Jan Novák was born on April 8th, 1921 in Nová Říše, a little town in southwest Moravia. The place is dominated by a Premonstratensian monastery, which has been in its time an important center for culture and music. Nová Říše is also the birthplace of the Vranický brothers Pavel and Antonín, themselves well-known Viennese composers at the end of the 18th century.
In 1946 Novák graduated with a string quartet and the DANCE SUITE for orchestra. He then continued his studies at the Prague Academy of Music with Pavel Bořkovec, before returning to Brno for a further period of study with Petrželka. He completed his studies with a scholarship to the USA awarded by the Ježek Foundation. There he spent the summer 1947 at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Mass., where he worked with Aaron Copland. After that he went to New York, to meet his famous compatriot Bohuslav Martinů. He studied with Martinů, whom he called his “divine tutor”, until he returned to Czechoslovakia in 1948, on February 25th, the day of the Communist takeover. The epistolary contact with Martinů lasted even after, right through the Iron Curtain, until Martinů’s death in 1959.
Novák settled down in Brno where he lived as a freelance composer. A liberal-minded humanist, with his uncompromising artistic and public attitudes, he had recurrent confrontations with the official Czech authorities and with the leading representatives of the Composers’ Union. At that time he experimented with jazz (CAPRICCIO for cello and orchestra, CONCERTINO for wind quintet) and the dodecaphonism (PASSER CATULLI for bass and 9 instruments). Both musical languages were at that time proscripted as too “western” by the artistic dogmas of the official socialist realism.
Although being a convinced European, it was not easy for Jan Novák to get a foothold in the West. He couldn’t, nor did he want to, contribute to any of the preponderant musical avantgarde-streams of the time, thus becoming an outsider in the world of western contemporary music. Nevertheless, it was during these years spent in Italy and then in Germany that he composed his most important and mature works, such as his only opera DULCITIUS. He went back to Germany in 1977, to live in Ulm. Finally he was appointed in 1982 to a chair in music theory at the “Staatliche Hochschule für Musik un Darstellende Kunst” in Stuttgart.
Jan Novák died on November 17th 1984 in Neu-Ulm.