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Czech Music Around 1900

Jiří Kopecký, Editor
Lenka Krupkova
December 1, 2017

c. 320 pp.

30 illustrations

ISBN: 978-1-57647-302-3

6 $75.00

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Czech musical culture around 1900 saw itself as the culminating phase of the development of Czech national music. At the same time, however, it exhibited many contradictory phenomena mirroring the inexorable dissolution of unified Czech patriotic life, which especially in the second half of the nineteenth century had encountered resistant forces in the Germanophilic environment of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The extraordinary dynamics of the period of about two decades before the outbreak of World War I were determined by the rise of a young generation of composers who now accepted the “global” character of Czech music as a matter of course, thanks to the international success of works by Bedřich Smetana (the opera The Bartered Bride) and Antonín Dvořák (works for orchestra and chamber ensembles, large choral works). Composers like Leoš Janáček, Josef Bohuslav Foerster, Josef Suk, and especially Vítězslav Novák had extraordinary talent, received good training, and gradually won support from influential publishers. With courage and critical perspective they came to terms with the bequest of the “fathers”, the “founders” of Czech music, as well as with the works of their own more famous contemporaries like Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Gustave Charpentier. They gained successes abroad. Reactions by the public, critics, and their colleagues, however, were mixed, as though Czech society were not capable of accepting divergent approaches to artistic creation. Many works (if not many composers) came out of this “battleground” weakened and fell by the wayside. One of the aims of this book, Czech Music Around 1900, is to draw attention to some unjustly forgotten treasures of Czech music.


Jiří Kopecký, Editor:
Lenka Krupkova :


March 19, 2019

European History Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 1. Reviewed by: Suzanne Ament, Radford University, Radford, Virginia, USA This collection of essays is at once broad and quite specific. Broad in the sense that it covers a huge range of topics: musicology, Czech history, linguistics, opera, philosophy, folklore and biography; specific in that it truly does stick to the era in the title. Even when authors may wander back into the mid-nineteenth century or forward into the twentieth they always return to the twenty years or so around 1900. It is also specific in that it is a book best suited for Czech specialists and Czech music specialists at that. It is written by a who’s who of Czech music experts with an impressive array of publications and awards to their credit. The editors make their own contributions as well as Beckerman, Beveridge as author and translator, Fiehler, Ottlova, Nouza, Tyrell and Karlk, a young scholar working on his dissertation. Some have written elsewhere specifically and extensively on the composers presented in this book. Sources are also extensive, ranging from diaries and memoirs to correspondence, concert programmes and reviews. The introduction notes that many of these articles appear in English for the first time, thus proving a valuable window for English-speaking readers. This is not to say that a more general reader cannot get something from this book. Some essays are more specifically musicological and employ specific terminology and even some visual excerpts of scores. Others are more narrative and easier to follow for the general reader. The book depicts the era from 1890 to the beginning of World War I as a time of great change and a time of dichotomies. Historically, the Czechs are experiencing a swell of nationalism which will culminate in their new independent state breaking away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. And even within the Czech lands there are divergent views and cultural issues between the Bohemians and the Moravians. Musically, this appears to take on the complexion of the urban/modern juxtaposed with the rural and folk. Opera is seen as more traditionally urban while folk music is presented as less aesthetic but as a form that can also be brought forth to depict strong national identity. There is also with many composers a blending of the two styles. This becomes critical in the debates over which elements of music are ‘Czech’ in nature and which are ‘Germanic’, which often links to Wagnerian style. Simultaneously, there is a strong urge for Czech music to be carried abroad and influence the wider musical world but with the caveat that it not lose its ‘Czechness’, which is subject to varying and often strident opinions as to how to define authenticity. The book begins with the great dichotomy between the legacies of the two great Czech nineteenth-century composers and their respective followers. Bedrich Smetana is seen as the representative of a Czech national music and Antonin Dvorak as striving to create something international while still keeping in favour with the Czech public. For a more general reader this heated kerfuffle seems a bit baffling. No doubt the musicologists can explain this in more detail and find more emotion behind the debate. However, what is clear is that composers and those in the musical world believed there was such a thing as Czech music and public opinion did play a role in determining what that meant. The essays focus on the key composers who influenced this era: the founders Smetana and Dvorak and their respective students, including Fibich, Foerster, Ostrcil, Novak, Suk, Janacek and Nedbal. Other players such as librettists, performers and reviewers, especially the blunt, opinionated and even mean Nejedly´ feature in the various articles. Essays generally cover the composers’ biographies, major works and critiques of those compositions as well as referencing other influences. Attention is given to foreign styles or composers and how they fit into the wider frame of Czech music: German composers, especially Wagner, Strauss, Brahms and Mahler; French, Italian and Russian styles of opera; and instrumental work. These details can become extremely technical. The writing is also quite dense and varies between essays. This may be in part explained by the fact that some essays have been translated into English. Some are more technical than others, and some are based on literary criticism or philosophy, while others recount specific historic events or plots in musical works. There are a few technical printing errors which should be corrected if the book is reprinted, on pages 139 and 145–146. The ease of reading does vary between articles and even within them depending on the subject matter, but whatever your expertise, by the end of the book you have a really good feel for the importance of music and the major and varied roles these composers contributed to all aspects of musical life, and, by extension, to their national culture.

European History Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 1.

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