Printer Friendly

Alois Haba (21st June 1893-18th November 1973): between tradition and innovation.

In the general perspective of music history, Alois Haba is usually characterised as one of the leading protagonists of the Central European inter-war avant-garde that moved between Vienna, Berlin and Prague. In the specific context of Czech music he likewise has the reputation of an exemplary innovator but is considered to have been strongly rooted in tradition as well. Haba is known primarily as a tireless propagator of microtonal and athematic music, for which his own term was "liberated music." In this music he added more subtle quarter-, fifth- and sixth-tone intervals to the semitone system and abandoned up traditional treatment of motifs. Haba's dream of the unlimited possibilities of new music lasted roughly twenty years (1919-1939) and found expression in a series of pieces that oscillate between the diatonic and bichromatic system. He wanted to introduce the public to the new tonal systems by using newly constructed instruments, and we might see his progress in this respect as a step towards the institutionalisation of his own innovations as a composer. Finally, Haba was a tireless organiser who helped to ensure that works of new music were regularly presented in Prague concert halls. Many of Haba's pieces provoked a great deal of controversy in their time, and the listener today will certainly be able to judge his output (103 opuses) more objectively. Today we can see Haba's creative impulses against the background of a broader pattern of cultural history, in which shorter periods of destruction of existing artistic norms always give way to periods of creative synthesis.


Alois Haba (21st June 1893 Vizovice--18th November 1973 Prague) entered Czech musical culture at a time when the "lived inheritance of folklore" had come to be recognised as something of genuine potential value for high culture. Attempts at the authentic expression of musical roots no longer meant a degrading provincialism, as had still to some extent been the case when the Czech musicologist Zdenek Nejedly (1878-1962) expressed highly critical views of the work of Leos Janacek and Vitezslav Novak. Nejedly the aesthete condemned Novak for "falsified quotation" of folk song, in the sense of its use in the structure of his works as a musical symbol at a different level. Janacek he saw as a typical regressive composer, and claimed to see in the opera Jenufa a striking similarity with the earlier romantic aesthetic of the 1860s, when the character of the work was deliberately determined by quotation from folk songs and the desire to get closer to the taste of the wider public. In fact, Nejedly was much more generous in his criticism of Novak's music, seeing it as at least a higher stage of response to folk material. Nejedly's critical opinions on the treatment of folk music have a very clear rationale, in line with the changing ideas of the time on the function of folk culture within a national programme. At this point, at the beginning of the 1920s, Nejedly distinguished between folk culture and the taste of the broader public. In his view the audience, the wider public culture, was essentially conservative, and a progressive composer ought not to pander to its tastes. Despite the trials that this might involve, he should resist the pressure of the public and develop his own individual artistic identity. Art for the people should not be an art of lower quality that made few demands on its listeners.


When another Czech musicologist, Vladimir Helfert (1886-1945) in his book Ceska moderni hudba [Czech Modern Music] (1936) tried to define Haba's place in the evolution of precisely Musikstil der Freiheit. (This expression appeared for the first time in Haba's article Casellas Scarlattiana--Vierteltonmusik und Musikstil der Freiheit, 1929.) The phenomenon Musik der Freiheit is one that invites connection and comparison with a number of theoretical concepts of the Central European avant-garde that explicitly appeal to forms of aesthetic liberation. If Haba's liberated music is often taken to mean the possibility of free treatment of sound material, its technical side is often associated with the expressions microtonality and athematism. The second, in particular, deserves a short commentary.

In athematism Haba found a potential for free creative expression that bears some resemblance to Schonberg's technique of musical prose--a melodic idea released from the rules of the periodical structure. When Haba talks about athematism, he very often also mentions Schonberg. In 1934, on the latter's sixtieth birthday, Haba alludes to Schonberg's technique of "the strictest thematic treatment" (twelve-tone music) but in the same breath recalls the importance of Schonberg's "free athematic style" (Schonberg und die weiteren Moglichkeiten der Musikentwicklung, 1934). In his article Harmonicke zaklady dvanactitonoveho systemu [The Harmonic Foundations of the Twelve-Tone System] (1938) Haba repeats this idea when he talks about Schonberg's opera Erwartung, which is composed--with the exception of a very few thematic passages--in a free non-thematic style, without the support of the "basic form".

Many of the texts in which Haba mentions athematism are supposed to serve as explanations of his own goals as a composer. Hence they involve elaborate metaphors and surprising verbal combinations in them. Seeking to formulate the basis of the "non-thematic style", Haba often gropes for similiarities between social development, spiritual movement and the form of the work of music, and refers to values and signs that say something about the overall character of the time and its intellectual climate. In his book O psychologii tvoreni [On the Psychology of Creation] we read that, "[...] a need for change and movement quite evidently penetrates our consciousness from the musical expression of the present time. Today man is intellectually more mobile, and this mobility is also expressed in a faster modulation of sound. The more conscious the law of motion and change governing the human mind becomes, the more distinctly it manifests itself in artistic expression and especially in music. Harmonic drones have disappeared from music, because the sense of stability has progressively vanished from spiritual life. The sense of reminiscence, return to the impressions and scenes of the past has also gone. The human spirit today is concentrated on the concept of "forward", the conquest of new knowledge and the creation of new forms of living. In music this reorientation is manifest in a turning away from the concept of reprise (not repeating longer parts of musical form). Musical expression has not yet, however, emancipated itself from the repetition of details. The task of the youngest generation and next generations is to carry out this developmental rebirth fully and to construct a completely new musical style on the principle of "not repeating and thinking ahead, always forward." (6)

What exactly is Haba's athematism then? If we want to understand it better, the preceding quotation is not a sufficiently clear answer. First of all we need to say that the expression "athematism" is itself somewhat unfortunate. It would be a mistake to think of Haba's "athematism" as music without themes. The composer merely abandons traditional ways of treating motifs and themes. The definition of a musical structure as "non-thematic" therefore means excluding imitation in the general sense--the repetition of the preceding presentation; i.e. the modification and development of musical ideas. Here some of Haba's instructions for performance are relevant. According to these the performer must distinguish between "more prominent and less prominent melodies". The idea is that the "more prominent melody" should be brought out in performance, and so the composer no longer needs to repeat such passages in the original form or in variations.

To grasp Haba's concept of athematic style is is also important to remember that athematism, which many other authors in a range of commentaries often describe in terms of the microstructure of the work, primarily influences the work in its overall form. Haba wanted to produce forms with a new distinctive content that would not be simply transferable into a pre-established schema. The themes used in the framework of the overall form are not supposed to connect up the separate parts of the work and create the feeling of a traditional form. Minor reminders and returns are not relevant for the construction of the form from this point of view. It is no accident that the pieces of this period are often named fantasia, suite, toccata. While in the 1920s Haba appears as a radical opponent of traditional forms and the traditional mode of treatment of motifs and themes, from the 1930s we can observe a certain tendency towards "closed forms". This return was never radical enough to allow us to speak of clear schemas, but the composer nonetheless tries at least in a general way to revive the principle of some older approaches to form. In addition to the more frequent juxtaposition of contrasting sections we can see more frequent returns to harmonic centres or the repetition or variation of minor motif sections. The first notable piece to betray this change is the Fantasia op. 19, which with certain reservations corresponds to the scheme of the sonata form, and later the Toccata quasi una fantasia, op. 38.

In Haba's case we can clearly identify the motives that led the young composer to consider athematism or microtonality to be important compositional techniques. Berlin offered Haba a wide range of opportunities to pick up new ideas that would then form part of the theoretical background of his Musik der Freiheit. Among the composers who inspired him one frequently mentioned in the literature is Feruccio Busoni (1866-1924). In Berlin Haba encountered Bussoni's ideas in the second, reworked edition of his book Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music (Entwurf einer neuen Asthetik der Tonkunst, 1907, 1916). Later he occasionally attended the celebrated discussion circles that Bussoni ran in his Berlin apartment, where the young composer was familiarly nicknamed Ali-Baba by his host. In wider musical circles Busoni had the justified reputation as a leading supporter of microtonal music (and new music in general), but in fact he was extremely hostile to quarter-tone music, seeing the third-tone and sixth-tone system as far more natural and promising for future use. Busoni's views eventually inspired Haba to compose his sixth-tone String Quartet op. 15.

Yet another influence was at work here in Berlin, and that was the boom in ethnomusicology. The introduction of the sound recording, and invention of the phonograph, pitchmeter and gramophone records, had been vastly increasing the potential of the new musicological discipline. The deputy director of the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik Georg Schunemann (1884-1945) arranged for Haba to visit the Phonogramm-Archiv, part of the Psychological Institute of Berlin University, where the composer could find other fundamental rationales for his own music. The Berlin archive contained a very large quantity of recordings of non-European music; the infinitely reproducible songs, instrumental pieces and spoken word could scarcely have left a composer of Haba's kind unmoved. Comparison of recordings of the music of distant cultures opens up the possibility of identifying fundamental common factors despite diversity. Of course, one of the most useful recommendations when listening to "unusual" non-European music, is that the listener should try as hard as possible to avoid established stereotypes of perception and conventional methods of study, but in Haba's case the new experience seems to have led him less to an understanding of "objective differences" than to an attempt to derive general conclusions and look for common constants. Perhaps it was here that an opinion to be found repeatedly in Haba's later writings first took shape.

The different kinds of music of distant cultures were in his view just different variants and different evolutionary stages of one and the same thing. The different types of musical production share audible features that are hard to explain in terms of pure cultural convergence or the evolutionary kinship of different cultures. On the other hand, comparison led Haba to the belief that the a priori categories of European music relating to methods and techniques of musical structurings were not necessarily eternally valid. Theoretical and historical relativisation of this kind undermines the claims of the "grand musical tradition."

There was no reason why different types of music, hitherto regarded as incommensurable, should not be subjected to the same kind of judgement. Haba declared that "After an exhaustive and feverish process of searching I gradually came to realise the abstract kinship between my own work and folk music and old chorale; I recognised that my spiritual expression was united by close affinity with the distinguishing sign of the human spirit that manifests itself in all nations." (7)

Haba's apprenticeship years, which culminated in Berlin, were something he could capitalise on at home, where many of his experiences acquired the attractive hallmark of complete novelty. In 1923, therefore, Haba returned to Prague for good. He started to teach at the Prague Conservatory in the same year and in 1925 managed to persuade the school authorities to allow him to open a class in quarter-tone and sixth-tone composition. In 1934 he was made a regular professor there. Haba's class attracted the pupils of other composers as well, who wanted to get to know the latest methods of composition. In his seminars Haba introduced his pupils to the methods of his own compositional work. The principles by which such music could be brought to real life were to be demonstrated with the help of materials gathered in a newly established phonograph archive. Haba's class soon developed an international reputation. Apart from Czechs and Slovaks it was attended by Germans, Southern Slavs, Ukrainians, Bulgarians and Lithuanians. Haba trained a number of pupils who also tried to compose in microtonal systems: his brother Karel Haba, Rudolf Kubin, Vaclav Dobias, Miroslav Ponc, Karel Reiner and Southern Slavs Osterc, Ristic, lliev, and others.

The first years following Haba's return to Czechoslovakia were by no means easy. Probably the most serious difficulties were associated with the reception of his microtonal work. While in the Prague German Association for the Private Performance of Music he found important support and facilities, thanks to which several of his quarter-tone pieces reached the Prague festivals of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM; 1924, 1925), the Czech section of this organisation showed no interest in his work. (the same syndrome was behind the fact that at the Prague ISCM festival in 1925 Bohuslav Martinu was classified as a member of the "foreign" French school). Quarter-tone and athematic music was felt to be a symptom of the stalemate in avant-garde art. Not even Haba's introductory lecture before each concert could change this opinion. The untrained listener heard such music primarily as chaos and "rough, naturalised expression". In the eyes of critics Haba's "liberated music" was part of the destruction of the organic unity of the work, and the author's theoretical ideas were often considered symptomatic of a crisis of values and essential negation of traditional culture. Furthermore, for an important group of Czech critics Haba's music failed to fit well into their concept of the evolution of Czech music, because it sounded calculated and "un-Czech". The feeling that Haba did not suit the native scene was aggravated by his supposed and real ties to German music, and implicitly to the compositional techniques of the Schonberg School. Many of the polemics exploited a tried and tested smear technique, consigning the condemned to the categories of alien, speculative, inappropriate or emptily artistic as against idealist art, against music that respected the native and authentic (unutilised) tradition.

The prospects for the performance of the compositions of Haba's and his pupils were transformed in 1927. In this period Haba, together with the music critic Mirko Ocadlik (1904-1964), took up leading positions in the Spolek pro moderni hudbu [Modern Music Club]. One crucial factor here was the affiliation of the Club to the ISCM, in which Haba could now exercise a major influence. The Club's publicity organ was the magazine Klic [Key], in which it he published critical articles on modern music. In 1935 he transferred his activities to the Association for Contemporary Music Pritomnost [Present], and was elected its chairman. He also published in the magazine Rytmus and helped to create its profile. He took an important part in the organisation of the ISCM international festival in Prague in 1935, when he sat on the international jury, as he was later to do in 1932, 1938, 1958 and 1961. (In 1957 Haba was made an honorary member of the ISCM for his services, an honour previously granted to his teacher V. Novak.) Haba's name appeared on the international scene in other connections as well. Together with his assistant, the composer and pianist Karel Reiner (1910-1979) in 1932 he accepted an invitation to the International Congress of Arab Music in Cairo to give lectures and demonstrations of quarter-tone music. (Others who attended this conference included Bela Bartok, Paul Hindemith and the ethnomusicologist Erich von Hornbostel). Haba also took an active role in musical education. He realised that it was not enough just to train a new generation of composers when an adequately educated public is just as essential to musical life. In any case Haba believed that music cultivates the human being and that--in line with Steiner's anthroposophy--it helps man achieve the true spiritual experience of humanity. He was also convinced that music's educational effect will protect music itself from degradation into "mere entertainment" or "technical game". Education for music and by music was the theme of a number of Haba's lectures. Together with Leo Kestenberg (1882-1962) Haba helped to found the Society for Music Education (Prague 1934) and later to plan the 1st International Music Education Congress (Prague 1936). (The Society for Music Education was the precursor of the International Society for Music Education, which was formed in 1953.)

Neue Harmonielehre

Haba's own theoretical texts have very much conditioned the way in which his music has been understood. The most important of these texts came out as early as the 1920s: Harmonicke zaklady ctvrttonove soustavy [The Harmonic Principles of the Quarter-tone System] (1923), O psychologii tvoreni, pohybove zakonitosti tonove a zakladech noveho hudebniho slohu [On the Psychology of Creation, the Laws of Tonal movement and on the Principles of the New Musical Style] (1925) and Neue Harmonielehre des diatonischen, chromatischen, Viertel-, Drittel-, Sechstel- und Zwolfteltonsystems (1927). These works were largely directed to offering explanations and justifications. They have been treated as a supposed interpretative key to Haba's music, as texts that could help to settle disputes on its direction. In many cases, however, interpretation of these texts has not proved helpful in this respect. Most of the opponents of Haba's microtonal music have focused their critics on the mechanical division of the tempered system into smaller intervals. Haba himself actually conceded the possibility that division into third- tones or sixth-tones was more suitable from the point of view of natural voice capacity, and admitted that microtone intervals were not natural distances but a mere stylisation of the natural system. On the other hand he forcefully defended the right of the composer to choose his own language of expression. At a time when discussion of Haba's work was conducted in the categories natural--artificial (system), Vladimir Helfert defended the view that it would be better to debate Haba's music in terms of the concept of artistic reaction versus progressive music. In the latter context "liberated music" emerges an expression of a specific kind of musical thought: "I confess that as yet I have not been convinced that quarter-tone music has a future. But one of Haba's arguments is of fundamental weight, and that is his creative act--his music. We do not have the right, and in fact we have no way of doing so, to doubt the authenticity of his quarter-tone musical imagination. The courage with which Haba and his pupils fight for this new form of imagination deserves respect. They are fighting for something that today is extremely unpopular as well as technically difficult. They place themselves in an exposed position for something from which they can expect no material success. Haba's musical gifts are such that he would have not the slightest trouble producing music in some more popular, ingratiating style. But he doesn't do it. Haba pursues his own creative vision with a courage and pugnacity that recalls the creative discoverer. And it is in this that the power of his argument consists, at least for anyone who looks at the thing calmly and without prejudices." (8)

The most famous of Haba's theoretical works is probably the Neue Harmonielehre des diatonischen, chromatischen, Viertel-, Drittel-, Sechstel- und Zwolfteltonsystems. (Arnold Schonberg praised it when in a letter to Hugo Leichtentritt of 1938 he recommended it as an important German language treatment of new music). The book was written as early as 1925. The author himself translated the originally Czech text into German and after revisions by Erich Steinhardt, the book was published in 1927 by the Leipzig publishing house Kistner & Siegel. In the 1960s, still under the composer's own supervision, the book was translated back into Czech by Eduard Herzog, but the Czech version was not to be published until 2000 under the title Nova nauka o harmonii diatonicke, chromaticke, tretinotonove, sestinotonove a dvanactinotonove soustavy [A New Theory of the Harmony of the Diatonic, Chromatic, Third-tone, Sixth-tone and Twelfth-Tone System]. On the 251 pages of the original edition the author gives an account of the melodic and harmonic foundations of the diatonic and chromatic system (pp. 1-134), the quarter-tone system (pp. 135-198) and finally the remaining microtonal systems (pp. 199-251). In several places Haba refers to the Ancient Greek musical tradition, to Zarlino and Rameau, and finally describes himself as the heir to the world Czech musical tradition (Skuhersky, Stecker, Novak, Janacek).

The value of the textbook increases when considered in historical context, and above all by suggesting a relationship to the work of Arnold Schonberg. Much of what Schonberg had already formulated (mainly in the Harmonielehre, 1911), appears in Haba in modified form. Haba contests many of Schonberg's ideas but at the same time appeals to them. As early as 1927 (resp. 1925) Haba was also reacting to Schonberg's twelve-tone music. Despite his sympathy for the new theories, and despite his constant stress on the value of Schonberg's music, Haba tries to achieve a distinctive individual concept of his own and his own interpretation of Schonberg's musical thought. One notable piece of evidence of this relationship is a copy of Haba's Neue Harmonielehre, annotated by Schonberg, to be found in the Arnold Schonberg Center in Vienna. We might ask whether Haba's textbook might usefully be defined as an attempt at a theory of Schonberg's music. The answer must be a definite no, but his book is a valuable map of Haba's view of the great composer and the annotated copy a fascinating document of Schonberg's corrective responses to Haba's view. Schonberg is the composer most frequently referred to in the book, and Schonberg's annotations relate exclusively to comments on himself. Haba's efforts to define his own different identity and at the same time find a common language with Schonberg are very evident in his evaluation of dissonances (and likewise harmonic dissonances), and in his emphasis on the exceptional importance of the scale or row. The second part of the book, which is devoted to microtonal systems. Schonberg left without a commentary. (In any case he had already expressed his attitude to quarter-tones in his own Harmonielehre.)

Haba first of all develops the basic premise of the traditional Stufentheorie, in which chords constitute key and are based on the respective scale. Examining these principles he restates some of the conclusions of Riemann's Funktionstheorie--according to which the notes of the scale become the material for the construction of the chords that represent the three main functions (T, S, D). The premise is then stretched to extremes with the claim that the abolition of these "controlling functions" will grant the necessary freedom to the whole system. A single chord built of six thirds is presented as the image of freed relations in the order. This radical option is exploited to the full: when Haba sets out the possibilities for the maximum construct exploitation of the different tone systems, he speaks of seven-tone chord in diatonics, twelve-tone chord in chromatics, twenty-four tone chord in the quarter-tone system and so on. Haba does not go on in his Harmonielehre to describe chord progressions or rules of treating the voices, because in this respect almost everything is permitted--instead he explores the possibilities for building chords.

The rules given for the "free construction" of chords, however much they might seem to be the result of creative individuality, are not determined just by free decision and are not an independent act of the human psyche, but respond to the historical state of technical and aesthetic norms in. The idea of the interchangeability of the horizontal and the vertical makes it possible to bring interval progressions usual for melody into the chord. Thus chords are convertible into a row and vice versa: the notes of the row can be sounded simultaneously. And just as there are no rules for the creation of melody, there is no need to formulate any recipe for the construction of chords. According to Haba the sound qualities of the new music are unequivocally based on the introduction of sharp dissonances. The author's specific recommendation then relates to "unusual sounding triads" containing a minor second. Despite this freedom of thought many of the examples given in the textbook remain mere construct possibilities, which are not of course excluded, but for which the composer found no broader practical application. The chords built of seconds might be regarded as a proposal for their actual use and nowhere in the textbook is there any prohibition on employing them, but they can also be considered an abstract model that demonstrates the material possibilities of the system (diatonic, chromatic and microtonal). While Haba concedes the possibility of maximum density of the chord, he at the same time appeals for sobriety.

The possibility of free octave transpositions allows the inclusion of a number of seconds into a chord and the construction of new chord dissonances. It might seem that Haba was trying to take to extremes Rameau's idea of chord inversions, which entailed the notion that all subsequent forms of the triad are merely variants of the one same chord and have the same root (centre harmonique). This is not the case, however, and here we find the apparent contradiction of the Neue Harmonielehre. Haba sees each of the chords as an independent and unique form. Adding any other tone to the chord means its transformation in terms of structure and significance: the transposition of one tone changes the character of the chord. Haba likewise avoids octave doublings because every such "strengthening" gives the relevant tone or chord an importance that does not correspond to its real position in the structure of the musical phrase. (In Haba's later expositions harmonic doubling acquires the metaphorical meaning of "halting" or "finitude".)

Lengthy passages of the Neue Harmonielehre deal with the importance of newly constructed tone rows. When Haba talks about them (series of five, six or eleven tones), he in the same breath explains his own concept of tonality and his rejection of potential "atonality": every piece is tonal, because its sound material is part of a series under all circumstances. Perhaps just on account of this inescapable aspect scales and rows become a major theme of Haba's textbook. In the framework of twelve-tone chromatics (and with an eye to the principle of symmetry), Haba creates 581 different scales, differing in the number of tones and interval structure (the number of these series is not supposed to be finite). Instead of describing different harmonic situations the author draws attention to unusual possibilities for creating scales, to their new features and the uncommon charm of the melodies that result. (If we are curious about the inspirations behind Haba's approach here, we shall find an answer in a number of tucked away places. For example the author refers to the modal peculiarities of folk music, which are recognised and exploited by several domestic composers. The theoretical work of Ferrucio Busoni may also be another source of Haba's interest.)

Haba also points out the possibility of replacing the traditional hierarchic relationship by other rules in chromatic (microtonal) music. In Haba's case the notion of Tonzentralitat is the way he solves the question of the notional relational centre. Its use may be considered the key principle in Haba's work as a composer, because it is this that gives his music its specific order. Here Haba has come up with his own approach to the organisation of twelve-tone material, one conceived on the principle of the relatedness of tones and chords to one tone centre. What we are speaking of here is a kind of texture in which the centre is conveyed by other than harmonic means. In this case the tone has the functional significance of central chord (tonic) and this role is expressed by relationship to surrounding chords and tones. Translated into the language of Haba's theory this means that any chord can be based on any tone of the chromatic scale and this tone becomes the centre for the relevant chords; or also, that all the remaining tones of the row may be related to every tone considered a centre. In later texts Haba enlarges this possibility. It is not just individual tones that can be tone centres, but also tone clusters, which "harness" the main tone to a minor second. Tonzentralitat as a way of looking at musical structure is in a certain sense an auxiliary approach supposed to show the internal connections between distant harmonies. The introduction of this principle is designed to allow more complex harmonic phenomena to be analysed in a lucid way. Tonzentralitat simplifies a rather complicated argument concerning alterations or some passing-note harmonies.

We can regard Haba's Neue Harmonielehre as an attempt to explore and encapsulate the developmental trends of music in the first quarter of the 20th century together with an attempt to express his individual style, his own concept of Musik der Freiheit, which can only with great difficulty be translated into a general rule governing the chord construction and chord progressions. Musik der Freiheit is not however something accidental, and certainly not something negative. This kind of music too, as the author tries to demonstrate in his writings, should be a matter of form and order. In its basic principles Haba's Neue Harmonielehre faithfully reflects trends in music in the Twenties, a period of important transformations of style, and so it is no accident that in his textbook Haba redefines or abandons established terms in harmony theory, as well as he tries to find new possibilities for creating chords that correspond better to the needs of the new music. Why are individual chords and more extensive harmonic passages not formed as freely as melody--according to Haba through free development of fantasy--or why does the theory of harmony bound by quantities of fixed rules fail to meet the trends of contemporary music? Haba asks these questions at a time when the search for "new" principles of melody and harmony was becoming more intense. In this case, however, the path that he takes and the way that he argues as he pursues his goals is perhaps more important than the finished results.

The Opera Matka (Mother)

Haba sought to embody his notion of a new "liberated music" in a genre with a sufficiently high profile to publicise an emergent style; opera would be a demonstration of the viability of quarter-tone and athematic music. In the period 1927-29 he composed the quarter-tone opera Mother on his own libretto. The work was first performed in German on the 17th of May 1931 in Munich with Hermann Scherchen conducting. (The opera was not presented in Czech until 1947 and then 1964 in Prague).

Haba composed this opera after several earlier opera sketches. Mother is a realistic work, with "realist" understood in the widest sense. The story is set in the composer's native Wallachia. The text of the libretto is written in Moravian dialect. The local colour is then enhanced by a number of folk scenes (funeral weeping, a lullaby, wedding song). Despite this, as is the case with other important operas in the same vein (for example Janacek's Jenufe or in Burian's Marysa) Haba is not composing a "folklore opera". Although the work has clear references to folk setting, this is supposed to enhance the raw reality of the work. The plot of the opera is simple. After the death of his first wife the peasant Kren finds a new bride. This is Marusa, a girl from the neighbouring village, who just like the peasant's first wife has to take on a great deal of work in the cottage and care for her step-children and own children. For the composer, Marusa Krenova seems to represent his spiritual and sensual ideal of the rural woman and mother. While the practical and energetic farmer brings up all his children to work in the fields and the household, the mother takes care of their emotional and spiritual development. She wins for the most talented a right to higher education, while her youngest son, the future farmer, stays at home to support her. The twenty-three years that the opera covers are divided into ten scenes--scenes of ordinary everyday life. They are stripped of all the contrasts, stylisations and paradoxes usually employed to create dramatic tension and movement towards a denouement. Haba's style of opera might be compared to reportage. Instead of stylised focus, Haba enlarges the sphere of his work to cover the entire field of life, thus cancelling the difference between "ceremonial/festival art" and the "art of the everyday". The lack of theatricality is sometimes interpreted as deliberate and innovative, but in many respects the work perhaps aims wide of experiment. Moreover while the use of the quarter-tone system on the one hand secures the opera Matka a special place in world opera repertoire, on the other its specific requirements make it a piece for which few companies would have the resources. Two further stage works show that Haba was thorough and consistent in his aims here. In neither is the epic pathos of building a new world stylised, but in both it is to be discovered in daily reality. Haba devotes himself to progressive social issues in his (semitone) opera Nova zeme [New Land] (1935-1936; libretto written by Ferdinand Pujman based on the book by Soviet author Feodor Gladkov). After the premiere of the opera overture, in which there was a quotation from the Internationale, preparations for the staging of the opera in the Prague National Opera were halted. The official reason given was the threat of workers' demonstrations. The struggle for a better future, linked with the coming of Christ in the framework of the anthroposophical ideas of Rudolf Steiner, is an idea presented and developed in the author's last opera, composed in sixth-tone system, Prijd kralovstvi Tve. Nezamestnani [Thy Kingdom Come. The Unemployed] (1937-1942). This work was likewise never staged.

The lack of positive response to Haba's stage works was not accidental. What it was about the composer's approach that was behind these failures? First of all Haba's stage works do not observe the conventions usual for the genre. Although Haba's Musik der Freiheit would be hard to imagine without the strong inspirational influence of the theoretical work of Ferruccio Busoni, Haba seems to have taken no notice at all of his views on opera. Busoni saw opera as a stage genre in which play was the central issue. It was an idea later to be brought to life by Igor Stravinsky in Histoire du soldat and by Bohuslav Martinu in several of his works. It seems to have bypassed Alois Haba. Although the expression Musik der Freiheit might suggest a notion of the fortuitous and the playful, this is not entirely the reality. Haba's understanding of opera was clearly quite different from Busoni's. The world of Busoni's operas in contrast to Haba's opera aesthetics is modified, stylised to the point of unlikelihood, which is why it retains harmony, order, balance, organic coherence. Haba on the other hand abandons the ground of "operatic fiction" and lets himself be carried away by the idea of return to authentic representation of lived reality. Ideas that in their time must have sounded provocative (and are still just as provocative today), express a faith in reality, in revolutionary social change, which necessarily leaves its mark on art. While this is an over-simplification, we are clearly dealing here with notions taken from interwar proletarian art, heavily spiced with the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner. Haba formulated his own philosophy of opera in the article Zvukovy film a opera [Sound Film and Opera]: "What sort of life content should modern opera express? The different elements of the internal and public struggle of mankind today for a new style of life on earth. Fairytale and historical subjects must give place to new themes. There is a need to see and depict the moving forces of social struggle, which is the greatest drama involving many personal tragedies and comedies. There is a need dauntlessly to announce with artistic deeds as well as others that Christ has risen from the dead in the will of the world proletariat. There is a need to read "the signs of the times" and draw the right social and artistic conclusions." (9)

In the course of the 1920s and 30s Haba earned a reputation for himself in broader cultural consciousness as an original composer, teacher and tireless organiser. This creative growth was interrupted by the fascist occupation, when together with many other avantgardists he was classified and banned as an exponent of "entartete Kunst" ["Degenerate Art"]. After the 2nd World War he was appointed head of the Great Opera of the 5th of May (1945-1948) and also became professor of composition at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (1946-1949). Towards the end of the 1940s, however, a spontaneous reaction against the First Republic and to the recent war created a new social situation. Following the communist coup of 1948 Haba was exposed to the attacks of the ideological spokesmen of Socialist Realism and in 1951 his composition class was dissolved. The post-war social elite, which decided on the character of production, no longer had any interest in work that was full of elemental revolutionary unrest, apparently incomprehensible, resistant to rules and guidelines. Haba's refusal of an offer to join the Communist party contributed to his exclusion from social and cultural life. His own concept of socialism derived from Steiner's anthroposophy had nothing in common with the Soviet vision of (real) socialism. Anthroposophy, a doctrine that found many supporters and passionate opponents throughout the century, was of enormous importance for Haba, providing him with spiritual and moral support in times of crisis. He followed its principles in his readiness to interact with people of all religions and convictions, and anthroposophy also provided inspirations for his musical theory and practice. (Haba had been introduced to anthroposophy by Felix Petyrek, who in 1926 took him to the Goethena, the headquarters of the Anthroposophical Society in Dornach in Switzerland. From 1927 Haba was an active member. He lectured regularly at the Dornach Free University for Spiritual Science, and several of his works were premiered in the Goethenau.)

In the years 1949-1953 Haba's works were not played or published, but he himself continued to compose, writing both semitone and quarter-tone music. He was rehabilitated in 1953, and thereafter worked only as a composer. The last twenty years of Haba's life were an extraordinarily fruitful peiod. Many musicians were ready to perform his earlier and new works, above all the Haba Quartet under its leader Dusan Pandula. Haba's pieces were abundantly published and the composer invited to lecture and to attend the performance of his works abroad. His name appeared again at the ISCM international festival in Prague in 1967. He used his influence and contacts to help young composers who often identified with his legacy, although they took a cautious attitude to some of his aesthetic conclusions. In the final phase of his career Haba composed as many as 40 new works. These were mainly chamber pieces, and when he wrote larger-scale works, concertos. Haba continued to write in various different tone systems, whether traditional (e.g. the String Quartet no. 7 "Christmas", op. 73; 1951), quarter-tone (String Quartet no. 14, op. 94; 1963), fifth-tone (String Quartet no. 16, op. 98; 1967) or sixth-tone (String Quartet no. 11, op. 87; 1957). Even at this late stage Haba never gave up an experimental and open-minded approach, and he repeatedly tried to get to respond to revived impulses of twelve-tone music and Webernian serialism.

After surveying his career, we may tentatively suggest some conclusions about Haba's place in the context of Czech and Central-European music. First and foremost it is clear that he was a composer who became involved in the Central European musical avant-garde very much "from the outside", from a Moravian region with a predominantly folk tradition. The strong individuality and originality that he began to show during his stay in Vienna became a respected reality in Berlin. In terms of the expressive canon of 19th-century music the position of "other, outsider" had been negative, a pure liability, a status overlapping with that of "dilettante" in the sense of exclusion from professional advancement. Now the situation had turned around--at least in Berlin if less in Vienna--and the position could be one of special privilege. (Vienna is generally regarded as a place with great respect for tradition and conservative views). To be different was now to have an exceptional status. Suddenly the attribute of otherness became an undeniable advantage. In a sense the change reflected the new democratic era, since it was a status that could be claimed by anyone, regardless of social background. Novelty and difference were transformed into attributes that could bring participants in the common "project of the new" closer together while at the same time representing another scale by which they could define their distinct identities and differentiate themselves. Haba was sensitive to the various individual developmental trends but did not identify himself wholly with any one of them. Despite his sympathy and affinity for the new theories, and his repeated stress on the value of the influence of Novak, Busoni and Schonberg, Haba sought to create a style all his own. For Haba art is undoubtedly a field of creative freedom, where a work is born as the result of the active activity of a unique, irreducible individual. Nonetheless, Haba shared with the rest of the Central European avant-garde the striving for explicit definition of the principle of redundancy. It is clearly a striving to render musical language more precise, to rid it of the last trace of the decorative and the rhetorical. Haba's project was also characterised by a distinctively sharp struggle against traditional ways of treating material that forced the composer to surrender his own individuality. Another feature of Haba's type as a composer was that fact that he shared only marginally in the future development of European new music; from the point of view of the "culture of the centre" as a historical rather than just geographical concept he ultimately remained at the periphery. The character of his work excludes him from the community of "established composers" and makes him once again an "outsider".

There are a number of different reasons why this should be so. Haba's "liberated music" is known only through a few theoretical works that came out mainly in German, a few recordings and relatively inaccessible scores. This has naturally limited an understanding of the whole Haba phenomenon. Usually Haba is characterised as a tireless propagator of microtonal and athematic music. These mere assertions, however, do not of themselves have any precise content and in fact problematise any proper conception of Haba's music; for example, pieces composed with microtones in fact represent less than a third of Haba's output as a composer. Of course, it remains an open question whether the change in the conditions for the reception of Haba's music will make for major change in the way he is viewed. While in the 1920s Haba in his works took significant steps beyond the canon of traditional music by using unconventional sound material, in the period after the Second World War the leaders of the modern movement of the time rejected him for alleged traditionalism (and in some cases for technical inadequacy). Here the criterion of musical value was above all the developmental novelty (innovativeness) of Haba's music between the wars, perfectly corresponding to the "spirit of the time". His retreat from his well-known positions was then interpreted as inability to express that "spirit of the time" in an appropriate way. Haba therefore came to occupy only a marginal position among the "classics" of modern music who made major contributions to the "artistic values" of European music and helped to create the main stylistic trends. The rationale of assertions of this kind is based on the historical conception of the rise of the modern. If we focus our attention on important moments of development (athematism, microtonality), we necessarily push everything else about this music into the background. Such music becomes a mere signpost to future development. Thus just like technical discoveries Haba's music necessarily becomes obsolete for future generations. Not even the ideas of "liberated music" could escape this process of ageing and Haba's name was reduced to a mere encyclopaedia heading, becoming a synonym for microtonal and athematic music.

(1) Alois Haba, Muj lidsky a umelecky vyvoj, in: Sbornik k zivotu a dilu skladatele (ed. J. Vyslouzil). Vizovice 1993, p. 50.

(2) Alois Haba, Neue Harmonielehre des diatonischen, chromatischen, Viertel-, Drittel-, Sechstelund Zwolfteltonsystems. Leipzig 1927 p. 135.

(3) Alois Haba, Muj lidsky a umelecky vyvoj, p. 51.

(4) Ernst Krenek, Im Atem der Zeit. Erinnerungen an die Moderne, Munchen 1999, p. 157.

(5) Alois Haba, Muj lidsky a umelecky vyvoj, pp. 52-53.

(6) Alois Haba, O psychologii tvoreni, pohybove zakonitosti tonove a zakladech noveho hudebniho slohu, Praha 1925, p. 36.

(7) Haba, O psychologii tvoreni, pohybove zakonitosti tonove a zakladech noveho hudebniho slohu. Praha 1925, p. 38.

(8) Vladimir Helfert, Habova Nova nauka o harmonii (Na okraj Habovy nauky o harmonii), in: Hudebni rozhledy, III-1927, p. 148.

(9) Alois Haba, Zvukovy film a opera, in: Klic, II-1931/32, p. 60.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Czech Music Information
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:profiles
Author:Spurny, Lubomir
Publication:Czech Music
Date:Jul 1, 2005
Previous Article:Martin Smolka: a microsentimental composer.
Next Article:Ostrava days of new music 2005.

Related Articles
Czech-lithuanian music contacts in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Haydn Haba Janacek.
Czech musica nova: historical background and sociology of the phenomenon (Lecture, 1983).
HABA Laboratories to Launch New Skin Supplement.
The Haba "school".
Martin Smolka: a microsentimental composer.
Prague as a European cultural metropolis of the inter-war period.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters