist perspectives were introduced, if not required, in the Czech lands. Especially during the 1960s in the former Czechoslovakia, a backlash began to develop, so authorities decided to permit one purely Czech cultural event to be produced each year. Ryba’s “Christmas Mass” was it.
So whether by choice, imposition, or tradition, attending a midnight Mass and a performance of the charming “Missa Pastoralis” has been part of many Czechs’ traditional Christmas ever since.