Wed, August 31, 2011: Juggling Music

Juggling on the Berlin Wall, Nov 16, 1989. Is an even-handed approach to politics and culture possible?

Guest Editorial:
Juggling Music, Motives, and Ideology

Czech national aspirations, which also involved ideological considerations, played an important role in the creative lives of the Czech Republic’s “famous four” – Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček, and Martinů. Dvořák and Smetana saw themselves distinctly as cultural representatives of the Czech national revival. And not only that! The year 1848 saw the young Smetana on the barricades in Prague in a brave yet hopeless attempt to resist the approaching Hapsburg army, and I doubt he was wielding a conductor’s baton.

Growing up in less revolutionary times, Dvořák lacked the experience of such battles, but nevertheless devoted himself to the national revival in a more peaceful way. However, we should not forget that Smetana and Dvořák were not only committed to developing Czech national music, but also drew great inspiration from music of distinctly non-Czech provenance – Smetana was greatly influenced by Liszt and Wagner; Dvořák, by Brahms as well as Tchaikovsky. And it was sometimes for this that both came in for niggardly criticism on the part of more ideologically-oriented gents that obviously saw themselves as the real saviours of the Czech nation. Luckily, the qualities of both not only broke through the hackneyed cultural shroud of Austro-Hungarian conservatism, but also served to counter-balance more bigoted elements among the revivalists.

Ideology also played a role in connection with both Janáček and Martinů. Communist musicologist Prof Zdeněk Nejedlý (later culture minister in the post-war communist government), an ardent fan of Smetana, described Janáček’s works as amateurish. Nejedlý took a distinctly dogmatic approach to Janáček, whose music failed in his eyes (or rather ears) to carry on the romantic tradition.

This naturally applied two-fold in the case of Martinů, who brought completely new elements into Czech music. This included dissonance, which traditionalist musicologists saw as a crime against Czech culture. Further, Martinů’s refusal to return to post-war Czechoslovakia from the USA was taken by some communist ideologists as a sign that the composer was an anti-communist, and therefore one whose works should not be played. However, he had really nothing to fear as he had not taken an active part in any anti-communist or anti-Czechoslovak campaigns. If he had, the Czechoslovak communist government would hardly have approved his reburial in his native Polička in 1979.

And the same happened in England with Shostakovich, whose 7th Symphony, the “Leningrad,” was not played in England for many years, as English ideologists claimed it promoted Stalinist aggression. Things soon changed, though, in both cases, and by the mid-1970s both Martinů and Shostakovich had been fully rehabilitated by the respective “music authorities.” Renewed concerts of their music in the respective countries attracted large and enthusiastic crowds. The crowds, however, were not there for ideological reasons, but simply because they wanted to hear the music they loved so much played live, something that had been denied them by ideological misfits for many years.

Sir Charles Mackerras, who was a great fan of Janáček, claimed that Nejedlý had sought to destroy Janáček’s music as he had Martinů’s. And yet, in 2004, the same Sir Charles tried to explain to journalists at the Janáček Festival in Brno why Janáček was not so popular in Czech society today. Janáček was apparently “near to the ideology of communist music” and his music had been very “popular with the communists,” Sir Charles told a Czech Radio interviewer.

And so nobody in the Czech Republic could possibly like it today, could they?

So we complete the vicious circle of ideological claptrap afflicting the music scene. Who or whose music will be next? You can just see the modern-day buffoons pulling the petals off the daisy: “Love him, love him not!” I, however, have the funny feeling that especially Czech music deserves a slightly different approach.

– František Havran

Photo Credits: Yann Forget

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