Jiří Tichota turns 85: Our mission was to sing for ordinary people

What key did you choose the songs on?

I am grateful to Supraphon for wanting to make this point for the Spiritual Quintet. At first I was a little shy, but in the end I was convinced that the format we had a strong relationship with, the double vinyl album, would be used. I put eighty-five minutes of our songs in there and tried to include the different singers, soloists and genres that we were doing. But putting it into two albums was quite difficult.

Your great-grandfather Antonín Liehmann was Antonin Dvořák’s first music teacher. Do you have memories of this covenant in your family?

He is associated with a large society of people, descendants of various branches of our family. Among them is the Czech harpist Kateřina Englichová, who is my distant cousin. We are descendants of Terinka, characters from the Jacobin opera. She was the daughter of Antonin Liehmann and is said to have been one of Dvořák’s first loves.

These people search for information in various archives and many of them have already published. For example, the character of Professor Bendy, who composed Jakobín’s serenade and praises it himself, is Dvořák’s smiling memory of Mr. Liehmann.

Of the eighty-five that you will soon complete, how much have you devoted to music?

As for the interest in her, it came in the second year of primary school, as they said during the war. We lived in Lahovice at that time and I used to cycle to school to Zbraslav. I attended the first class normally. In the second, the war ended, and because of the danger of air raids, we went to study with Mrs. Vančurová, who was our school doctor, in the villa after her executed husband, the writer Vladislav Vančur.

The headmaster of the local primary school had four children and they all played a musical instrument. Because he was patriotic, he left them in national costumes, which was dangerous during the occupation, to play our national songs in class. We sang them with them, and that’s when I wanted to play something and be able to sing with people.

How was it?

From Lahovice, which was shot by the Germans on the last day of the war and executed all the men, we came to a free apartment in Prague on Pařížská street. There was a piano in it and I started rehearsing it right away. But my father had him taken away because he claimed that music would prevent me from learning. It was like that all my young life. Dad was always against it and I was always playing something.

Even then, my path to music was not easy. My father was locked up in a communist detention center in the 1950s, so I couldn’t go to high school after high school. They pushed me into a chemical plant as a helper. It was only after my father returned and his untimely death, when I was already studying chemistry, that I decided I was much more into music. I interrupted my studies, I went to war and after two years I went to study musicology. Everything has been clear since.

At the end of the Spiritual Quintet, Jiří Tichota has more time for his hobbies and his family. but he still has a lot of work to do.

Photo: Lucie Leva

In what atmosphere was the Spiritual Quintet or Spiritual Quartet, as it was originally called, born in 1960?

It was fun for the students. We knew each other from the University Art Ensemble and we all enjoyed the music. We initially focused on spirituals, which was because the American Opera Company was performing here at the time, performing Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess at the Karlín theater in Prague.

Its members, black singers, were pious and went to the churches of Prague, where they sang spirituals. I heard them there first. My colleague and I signed up and started singing them. We did it first for ourselves, then for some friends from the University Art Ensemble, and after less than a year we sang for a hundred people at the Na Zábradlí Theater in Prague. Our friends then filled the room. We didn’t even think about it for sixty years. It was a momentary activity that we enjoyed.

Several singers and musicians took turns in the Spiritual Quintet. Do you still have them all in your heart?

Yes, all of them, and it doesn’t matter if they have been in the group for ten years or only two years. They all worked, which can be seen in the fact that the group lasted sixty years. We have never slandered, confused, given. When it stopped entertaining someone, we almost always thanked each other and he went his own way, without hostility. For example, Karel Zich left, who had told us in advance that he would have a solo career, and when the time came, he did. After November, he returned to the group.

The original songs gradually entered the quintet’s repertoire. How important were they to you?

We had more genres in our repertoire, in addition to spirituals such as renaissance, folksongs, revival and more. But as you rightly say, they were divided into two sections, the cover songs, which we edited and especially re-lyrics, and ours.

Personally, I would be mine for a bigger part, so I was happy when someone like Jirka Cerha came into the band who could write them. On the other hand, we had the experience that our audience was much more orthodox than us. We had a little trouble with anything that wasn’t spiritual.

When we started to prepare the Šibeničky album, consisting of Moravian folk ballads, part of the audience told us that they had come to us because of the spirituals and that Moravian folk songs did not interest them. But that didn’t deter us, because we were interested in the songs.

The spiritual quintet performed in revolutionary times in 1989 in crowded Wenceslas Square on Melantrich’s balcony, a year later in the same square when Presidents George Bush the Elder and Vaclav Havel met. Were these the strongest moments?

There were a lot of highlights, and I couldn’t even name them. Totalitarianism was a very adventurous time, and you never knew when the next installment would begin, which turned out to be bigger over time than it seemed at the time, or vice versa. We agreed that our mission was to sing for ordinary people.

Of course, that didn’t mean we weren’t thrilled when two presidents came to see us in Wenceslas Square and sang with us. To this day, I’m amazed that no one has recorded how we sing with them back then, but there is only a Czech TV recording as the two presidents leave the stage. In 1990, we also sang in the Reduta of Prague for another American president, Bill Clinton.

Spiritual quintet in 1964 with singer Odetta. Jiří Tichota in the middle.

Photo: Group Archive

Have you spoken to any of the named presidents?

With Václav Havel several times. I went with him and his brother Ivan to the same scout unit in the seaside resort of Šipka. We also knew each other by our nicknames, the eldest Havel was Chrobák. When he was president, I no longer called him that, even in private. I called him Mr. President.

He often invited us somewhere. We went to the Château, sang there on several occasions, he was at several of our concerts, including one in Lucerne. In order to be able to talk and sit with us at that time, he shortened an event in Pilsen because of this. We knew each other well.

We haven’t had a chance to talk to George W. Bush. He just appeared on stage, shook hands with us, and disappeared again. Karel Zich talked to Bill Clinton on the toilet at Reduta. They met there, and the president asked him where we knew the songs.

What was your scout nickname?

I was silent. That’s what they called me in the Spiritual Quintet.

You also control the lute. Did you graduate?

No, I’m self-taught in everything, guitar and lute. When I became interested in the lute, no one else was playing a real lute. Since the beginning of the Renaissance, it has been one of the most interesting instruments because it was polyphonic and cheaper than a piano or a harpsichord. A number of beautiful compositions have been retained, which we have also used in the Spiritual Quintet.

Do you still play the lute?

I have a little trouble playing. After all, my hands are eighty-five years old and there isn’t much feeling in them anymore. But they continue to deal with the lute. I publish studies that I could not publish before.

Jiří Tichota during the last performance of the Spiritual Quintet on October 13, 2021.

Photo: Jan Handrejch, Pravo

You are also a passionate photographer. What do you like to photograph the most?

Butterflies, I’ve been doing this for years. Studying butterflies is my hobby and I love photographing them the most. I have a large collection of photos that can be seen on the web and are often taken from authors of professional publications. I like it.

I am less happy not to photograph many of the butterflies I photographed today because they have disappeared from nature. To this day, I keep some species and am fascinated by how they grow before my eyes.

When the Spiritual Quintet reached the age of sixty, they decided to end a run of sold-out concerts at Lucerna in Prague, which covid-19 split into two years. Was it the right time to leave?

I was always afraid it would be late, I wanted to leave earlier. But the course of the concerts convinced me that it was not so late. Everyone enjoyed it anyway, both on stage and in the auditorium. It was a great satisfaction for me.

Recently, information has emerged that the Spiritual Quartet should be formed. It does not bother you?

It is an activity of Veronika Součková and Jirka Holoubka, members of the Spiritual Quintet. Jirka, although he has no duty, even came to talk to me about it. I don’t have a problem with that. After all, even before the end of the group, I proposed to my teammates if they did not want to continue.

The sequel is very much a sequel, so I think the Spiritual Quartet has a perspective. What I find useless is the repetition. Going back to something another band was doing and showing that we’re doing it now has no prospect.

If the Spiritual Quartet invited you to a concert as a special guest, would you accept?

Not as a guest, but as a listener.

What do you do now that you don’t play anymore?

I thought I would have plenty of time, but instead I don’t know where my head is. I work on a lot of things. I continue to publish my musicological publications and I also continue to take care of the butterflies, because I received a very interesting offer, for which it is necessary to put back my collection of a whole life in perfect condition.

A new grandchild has joined our family, so we are happy to take care of him, that is of course mainly ladies. It’s joyful work and I like it.

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