Printer Friendly

Some experimental trends in post-war Czech Music.

The radical transformation of society embarked on by the new socialist state after the communist take-over in 1948 had a major impact on Czech culture and art as well. The artist, who for more than a century had been the prototype of the free individual and held up a mirror to the time in which he lived, who had demolished conventional stereotypes and outraged bourgeois society by his freedom of thought, was now supposed to become a servant of the monstrous machinery of "building better tomorrows", "creating the class-less society", the "planned economy" and above all "achieving prosperity for every worker under the banner of the communist party and eternal friendship with the Soviet Union". But how was everyone to be brougsht to do not what they wanted but what was wanted of them?

Composers want to be played, painters to be exhibited and writers to be read, so that if what could and could not be presented in the public realm could be defined and policed, then the task was straightforward. The system of control established was clear and practical. Monopoly organs (in the case of musical culture the Union of Czechoslovak Composers [Svaz Ceskoslovenskych skladatelu]) were set up on the model of the organisation of political power in the country, with a leadership consisting of chairman, secretaries and central committee in authority of branches established in the provincial towns. Platforms for official opinions, i.e. monopoly periodicals, monopoly publishers and monopoly censors and inspectors were ser up as parts of the necessary centralisation of all cultural life, and these were unconditionally subordinate to the interests of the central committee of the different cultural unions, and by extension to the organs of the Communist Party.

This process took place gradually for all the branches of the arts, not excluding music. As early as March 1948 a decree of the action committee of the National Front abolished all unions and clubs that had survived the war or been re-established after it, and through the network of new action committees progressively transformed them into the single, all-powerful Union of Czechoslovak Composers represented by reliable people. Socialist realism was also enforced in our state on the model of the USSR as the only possible artistic doctrine. The impact on Czechoslovak society was unimaginable. Permanent "brain-washing" characterised by the destruction of books, the banning of authors, annual congresses, empty citations, endless meetings, training courses in scientific communism, stuffed and degenerate Marxism. Constant "witch hunts", sometimes directed against genetics, at other times against sociology or depth psychology, but also against cybernetics, semiotics or linguistics. An unending struggle against religion, mysticism, against every non-Marxist philosophy or aesthetics. All this created an atmosphere of encirclement by "hostile imperialists" and "cosmopolitans" (in part of "Jewish origin"), an environment of unrelenting "class war". Political show trials helped to confine the Czechoslovak intelligentsia in a stifling atmosphere of constant tension and fear for the present and future. Creative art was suppressed and replaced by socialist propaganda. The remnants of free art moved from official platforms to private studios, flats, cellars and cafes.

An extraordinary unofficial intellectual climate, spread from the then middle generation (who had been educated in the pre-war republic) and unwittingly encouraged by the state nomenclatura who denied those involved any outlet for their talents and interests other than mutual meetings and exchange of views, became the motor of changes that even in the absence of any public interest were still expressed in the work of many artists and writers, and rather belatedly composers as well. The misunderstood graphic artist Vladimir Boudnik with his "explosionalism", wandering through the streets and forcing people to create art from stains on the walls, his experiments with new print techniques, with text, and even with his own body and "soul" leading ultimately to attempts at suicide. The hectic workaholia of the painter Mikulas Medek and his search for a new spirituality on the borders of irrationalism and Surrealism. The unpretentious poetry of everyday life from the pens of Jiri Kolar and Josef Kainar, Kolar's experiments with the visualisation of poetry, the extraordinary texts produced by Bohumil Hrabal, the "radical Marxista" of the philosopher and writer Egon Bondy, the "artmusdramas" [malmuzherciady] of the Prague arts group known as the "Smidrove", the persisting influence of the artists and writers from the circle of the defunct Group 42 and the art historian Jindrich Chalupecky--all of this had its effect on the composition of original music as well. After all, the Prague composer Jan Rychlik regularly met with artists and had a deep interest in their work, as well as engaging in writing himself. Rudolf Komorous was an active member of the "Smidrove" art group, the composer and flautist Petr Kotik grew up under the influence of the work of his father the painter and print-maker Jan Kotik and his father's friends, and the composer Vladimir Sramek (almost a creature of myth), was in his introverted way interested in absolutely everything outside the conventional art of the rime. In the later fifties these (and many others I have not named), created works that not only avoided the officially enjoined socialist realism, but also had serious potential as contributions to development and debate in world art.


In the later 1950s, therefore, almost all performance geared to contemporary, new music, developed more or less in opposition to official cultural programmes, was based on private initiative and was frequently very raw and elemental. It was fortunate for the composers that at least a few people prepared to support the new experiments appeared relatively soon in our somewhat embittered society; these were not only musicologists but above all performers, often from among the composers themselves. Unfortunately Rudolf Komorous did not manage to push through his vision of the creation of an ensemble specialised in contemporary music to a successful conclusion before his departure for China (where he taught bassoon at Peking University) in 1959, and it was only later, after 1960, that several ensembles focused on modern music emerged.


One of the first impulses was the formation of the Chamber Harmony under the leadership of the conductor Libor Pesek, which from 1960 included premieres of music by Czech composers with contemporary ideas, above all Jan Klusak, alongside 20th-century classics in the programmes of its concerts at the Na zabradli Theatre. From the end of the 1950s Klusak had been exploring the possibilities of rational composition systems. Czech isolation from western culture meant that be had no contact with the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen or Pierre Boulez, but he soon arrived at a more freely conceived form of twelve-tone composition through his individual reaction to the music of the leaders of the Second Viennese School, above all Alban Berg. Also the Novak Quartet focused increasingly on the New Music thanks to the second violin Dusan Pandula. In Brno, the chamber ensemble Musica Nova was formed in 1961--initially as a trio--on the initiative of bass clarinettist Josef Horak, and in 1963 the Studio of Authors ensemble under the conductor Jiri Hanousek. In Bratislava the violinist and composer Ladislav Kupkovic co-founded the ensemble Hudba dneska [Music of Today] (1963). When Josef Horak moved to Prague he then helped to create the ensemble Sonatori di Praga (1963) and the world famous Due Boemi di Praga (with the pianist Emma Kovarnova; 1963).

Prague Musica Viva Pragensis played a major part in the emergence of a more experimental branch of contemporary music; it was founded by the flautist and composer Petr Kotik, who together with the composers Vladimir Sramek and Jan Rychlik managed to persuade some Prague Conservatory teachers to take up the idea of a new music ensemble. Its first concert took place on the 20th of June 1961, bur its activities were to develop fully and have the greatest impact rather later, from 1962. At that rime its core consisted of Petr Kotik, the bassoonist and composer Rudolf Komorous, the pianist Arnost Wilde, the violinist Bohuslav Purgr and the clarinettist Milan Kostohryz. Also associated with this pioneering ensemble were the composers Zbynek Vostrak, its musical director and conductor since 1963, and Marek Kopelent, who took over the leadership of the ensemble after the departure of Petr Kotik in 1965. The latter ceased to work with the ensemble after a row following the performance of his Music for Three at the Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1964 and subsequent criticism, and in 1967 he founded his own ensemble QUAX with Jiri Stivin, Jan Hyncica and Vaclav Zahradnik.

The appearances of these ensembles at world festivals meant that international audiences became aware of contemporary Czech music and, albeit slowly, it started to make up for many wasted years. But we must admit that its reception by critics and audiences on the "Western scenes" was very lukewarm. The problem was that the techniques used by our composers had already been explored years before in the west and so the "new ideas" from Czechoslovakia tended to be regarded as behind the times, even though they had often actually been developed without any contact with world musical life and the composers had therefore been developing an original understanding of composition in many respects distinct from "Darmstadt" production.

But let us go back to the domestic scene. The Musica Viva Pragensis association of composers and performers at the Prague Conservatory originated as a chamber wind ensemble, but gradually turned into a group specialising in contemporary music and from 1962, and most strikingly from 1963, it proved a success in bringing together people interested in contemporary Czech and world music. Petr Kotik and Rudolf Komorous shared a particular interest in trends in the circle of John Cage, and this had a major influence on the repertoire and programmes of the whole ensemble. A number of composers and performers who found this line appealing or at least not too distant from their own approach soon gathered around Musica Viva Pragensis. Vladimir Sramek and later Zbynek Vostrak produced music that was ever more emancipated from ordinary post-Weberian composition, moving into work with chance, new composing techniques and material. Sramek and Kotik experimented with tape recorders and notation on millimetre paper, Komorous and Vostrak with silence, space, graphic notation and the new spirituality, and Kopelent with instrumental music theatre.

These trends helped to bring about a gradual transformation of official platforms, particularly the union apparatus. The majority of critics, and indeed prominent figures in official musical life, were still artistically, intellectually and of course to some extent politically unable to considera major break with tradition, but the political climate was changing, with official criticism of the dogmatism of the fifties offering "experimental" composers effective weapons against their critics. Criticism of Stalin's "cult of personality" became the focus of most statements on cultural policy especially following the 3rd Congress of the Union of Czechoslovak Composers (April 1962). As a result, the reviews in the daily papers were now written in very neutral terms, i.e. they suggested that what came from the west should be heard so that we could then criticise it. In concert life itself, we can then trace the inclusion of previously unacceptable works in the programmes of official festivals--for example Krzysztof Penderecky's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and Luigi Nono's Le Victoire de Guernica could be performed at the Prague Spring in 1963.

In this situation of conflicting views of contemporary western music--actually one in which most of the musical public knew nothing about contemporary music and those that knew something identified it mainly with music of the first half of the 20th century--the monopoly agency Pragokoncert, pushed by Petr Kotik, arranged an appearance by John Cage together with the Merce Cunningham Company in Prague. All through September 1964 posters in Prague advertised the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, John Cage, David Tudor, Musica Viva Pragensis and Robert Rauschenberg over the title "West Side Story Style Dance". As Petr Kotik later recalled, around two thousand people turned up at the concert, most of them just attracted by the title and evidently without any idea of what was in store. Cultural officials and celebrities and members of the diplomatic community also attended. The reaction of the critics was very mixed but the reviews in the daily press were on the positive side. John Cage had personally asked Petr Kotik (they had met in Vienna) to engage musicians who were absolutely forbidden to rehearse anything before the concert. The instrumental parts were taken by members of the Musica Viva Pragensis ensemble. Merce Cunningham tried in his choreographies to liberate the dance from the music. Rauschenberg used chance find materials to create a large assemblage for the performance, which was than destroyed afterwards by the cleaners. David Tudor and other performers produced unusual sounds rather than recognisable melodies on their instruments. The result was an undoubtedly colourful event of a kind unfamiliar to the local public and entirely incompatible with official art.

"[...] unfortunately we learned not to trust the masses, we became eminent individualists, people more introverted than extrovert". This rueful comment from the musicologist Vladimir Lebl, in an article in the first issue of the first year of the magazine Konfrontace [Confrontation], offers a telling insight into the character of the Czech arts scene forming at the beginning of the sixties. On the one hand resistance to the all-embracing standardised style of art and life, but also the fear of elitism and abandonment of the possibilities of communicating with a large audience. On the one hand constant search for one's own individual form of expression, but on the other fear of rejection and a failure to be understood. The impossibility of total rupture of ties and yet a constant stretching, sometimes almost to breaking point, of the umbilical cord of tradition and experience or else, on the contrary, what was often an uncritical glorification of all things western. The atmosphere of Czech music was marked by "superficiality and a lack of thoroughness in ideas and deeds, accommodation to passing mood and vogues, eclecticism in opinions, earthbound practical orientation essentially deforming the idea of musical progress (Vladimir Lebl).

In a situation of conflict and contradiction between the official standpoint of the union organisation and the often distorted ideas of the composers, the phenomenon of New Music came like a bolt from the blue and from the outset was regarded as a heterogeneous element. Neo-classicist compositions had caused ripples in the still waters of socialist-realist production and Stravinsky had created a sensation not so long before, when suddenly our musical public, unprepared and deliberately kept in the dark, had been confronted by the fact of twelve-tone composition or "worse". Some music critics sounded the alarm, warning their readers against anti-art. Even after 1956 (the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), the New Music was received very coolly in official quarters. A few pieces appeared at the Union of Composers listening sessions or here and there recordings were played at Prague's Theatre of Music, and most importantly at the Thursday listening seminars held in the music history department of Charles University. Although a new production of Berg's Wozzek in 1959 had--in the grand phrase--"proved the durability of contemporary music", only Honegger, Hindemith and (with some embarrassment) Stravinsky were accorded any degree of favour. It was only after the 12th Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1962, which proclaimed democratism and a final break with the surviving remnants of the cult of personality, that the 3rd Congress of the Union of Czechoslovak Composers was able to make what was in many respects a break with the past, so that even in the official circles of the ruling Union power apparatus people started to talk about the Western composition techniques hitherto considered "decadent". Not that the "advances" of West European culture were directly approved, but the bigwigs in the Union now spoke of the necessity of studying them deeply in order to assess their value, or preferably lack of value.

Free-thinking and excessive openness to the Western world continued to irritate the Czech cultural policy makers. The performance of Petr Kotik's Music for Three in Memory of Jan Rychlik at the Warsaw Autumn festival, for example, provided one opportunity for them to show their teeth; official functionaries expressed the opinion that such experiments ought not to be export items, and this was not a dignified way to present Czech music abroad. The ensemble Musica Viva Pragensis was punished for the offence by being prevented from participating in the festival of contemporary music in Zagreb in 1965. The international scandal that this provoked led one of the main "spokesmen" of the Czech protagonists of the New Music, Vladimir Lebl, to write an article in Hudebni rozhledy magazine that sparked off a heated debate, but unfortunately Lebl's reactions to the attacks of the other side were not printed.

Despite the political thaw of the mid-1960s, cases of this kind and other administrative attacks were nothing very unusual at the time. "The rigid monolithic cultural-political regime had started to collapse, at the official level dogmatism gave way to an intellectual bog, and iron diktat was replaced by small tyrannies, then official bullying, then haggling and finally apathy, here and there interspersed by hectic attacks". (Vladimir Lebl)

Even so, despite the fact that the era was far from free of problematic political interference, we can speak without hesitation of a golden age of Czech experimental art. This was a new art not produced by imitation of particular models and accommodation to an "approved aesthetic" but characterised by free thinking and an unfailing desire for authentic expression, for the creation of an individual language that required the same inner freedom and courage from the audience to decode it. It remains here only to say in sorrow that this emergent movement directed to freedom of artistic creation, whatever the results, was violently curtailed in our country by the intervention of the Warsaw Pact armies in August 1968 and above all by the ensuing "normalisation" policies of the all-powerful Communist Party in the 1970s. Those who did not emigrate were pushed by union purges and normalisation conditions to the margins of society and for several years their work found no place in either official or unofficial Czechoslovak venues.


The beginning of the 1960s saw a crucial turning point in the style and idiom of the composer Jan Klusak (1934). After a period of enthusiasm for Neo-Classicism he had been one of the first in post-war Czechoslovakia to venture into the musical world characterised by the banners of the Second Viennese School, twelve-tone music, serialism. A new Prague production of Berg's Wozzek (1959) was a major event, and one that captivated Klusak, for it seemed to him a manifestation of the ideal that had been crystallising with ever greater clarity in his theoretical ideas and his music. An attempt to achieve a deep emotional effect by using rational techniques of composition anal thinking through the principles of musical form is evident in Klusak's music to this day. A perceptible shift away from the canon of neo-classicism into a new musical world can be seen as early as his piece Four Small Vocal Exercises on Texts by Franz Kafka (1960), while later works show the application of the principles of twelve-tone composition and serialism, especially Invention L Sonata for Violin and Wind Instruments, Pictures, 2nd String Quartet and, supremely, Variations on a Theme by Gustav Mahler. The composer conceived the Variations as early as 1960, bur did not complete it until February 1962. Variations on a Theme by Gustav Mahler is the most impressive composition in Klusak's output of the time, not only in terms of the scope and variety of techniques, but especially in terms of the thoroughness and purity of a musical thought new for its time. Klusak does not cite just his chosen theme, but the whole relevant section of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. His aim is to present to the audience a composer whom he admired, and who was at the rime somewhat underrated, to break down Mahler's music into elementary units and then gradually use them to create a new structure. The musical material remains, but its organisation is transformed with the help of freely conceived twelve-tone technique, often breached by the composer's Mahlerian reminiscences. The variations were first performed on the 4th of April 1963 at the Comedy Opera in Berlin, where it was conducted by Vaclav Neumann with the local orchestra. On the 10th of December 1963 the same conductor gave the piece its domestic premiere in the Smetana Hall in Prague with the Prague Symphony Orchestra.


Marek Kopelent (1932) began to mature as a composer when working as an editor in the State Belles Lettres and Music Art Publishing House, where from 1956 he came into contact with all kinds of different note material. This prompted the young composer to many reflections on the rationale of the Neo-Romantic principles that had been the basis for his music up to that point. Here he also first encountered the New Music. In the more relaxed atmosphere of the following years Kopelent took an active part in international festival life. With his temperamental orientation to rational composition, he found in the post-Weberian principles of the New Music the new order he had so much lacked, enabling him to create an entirely new musical world within the meaning of "composition as traditionally understood", always governed by a rational but not a dogmatic order. The abundant use that he made of aleatorics was for Kopelent an enrichment of rational form, but not its fundamental principle. The composer also richly exploited the possibilities of the spatial diffusion of sound and microtonal possibilities. His Nenie with Flute for the Late Hana Hlavsova and above all his Third String Quartet of 1963, which won him a strong position in the European avant-garde, may be considered break-though works. The Novak Quartet, to which he dedicated the quartet, played it more than fifty rimes in the years 1963-1968, including performances at a number of international music festivals. In the period of normalisation that followed the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces in August 1968, Marek Kopelent was banished from the concert repertoire at home, but his work had already won a firm place in European concert halls, where it was performed (without the composer being present or involved) throughout the seventies and eighties. His piece, A few minutes with an oboist was commissioned by the Italian-born American conductor Maria di Bonaventura for the summer festival in Aspen in 1972. Unfortunately it was not to be performed there. It was premiered two years later at the Wittener Tage fur Neue Kammermusik, but the most important performances of the piece can be considered those at concerts in Huddersfield and in Warsaw with Heinz Holliger as both soloist and conductor. Kopelent himself said of the piece that "it is influenced by my then rather ironic relationship to the concerto form (the constantly returning 'court' flourish in the oboe part is always associated with a gesture inviting a certain player to play, and later the conductor himself--hence the subtitle, 'concerto galante'), the period when it was written (in the second 'cadence' we hear the Russian 'kazachok', symbolising the forces occupying the country), and a longing for colourfulness of sound (prepared piano, multiple sounds on the solo instrument, children's sounding toys in the conclusion, and SO on.)."


What we might call the authenticity of the art work is the most characteristic element in the music of the composer, flautist, organiser and free thinker, Petr Kotik (1942). An unfailing interest in art and literature led the young composer to an almost unbounded freedom of musical expression, in terms of both social and personal attitudes, unparalleled (except perhaps by Vladimir Sramek) in the deformed conditions of the totalitarian system. In fact his meeting with Sramek at the end of the 1950s was of fundamental significance for Kotik's work. Vladimir Sramek was experimenting with the possibilities of creating music with the help of a tape recorder. Petr Kotik also owned what was then a rare and much prized item, and so he was invited to co-operate. When Sramek had finished his composition, he suggested that Kotik bring a composition of his own the next time, and that was where it all began. Kotik explored the possibility of creating music with the help of visual perception, i.e. the exploitation of a graphic element and its arrangement in space (for example on millimetre paper), the principle of the chance distribution of different musical parameters with the aim of applying the undetermined order of nature ... Commenting on his composition Spontano, created before his emigration in 1969 Petr Kotik wrote that, "After finishing Music for 3--in memory of Jan Rychlik in the spring of 1964 I started to compose Spontano. I completed the piece in the summer when I came back to Prague for the vacation from my studies in Vienna. The asceticism in the sense of the sound material was most probably a reaction to Music for 3, where I tried to exploit the maximum in terms of instrumental possibilities. At that time I was planning a major appearance in Prague, where Frederic Rzewski was going to be performing as well. Spontano was supposed to be part of the enterprise and Rzewski was to take the piano part. The title refers to the composition process: for the first time I used spontaneously and intuitively altered material resulting from my compositional method. Up to then I had always kept to a strict method, following it right through from the initial concept to the final result."


Until he was forty, the Czech composer and conductor Zbynek Vostrak (1920-1985) was one of the leading representatives of the Czech late romantic tradition. His operas and ballets were part of the core repertoire of Czech theatres and in 1962 he had won the UNESCO Prize for the radio recording of the one-act comic opera the Broken Pitcher based on Kleist's play. This award was made, however when Vostrak's style of composition was already in the process of fundamental transformation. At the beginning of the 1960s he encountered new West European techniques; the resulting radical change in the music of an already established composer was remarkable. From 1962 his music expresses an interest in use of the twelve-tone row that led to a totally mathematically organised work. He developed a method of composition supposed to remove the individuality of the composer from his music. The music was not supposed to say anything, but only to convey ideas, of which God was the only idea worthy of it. Music appeared to Vostrak as the "unity and opposition" of three principles: statics, kinetics and rhythmics. The musical structures in which the listener ceases to notice the division of rime were what Vostrak identified as statics, the notes changing pitch in a continuous row were what he characterised as kinetics, and where the sounds and tones are perceived in continuous order above all in relation to changing lengths (durations) he saw rhythmics. Composition then consisted in the counterpoising and balancing of these principles. The musical material was essentially a matter of indifference, derived from numerical orders and later intuitively, with the help of aleatorics, or performers. Vostrak himself often employed the same metaphysical idea--which for him always was the starting point and central focus of composition--in several different ways. His access to the musicians of the Musica Viva Pragensis ensemble allowed him to test out his hypotheses. We can follow his progressive development from the song cycle While Falling Asleep of 1962, influenced by twelve-tone music and serialism, through Affects for seven instruments of 1963, where he already exploits aleatorics and graphic notation, The Pendulum of Time of the years 1966-1967, where he also adds electronics, Tao for 9 instruments, written on twelve separate sheets with the order up to the performers, to the Book of Principles of 1973, which consists of verbal scores for undefined chamber orchestra.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Czech Music Information
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:cd series
Author:Pantucek, Viktor
Publication:Czech Music
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Previous Article:The flexible vocal chords and iron will of Sona Cervena.
Next Article:Pianos from the little Czech Village of Divisov are sought after worlwide.

Related Articles
Life after Death: Approaches to a Cultural and Social History of Europe During the 1940s and 1950s.
Imprints. Essays on Czech Music and Aesthetics.
Klangspuren 2006.
Martinu's mysterious accident; essays in honor of Michael Henderson.
Dear readers.
Back to peace; reconciliation and retribution in the postwar period.
The controversy over the place of Antonin Dvorak in the history of Czech national music.
The reception of Sir Walter Scott in Europe.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters