57. Jaroslav “Jaryk” Celba

“But, Gene, there are no such notes!”

Yes, both Eric Jan Harmsen and “Jaryk”Celba complained about my singing ability, yet both managed to give me the melodies I was hoping to get!  Eric Jan was a young Dutch music smith who understood and mastered computer assisted sound manipulation.  Celba was an older Czech, just four months younger than I, a former jazz drummer and guitar picker, who created his music the old-fashioned way; on an upright piano, with a pad of printed musical notation paper, and a pencil. Both created a wide range of great melodies and orchestral sound!

Harmsen spoke perfect English with me, but Celba not at all, so working with him gave me a chance to hone my Czech language skills. (Creating songs and films required more communication than shopping or answering the phone! )

“Jaryk” lived way out in the countryside, south of Prague, but during the years of production of the Dick Bruna films, my most satisfying work each week was driving out there and spending the day with Celba, creating dozens of songs, and background music.

Celba, for many years was the melody master and most popular composer of children’s stories on Czech TV, bringing musical life to many series which Zdenka produced. His melodies and orchestrations were forever fresh.

He and I together created new songs for each of the Dick Bruna stories, and theme songs for the continuing characters of Miffy, the girl bunny, Poppy Pig, Snuffy the dog, Boris & Barbara Bear, and a title theme song to introduce each episode, “Here Comes My Dick Bruna Book!”  We set up a special unit to design and animate the series, using Dick’s catalog of graphic icons as a guide to absolute fidelity, and began the challenge of producing 52 episodes.  Each unit was a total of 5 minutes in length, consisting of a 30 second theme song intro, followed by a 30 second character song, then the three-and-a-half minute story about that character, and ending with a 30 second reprise of the Dick Bruna song with the credit titles.  Some of these can still be seen on YouTube, and will be viewable in this blog. Listen to the songs in The MIFFY Songbook!

The songs we did together were received with great enthusiasm by everyone on the Dick Bruna organization, especially the governing Mercis merchandising arm, run by Pieter Brattinga.  He was the one who actively organized the big publlicity events.which praised our productions.. But it was the enthusiasm of Dick Bruna himself that gave us a main position in the Dick Bruna project. He was the greatest fan of Jaryk Celba, and we became a close personal friends. I gave Dick cassettes of all our “Miffy” songs, which he played continuously while he worked.  Mercis invited us to a huge launch party of our films. We were on a giant roll. People in the offices in Amsterdam were walking around singing our songs!   In short, we were in!

Then suddenly, Pieter Brattinga retired, and a new head of Mercis was appointed, a woman named Marja Kerkhof came in. She had her own favorite composer, her own favorite animation organization, and just like that it was all over for us.  

We had adhered faithfully to Dick Bruna’s personal style. His drawings were icons, an alphabet, He rejected any roundness or realism, yet MajaKerkhof brought in puppet animation, so that the characters looked like dolls which could be sold. And Dick, who was so much against any such thing, did not object!  Kerkhof brought in the money, and Dick Bruna holed up in his private studio, continued to do is little books just as before, continued to send me nice little notes, but did nothing to protect our productions.  So Jaryk’s lovely music fade out, along with my lyrics.

Beyond that loss, Jaryk’s life story was not all sweet kiddie music. He had once been imprisoned by the communist regime and was actually sentenced to death by hanging!

In 1949, a year after the communists seized power in this country, American jazz was forbidden and the leader of an underground band that Jaryk played in was arrested and accused of being a spy for British Intelligence.  Under torture to name his “accomplices” he named Jaryk Celba, who was then also arrested and tortured! After Celba was beaten repeatedly, he also had to confess to whatever they said, and in a terror-trial he was  sentenced to death. By a miracle, a further investigation diminished his guilt, and his sentence was reduced to two years of hard labor in the Czech uranium mines. It was a miracle, because exactly at that time, 20 other innocent anti-communist Czech citizens were executed in the infamous purge of the time.  Later, when it became clear that he was innocent, the communist government in an about-face, named Celba an “Honorary Citizen” of his hometown, Nachod!

Little by little as we worked on these tender tunes, Jaryk told me this bizarre story.  Through it all, Jaryk Celba kept his humor and his brilliant talent.  He also composed  brilliant music for my Weston Woods, films,  THE HAT, a Tomi Ungerer story, and THE PIG’S WEDDING, a story by the German author, Helme Heine.  Jaryk now lives in honored retirement.

Beyond his musicianship, Jaroslav Celba was a fun guy to work with. Similar to Harmsen, “Jaryk” would shake his head every time I tried to suggest a melody for my lyrics, and would say in despair, “But Gene, there no such notes!”

As I write these final paragraphs in March 2013, I received the tragic news that Jaryk has died. I can never forget the joyous creative relationship we had.  How I drove out to his country home each week during the years we worked together on the Dick Bruna film songs. It was always fun, working with him.  We never had the slightest conflict. He was a great guy. His children’s film music made him the master of lovely melodies, but he was also still at heart a jazz drummer and guitar player.

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