Two things dominate my musical life — starting to play the double bass at the age of 14 and meeting František Pošta in 1982. Both have influenced and shaped the musician I am today, and 2021 is the 35th anniversary of my first lessons in Prague with František and is also, very sadly, the 30th anniversary of his death in 1991.
An article by Rodney Slatford, published by the International Society of Bassists, completely changed my life. Written in May 1977, it caught my attention immediately and was beautifully written and very informative about double bass playing and teaching in Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s. The final paragraph stated:
There is much music in Czechoslovakia that is not readily available in the West. Anyone interested should mention this article in the ISB magazine along with my name, in a letter to the two organizations below. They will be pleased to send a selection of the bass music that they have available and a list of recordings too. As with the records I mentioned earlier, music publishing is state run, so it does not have to make a profit — thus the music will probably be sent free of charge.
I wrote to the addresses in Prague and Bratislava and waited… In a short space of time, both organizations sent free double bass music and, from Prague, an LP called The Grancino Double Bass of František Pošta. Within about a minute of hearing the record, Sarah shouted, “HE’S THE ONE! HE’S THE ONE TO STUDY WITH!” Sarah [Poole] and I met in 1981, during our first year at the Royal College of Music, and we have now been together for 40 years and married for 34 years. Her amazing influence and unstinting support are worthy of about ten bass blogs.
In 1982 Rodney Slatford organized the 2nd Isle of Man Double Bass Competition, and František Pošta was a juror, but also gave the final — and the best — recital of the week. Earlier in the week, he invited us to a private rehearsal for his recital, and I had never heard playing of such quality and beauty at such close quarters. At the closing party, I plucked up the courage to ask if I could study with him in Prague, and he was very positive about this and said he looked forward to welcoming me to Czechoslovakia.
Having decided to study with František Pošta in Prague was the easy part, but putting this into practice was another thing altogether. At the time, I wasn’t good enough to receive a scholarship to help with the costs, which Sarah and I had to fund, but in 1985 I obtained his address and began to put the plan into action. A few weeks later, we received a postcard from Prague, from his daughter Jitka Výletová, explaining that her father was on tour in Japan with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, but she thought it wouldn’t be a problem to have lessons with him. We duly agreed on the dates and then started to organize things slowly.
At the time, Czechoslovakia was still under communist rule, and the easiest way to visit was to book via Čedok, the state-run tourist agency, but this meant we had to stay in one of their recommended hotels which we didn’t want to do. František had suggested that we could stay with his mother-in-law, a few hundred yards from his house in Prague 8, which both added to and eased our problems. Traveling independently to Czechoslovakia was possible but more difficult. We had to book and pay for our flights in advance but could only apply for a visa within seven days of travel, but there was no guarantee of being given a visa. We had to queue at the Czech Embassy in London, having filled in the forms very carefully and having checked them many times, only to discover we could only pay in cash which we didn’t have with us. The visa department was only open for a few hours each day, so we had to return the following day with the cash and then return a day later to see if we had succeeded. The relief from both of us was palpable when the visas were granted, and we were now on our way.
We only lived a few miles from Heathrow airport but arrived ridiculously early so we wouldn’t miss the flight. Eventually, we boarded the OK plane — OK was the official Czech airline — and we were on our way to a communist country! We arrived in Prague, and the airport then was tiny, only one small building if I remember rightly, and we were met by guards with guns which was not the most welcoming of sights. We were all shepherded onto the bus, and the doors locked, and the guards and dogs then searched the plane before we were allowed to leave for the airport building. Eventually, the bus started the short journey, and we all disembarked and entered through a set of glass doors which were then closed before the ones in front of us opened.
As independent visitors, we had to change currency to validate our visa and had to change £10 per day for our entire visit, which I think was about 13 days, so £260 in total. We received a vast amount of Czech currency, which we also discovered we were not able to convert back into sterling. A tram journey cost us only two pence so trying to spend all the money was almost impossible. We retrieved our luggage, and then we’re almost there. František had said that if I brought my bow with me at customs, I had to ensure that it was noted on our visa on arrival so that I could take it back when we left. We did this, which added greatly to our stress levels, and eventually walked into the main building and were so pleased and thankful to see Jitka, with a great smile on her face, waiting for us. I think we were the last British visitors to emerge into the arrivals lounge, and she was probably relieved as we were.
My first lessons with František Pošta were in 1986. At the Royal College of Music, I had thirty one-hour lessons each year with my primary teacher, but I had twenty-seven hours of lessons in Prague in about ten days. We stayed with his mother-in-law, a few minutes walk from his house, and sometimes František would arrive and say he couldn’t stay long, but that lesson might last for three hours — he had no idea of the time when he was teaching. During these lessons, I studied a lot of repertoire, in particular the solo music he played and recorded on his famed Supraphon LP’s. Although the first two sonatas by Adolf Míšek were known in the west, there was a wealth of Czech double bass music which was unknown or unobtainable to us in the 1980s. It was a revelation to study the music of František Černý, Vojta Kuchynka, and František Hertl with someone who had played their music for decades and, in the case of František Hertl, he knew the composer and Hertl’s Concerto had been written for him.
František was a stickler for accuracy and musical style, and he spent a lot of time writing fingerings and bowings into the music so that I had the correct information when I went home. One aim in lessons was to learn a wide range of Czech repertoire, and I also studied music by Silvestr Hipman and Jaroslav Maštalíř alongside Bottesini and Koussevitsky. The lessons were long and detailed, and it was an amazing experience working with a musician who was at the top of his game and was the most famous Czech bassist of his generation.
Prague today is almost unrecognizable from our first visit in 1986 when it was still under communist rule. We loved everything about our visit — a tram journey cost two pence, and we lived on klobasa, rye bread, and mustard when we were in the city center, and I found I had a love of Czech beer at this time! We came home with a large collection of Czech double bass music, presents for everyone, and a bottle of Becherovka, which is as strong and palette-burning as it was all those years ago.
Rodney Slatford helped shape my international career over the last 35 years, although he would have been totally unaware of this, but for which I will always be immensely grateful. My “Czech years” have been exciting, eventful, and creative, performing and publishing a wide range of Czech music both in the UK and in Prague, and the journey is far from over…