Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

05 September 2022

Recording of the week: Oskar Nedbal (1874-1930)

This week’s post comes from Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recordings.

Photo of the Czech Quartet

Above: The Bohemian Quartet in 1895. Left to right: Karel Hoffmann (1st violinist); Hanuš Wihan (violoncellist); Oskar Nedbal (violist); and Josef Suk (2nd violinist). Photographer unknown.

A name rarely heard today, Oskar Nedbal was a talented musician who excelled in many areas of musical life. He first focused on the violin at the Prague Conservatory from 1885 to 1892, where he also studied composition with Dvořák, before moving to viola. He was the founder member and violist in the Bohemian (later Czech) Quartet where Josef Suk was the second violin.

The Bohemian Quartet raised the standards of quartet playing to an international level and Nedbal sometimes played the piano in the group. They first performed in London in 1897 and upon their return a year later were described by one critic as ‘beyond all praise’. However, Nedbal had to leave the Quartet in 1906 as he apparently absconded with the wife of the first violinist Karel Hoffmann.

Nedbal was also a conductor of repute and from 1896 to 1906 was one of the first conductors of the famous Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. He became renowned outside of his homeland, touring as a guest conductor.

Photo of Oskar Nedbal

Above: Oskar Nedbal, 1901. Portrait by Šechtl and Voseček studios. From Wikimedia Commons. Used under CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Rendered here in b&w rather than RGB colour.

In addition to his instrumental and conducting activities, Nedbal was a popular composer and many of his operettas and ballets written before the First World War met with great success not only in Vienna and Berlin, but throughout the world. At the 1898 London concert mentioned above, Hoffmann and Ilona Eibenschütz played Nedbal’s Violin Sonata. His orchestral works continued to be performed in London in the early years of the twentieth century.

Nedbal settled in Vienna in 1907 where he founded the Wiener Tonkünstler-Orchester. He made two sides with them for Deutsche Grammophon in 1910. He also recorded as a solo violist in the same year. A few years later, around 1913, he made four more recordings with the Tonkünstler-Orchester for the Anker label including the first movement of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. He also recorded two waltzes by Johann Strauss, one of which, Wiener Blut, you can hear below.

Photo of Anker disc label

Listen to Wiener Blut

Nedbal returned to Prague in the early 1920s after the formation of the Czechoslovak Republic but his style of composition was viewed as dated and out of fashion. He continued to visit London, conducting the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, accompanying violinist Jan Kubelik in 1921.

During the 1920s, Nedbal was Head of Opera at the Slovak National Theatre and worked for Radio Bratislava. Unfortunately, he fell into financial difficulties and committed suicide by jumping out of a window of the Zagreb Opera House in 1930.