Something cool you might have missed: Mystery of Time by Miloslav Kabelac

Miloslav Kabelac

Miloslav Kabelac

I have a history of investigating pieces of music based solely on the title.  If it sounds interesting, I will inevitably be curious to know about why it bears that title.  This natural curiosity has cost me hundreds of dollars in the past, and the results were not always what I had hoped for going in.

I paid a pretty decent sum for a disc of orchestral works by Granville Bantock some years ago because the main item on the recording was a piece called Thalaba the Destroyer.  How could I possibly resist?  Fortunately, Bantock is a hidden bad ass of the English Romantics, and the whole disc delivered, including Thalaba.  I was not so fortunate when I plunked down the cash for Adventures in a Perambulator by John Alden Carpenter.  Sometimes God hands you good shit, sometimes He hands you the music of John Alden Carpenter.

It was in this spirit that I explored a concert uploaded a couple weeks ago featuring some pretty unheralded  music (that’s a nice way of saying that nobody knew what they were hearing when they walked in the door).  There was a very nice Symphony in D major by Jan Vaclav Vorisek, which gave off a pretty strong Schubert by way of late Haydn vibe…a very enjoyable work if not earth-shaking in its inventiveness.  There was also Don Quixote tanzt Fandango by Viktor Ullman, a very colorful and vibrant work of interest that completely betrays its origins (Ullmann worked on its composition during his incarceration in Theresienstadt and finished it only months before being moved to and killed at Auschwitz).

But for me the gem was Mystery of Time by Miloslav Kabelac, not the least of which because it had the title that caught my attention.  I’ve long admired Kabelac’s music, going back to my first encounter with it back in…I’m just playing.  In truth, I was like “who the fuck is Miloslav Kabelac?”  It turns out he’s Czech, he worked for Prague Radio, and his music did not fare well during that stretch of 40 years where the Commies ruled Czechoslovakia, in spite of Russia’s clear taste for open and transparent embracing of all the arts!  He composed 8 symphonies, a couple handfuls of orchestral works, and another 30 or so works for various forces.  He also has the Wikipedia page most likely to have somehow been made by his mother, including the following champion of a sentence: “New ways of expression presentated by Kabeláč in his eight symphonies and the perspectives opened by him to modern understanding and conception of this traditional genre have not yet penetrated our general conscience in a way corresponding to their importance and impact.”

No matter.  If Mystery of Time is any indication, his mom just may be on to something.  Mystery of Time is a passacaglia, and a gargantuan one at that.  I wish I could break it down in detail, but I don’t even know where to begin in trying to find a score for this thing…talk about a mystery.  There is one commercial recording available, and it was recorded by Karel Ancerl and the Czech Philharmonic way back when.  But, while I can’t break down the nuts and bolts of it, I can certainly go as far as saying that it takes on a massive arch structure, travelling from an unsettling and laconic beginning through an unrelentingly intense middle section (unrelenting as in a good 15 minute barrage of impending doom right to your face, bitch!) before concluding in a contemplative and peaceful mood that always seems to leave me letting out an audible sigh.

If I could be so bold as to describe the sound world contained in Mystery through a reckless and ill-conceived attempt to relate it to something we’re all a little more familiar with, I would use three names that lie pretty far from one another on an isosceles triangle.  This music sounds like Shostakovich at his most rampaging, Hovhaness at his most zen-like, and Elgar at his most “I have an amazing moustache equalled only by my gift for orchestral color”-ish.

In all seriousness, I have known of the existence of this piece for two weeks now, and I have listened to it, including as I’ve been typing this, over a dozen times.  It manages to combine everything I like about an orchestral work into one incredible journey: vivid colors, an easily discernible arch structure, drones and pedal points, drama, and a genuine sense of release when it’s over, and it’s all done within the confines of a certain cold and dispassionate insistence on what is inevitable.  This probably sounds a little creepy, hyperbolic, or whatever, but I’ve been waiting for this piece.  It has easily become one of my absolute favorite pieces of music, and it has done it with the same devilish insistence that the music so astoundingly evokes.

Listen for yourself: Mystery of Time with Tomas Hanus conducting the BBC Symphony – 2 April 2008

16 thoughts on “Something cool you might have missed: Mystery of Time by Miloslav Kabelac

  1. I just came across your little screed on Kabelac, which you wrote a year and a half ago, and there are no comments, which is indeed a pity. I have no idea whether you’ll see this entry at this late date. But I thought you might like to know that there is another major admirer of the music of Kabelac. If you search my writings on, and look up my reviews of Kabelac, you will find quite a few. I believe that The Mystery of Time is one of the masterpieces of 20th-century European music, along with Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra (do you know that one?).

  2. It’s never too late. I’m looking forward to perusing your site. Very glad to know there are some other people out there embracing Mystery of Time.

  3. Kabeláč!!!
    I really love the Eight Preludes (Op. 30), very well performed by Ivo Kahánek (supraphon)
    And I agree with Mr. Simmons, Mystery of Time is a real masterpiece (I have the Ančerl recording, supraphon).
    Now I’m trying to “decipher” the Sonata for Cello and Piano (Op. 9) performed by Ivo Kahánek and Tomáš Jamník (supraphon).
    These are the only 3 Kabeláč recordings that I’ve found (web and Italian music stores), but I saw a lot of cd reviews on the Mr. Simmons website…

  4. Pingback: Re-up: Mystery of Time « Everything But The Music

  5. I always learn so much from this blog, with its unsurpassed riches I will check out this piece immediately, as I have a passion for time-related works and that’s a heck of an isosceles triangle to imagine. Plus, I am now contemplating how I can begin insinuating the word “presentated” into my everyday conversations…

  6. And, if I may be so presumptuous, I imagine that Mystery of Time will appeal to your minimalist side in some ways. Kabelac gets a lot of mileage out of some very simple ideas. I appreciate that as a man with a simple mind!

  7. I remember lying in bed very late one night after a smoke filled evening and 4 years at music school. There was a piece of music on the radio, bedazzling, which struck me as having similarities to the work of Lutoslawski and other contemporary eastern European composers. But it was the variation in textures that struck me most, as described by the dear author above. It was, indeed, Kabelac, and unfortunately I never was able to find a recording of his work anywhere.

  8. So glad to see some love being heaped upon Kabeláč & Mystery of Time especially. It truly is a wondrous piece of music and yeah, I’ve been drawn towards it because of the title as well, although I had some previous experiences with Kabeláč, myself being Czech and all.


    I do have a nagging question: you do mention a concert where this behemoth is performed, is it still available somewhere? I’m stuck with the only (albeit glorious) recorded performance and I would love to hear another interpretation.

    In any case, kudos for this post (googled my way here – I can already see myself stuck reading your blog)
    cheers from Prague!

  9. I’m glad to hear about another person interested in the music of Kabelac, and the Mystery of Time in particular.
    I assume that you are familiar with the Ancerl recording. I just read a reference to a performance on the BBC, which I’ve never heard. But I do have a performance by the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov. It is good, but quite similar to the Ancerl.

  10. Thanks a ton! It’s playing already.

    I see Hanus takes it pretty slow. Gonna be interesting.

  11. Hello all of you.I discovered Kabelac around 1970 , thanks to an old lady who often travelled to Prague and brought back a lot of treasures : inter alia : Kabelac’s “Mystery of Time” ,
    but also his extraordinary Sinfonia da Camera (symphony n° 4 ???) , and other things like
    Martinu’s “Inkantace” (Piano concerto n°4) , Kalabis’s “Sinfonia Pacis” ,etc etc .
    Genius’s works !!!! I’m happy that others discovered these things as well….
    Prof.Roland Hinnion (Belgium ; I play a lot of Morav folklore & much other such delicious things !!!)

  12. I have also enjoyed the blog on Kabelac’s works, especially “Mystery of Time”, to which I was introduced by a friend over 15 years ago. I even paid a king’s ransom to liberate Jiri Starek’s recording of it with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony from the SWR archives. Since then, in addition to the BBC recording you can watch a performance of it on Youtube conducted by Jakob Hrusa. We Kabelac fans have reason for celebration because of the following release next month. It was long overdue, but better late than never. Enjoy!

  13. Thank you so much for informing me of this tremendously significant new release. I will order it as soon as it is released in the U.S. (in two days).
    Walter Simmons

  14. Have just heard this wonderful piece for the first time on BBC Radio 3 In Concert, today, 26 Nov 2018. If you have access to the BBC online service, you have 28 days (I think) to hear it.

  15. I am delighted to learn of so many who have discovered the music of Kabelac and The Mystery of Time. I understand that it was just performed last week by the Cleveland Orchestra, but I wasn’t available to hear it when it was broadcast. Another composer who might interest those who have been intrigued by Kabelac is Arnold Rosner. I’m thinking of crackladen’s characterization of Kabelac as sounding somewhere between Shostakovich and Hovhaness. The same names might be used to characterize Rosner. I would particularly recommend his Five Ko-ans for Orchestra and his Gematria. They are both available (on separate recordings) in stunning performances by the London Phil. on the Toccata Classics label.

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