Jakub Jan Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass is undoubtedly one of the symbols of Czech Christmas, along with fried carp and Christmas cookies. Composed by a small-town teacher in 1796, the pastoral mass has become the most popular piece of Czech Christmas music ever written. At this time of the year it resounds in churches and concert halls across the country, but also beyond its borders. Recently, the Czech Christmas Mass premiered in Tokyo.
Exactly 220 years after its first performance, Jakub Jan Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass lived to see its Japanese premiere. Co-organised by Czech Centre Tokyo and Japan Czech Friendship Association, the mass was performed in Czech in its full version last Sunday to a packed house at the Catholic Senzoku Church, featuring a high-school choir, chamber orchestra and soloists.
Jakub Jan Ryba’s Christmas Mass has the structure of a classical Latin mass, but instead of taking place in Bethlehem, it is located somewhere in snow-covered Central Bohemia. The mass was excluded from the Catholic liturgy because of its folk character and simplicity, but it is precisely these traits that have appealed to listeners across the globe for more than 200 years. Japanese tenor singer Noritaro Dei, who initiated the Japanese performance, explains how he became acquainted with the Czech Christmas Mass:
“About ten years ago, I saw the performance of Jan Jakub Ryba’s Christmas Mass on Czech Television and then, when I came to study in Olomouc, I went to see its live performance. I also found out I share the same date of birth with Jakub Jan Ryba, which I consider a miracle. So for me, this performance is really a dream come true.”
To stage the Czech Christmas Mass in Japan, Mr. Dei teamed up with Yukiko Murata of the Czech Japanese Friendship Association and violinist Chiaki Yamazaki, who both spent some time living in the Czech Republic and have been promoting Czech music ever since.
Rehearsals only started in October and according to the performers, it was not the orchestral part that presented the most difficult problem. The text of Jakub Jan Ryba’s Christmas Mass has been translated into many languages, including English and German, but the Japanese musicians decided to perform it in its original, Czech version. Yukiko Murata of the Czech Japanese Friendship Association:
“Most of the singers were high-school girls but they got through this very difficult foreign language text very quickly.”
The staging of Jakub Jan Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass in Tokyo proved to be a great success and everyone involved is hoping that it will become a tradition in the future. Yukiko Murata once again:
“It was fantastic. The church was full. We prepared 250 seats but the attendance was even larger. The composition is not very well-known here in Japan, but everybody loved it and the atmosphere was really exciting.”