Czech Music around 1900.
"We get a fascinating kaleidoscope ... around the question of Czech music by some of the leading scholars in the field, much of which has never before been available in English" (p. 13). These words from Michael Beckerman's article "Flowers in the Graveyard, Tombstones in the Garden" aptly sum up the achievement of this generously illustrated book. Its main beneficiaries are four Czech composers born after Leos Janacek, who so far have received comparatively little attention by Western musicologists: Josef Bohuslav Foerster (1859-1951), Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949), Josef Suk (1874-1935), and Otakar Ostrcil (1879-1935).
This publication, made possible by a grant from the Czech government, unites nineteen essays by nine authors. No editor is identified, but two people named on its title page-both professors at Palacky University in Olomouc, Czech Republic-are the de facto editors, as they sign the "Introductory Remarks on the Conception of this Book." Two more generalizing articles follow: Beckerman's highly personal commentary, with musings on Czechness and the devastating impact its implementation had on the ethnic minorities of the country, and Marta Ottlova's "The 'Other World' of Music at the Turn of the Century," which, written for an exhibition in Amsterdam in 1999, surveys the Czech music scene around 1900 and places it in the context of the philosophical and ideological debates of the time. The remaining articles are grouped under three headings-"In the Footsteps of Tradition: The Spirit of Romanticism," "Czech Music at the Heart of European Music round ["'c] 1900," and "The Clash with Compositional Issues in European Music"-but this categorization seems rather arbitrary. The following description ignores it.
Bedrich Smetana was long dead by 1900, but his music was very much alive. Kopecky's "1892: The International Success of Smetana's The Bartered Bride" traces the history of this opera's reception and how it defined notions about Czech opera in general. David R. Beveridge's "A Rare Meeting of Minds in Kvapil's and Dvorak's Rusalka" (Jaroslav Kvapil was the librettist) is a highly elucidating case study originally written in 2009 for a program booklet of the National Theater in Prague. I was particularly impressed with the discussion of the quotation in Rusalka, hitherto unnoticed, from Antonin Dvorak's Second Symphony (p. 67). "Tchaikovsky, Charpentier and the Formation of Janacek's Mature Operatic Style" by the late John Tyrrell, based on his Janacek: Years of a Life (vol. 1, The Lonely Blackbird [London: Faber and Faber, 2006]), draws fascinating parallels between Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's Pikovaia dama [The Queen of Spades], Gustave Charpentier's Louise, and Janacek's operas. In "Capek's Feminism and Janacek's Femme fatale: Notes on Traditional Opera Aesthetics in Janacek's Opera The Makropulos Case," Krupkova convincingly argues how Janacek turned the work's protagonist into a larger-than-life operatic heroine by downsizing the male characters from Karel Capek's play and following operatic convention in the musical setting. But is it really true that Literaturoper (literary opera) gravitates towards the lieto fine (happy ending; p. 96)?
"Josef Bohuslav Foerster's Lyrical Opera Eva and the Tradition of the French Drama [sic] lyrique" by Kopecky, the only article in the collection dedicated to this composer, explores French influences. Zdenek Nouza (who died before publication) contributed "Josef Suk, Dvorak's Favorite Pupil," which constitutes a comprehensive survey of the composer and his music. "Josef Suk's Ripening and the Birth of the Czechoslovak Republic" by Judith Fiehler provides a wealth of information on this work, arguably Suk's masterpiece, alongside Asrael, and includes facsimile pages from the score. Both Suk articles come with extensive quotations from source texts, especially from correspondence.
Two of Krupkova's seven (!) articles on Novak-why did she not publish her own monograph?-are analytical. "Heritage and New Paths in the Piano Sonatas of Vitezslav Novak and Leos Janacek" is the most engaging, while "The Concept of Multi-movement Structure within a Single Movement in the Music of Vitezslav Novak" explores Novak's Trio quasi una ballata for piano trio, op. 27, in a rather sophomoric manner. "Novak's Reception Abroad" demonstrates that between about 1900 and 1920, Novak was considered the leading Czech composer. Krupkova likens the wane of Novak's popularity to that of Alexander Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker (p. 112) and ascribes it partly to a change in public taste stemming from his feud with Zdenek Nejedly, the polarizing, dictatorial arbiter of musical taste in the Czech lands, to which she devotes the final essay in this book, "The Consequences of Conflict in the Czech Musical World: Zdenek Fibich as a Point of Reference in Novak's Polemics with Nejedly."
Speaking of Fibich, he is the one composer who does not find an ardent champion in this volume. (Historically, he had one in Nejedly.) Kopecky actually begins his "Fibich's Path to Success in Prague's National Theater" with the heading "An Overrated Composer" (p. 145). In his opera Nevesta Messinska [The Bride of Messina], Fibich allowed his librettist, the aesthetician Otakar Hostinsky, to meddle with the recitatives until all expression relinquishes to flawless declamation (p. 148).
Apart from this article, much of the writing takes on a promotional character. Filip Karlik's "Otakar Ostrcil and Mahler's Influence in Prague" not only features a complete, annotated listing of performances of Gustav Mahler's music in Prague up to 1918 (pp. 213-15) and discusses Ostrcil's difficult stance as Nejedly's protege (pp. 207-9) but also concludes with an engaging plea, bolstered by analytical remarks and music examples, for Ostrcil's Suite in C Minor, op. 14, composed in 1912 (pp. 219-23). I listened to a recording of the work and found that Karlik was right. Whether it is necessary to champion this early forerunner to neoclassicism at the expense of Ostrcil's later works, which Karlik dismisses as "intellectually challenging (and for listeners less rewarding)," is another matter (p. 212).
The emergence of Czech national music was tightly bound up with the emancipation of the Czech nation from the Habsburg empire. One can only marvel at the creative forces this straggle for political independence set free. Beckerman points out that among national schools of music, the Czech school enjoys an international presence that is only surpassed by the school of much-larger Russia, so that one could argue "that Czech music between 1870 and 1930 ... is ... somewhat overrepresented on the world stage considering the small size of the Czech nation" (p. 14). As Krupkova concedes, however, at the very end of the book, "despite all the opportunities brought about by the national liberty of the republic ... Czech music got stuck in self-centered isolation.... With the exception of Janacek, Czech composers were unable to present their music outside their own country.... Between the two world wars, the only possibility to escape drowning in the 'little Czech pond' was to emigrate.... This was what the young Bohuslav MartinU (the last Czech composer for many years to achieve international renown) did in 1923" (pp. 292-93). In other words, national independence came at a high price. As long as the Czechs were part of a larger political entity, they had a wider outreach, thanks to the existence of a lingua franca (German) and the free movement of goods and people.
Ironically, the pervasive quotations from sources in German in the originally Czech articles within this book prove that despite all historical enmity, Czech musicology remains deeply steeped in the discipline's Austro-German tradition. This starkly contrasts with the scarcity of quotations from titles in English. Even Brian S. Locke's Opera and Ideology in Prague (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2006), which thematically intersects with much of the present book, is mentioned only once (p. 57).
All but three contributions (those by Beckerman, Beveridge, and Fiehler) are translated into English. The quality of the translations is difficult to assess as the Czech originals remain unpublished. In Kfupkova's final essay (translated by Tomas Adamek and Christopher Bowen), "staging" is used a few times instead of "[stage] performance" (pp. 283-84), Novak is called a "saloon pianist" instead of "salon pianist" (p. 286), and Novak's student Vaclav Dobias is described as a "political functionary" rather than the more idiomatic "bureaucrat" (p. 293). The characterization of Novak as an "axial" (loan translation of Czech "osova") figure in Czech music, taken over from Czech aesthetician Jaroslav Volek, is puzzling and possibly misleading, even more so as in translation the terms "axis" and "axle" are confused. In Volek's words (translated by Beveridge) , "Novak appears to me as a point of intersection, as the axle of axles, as the center of space, as its main point of orientation, as the figure in relation to whom all composers of the time had to define their positions" (p. 110). One wonders about the necessity of translating this flowery, possibly idiosyncratic terminology literally.
Unfortunately, the volume suffers from poor editing with regard to both content and typography. Take, for example, the spread of pages 44-45, where the translation of the Czech poem in note 6 on page 44 is printed in the style of an extract within the main text at the top of page 45. The last two lines of page 138 are repeated at the top of page 139. The block quotation at the bottom of page 269 includes a sentence ("He describes the cause of the disputes with objective precision") that is not part of the quotation and is even set off by the appropriate quotation marks. Wrong fonts sneak in, such as for the heading "Novak" (p. 32) and for the title of Kiupkova's dissertation quoted within her biography (p. 306). Among the typos, my favorite is "the First Word War" (p. 12), which uncannily sums up much of what is discussed in this book. In the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data, of all places, inadvertent substitution of diacritics turns "Krupkova" into "Kirupkovba" and "Kopecky, Jiri" into "Kopeckby,Jiirbi" (p. [iv]).
Many authors regularly invoked in this book, including the "big names"-Hostinsky, Nejedly, Vladimir Helfert, Vaclav Stepan, and Volek-have never been translated into English (as acknowledged by Krupkova and Kopecky on p. 12), and only a few titles are available in German. As a result, there is little firsthand knowledge of the discourse this book continually refers to both explicitly and implicitly. I strongly recommend the compilation of an anthology of "Czechs on Czech Music" modeled on Stuart Campbell's Russians on Russian Music (2 vols. [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994-2003]) to furnish English-language readers with a framework for full appreciation of what this book really is about.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2019|
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