Czech modernism

Beethoven exhausted the string quartet. Thoroughly. It took nearly a century for Bartók to stand up and continue its destiny. In the interim, Brahms burned untold numbers of his manuscripts to allow three to appear, each with characteristic slight-of -hand harmonic gear-shifts yet padded with lumbering rhythms, sounding a bit bloated despite all his efforts. Brahms did far better when he had more than four players to contend with.



Brahms was attracted to Hungary but the Czech composer Dvořák was attracted to Brahms’s music and did wonders with its shape. His Hungary turned out to be the United States, where he resided for about four years in New York and out in a Czech community in Iowa.


Dvořák heard Black music and was smitten by gospel singing and their rhythms, harnessing a bit into his language. One quartet, whose name became sanitized from the N word into American, was recorded by his son-in-law Josef Suk and the Bohemian String Quartet he founded and led. While Vienna sailed on as the cultural light of the late 19th century, its outsiders were the ones innovating and avoiding being boxed up in the status quo. Here is a taste of the quartet’s 1928 recording:

Dvorak String Quartet op. 96, first movement, by the Bohemian String Quartet

It sounds episodic, like late Beethoven, and springs out from the Brahmsian three-piece suit to move more freely, flirting with folk music while carrying on the classical principles. The Bohemians are the closest we can get to a composer they championed in concerts throughout non-Czech Europe.

A Scottish-Italian composer and pianist, Giovanni Sgambati, was a Roman pupil of Liszt and was recorded in a movement from Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in 1908 (announced by Sgambati: uno…due.) Italian musical life was dominated by the voice so it took a Sgambati to wake them up to Beethoven and German music. He and his band are showing us the gulf of a modern thinker at the keyboard stuck with slippery sliding string players whose practice was soon to end.

Sgambati and his quartet play Dvorak


Sgambati quintet

As old string playing and its 19th century were moribund and finally put down in World War I, another  composer arose: Janacek the Moravian. He transformed speech and content into sound, no longer enslaved by themes and their past as expressive narrative. By endowing pitches into wordless speech, Janacek could evoke states of mind and emotions. Milan Kundera, the son of a pupil, mentions Janacek’s role in his Testaments Betrayed (p. 186):

The permanent coexistence of contradictory emotions gives Janacek’s music its dramatic quality; dramatic in the most literal sense of the term: this music does not evoke a narrator telling a tale, rather, it evokes a stage set on which many different characters are simultaneously present, speaking, confronting each other; the seed of this dramatic space is quite often found within a single melody itself.


Kundera once had to choose between following his creativity into music composition or literature and while we appreciate the outcome, his writings on music elevate his ideas far above scholars and pen-pushers through an insight not only sharpened by an innate understanding of art in relation to socio-aesthetics, but from the presence of a pianist father who had studied with the composer.

When I asked Kundera about his father, he tersely offered that all he had to say was in his Testaments and that he owned no recordings by him. Was he was planning to eventually cover the music of his early life and family, or mounting a defense to keep everyone away? Perhaps some day we will find out and hopefully before it is too late.

After a search, the only known recording of Kundera playing solo piano music was retrieved: a pair of polkas by Smetana, from Prague circa 1949, one year into their Communist puppet regime controlled by Moscow. Kundera’s playing stands apart from prevalent styles through its informed structure, wit, taste, and appreciation of  a thorny modernity that would be manipulated by Janacek and others yet to arrive:

Smetana Polka 1

Evolving out of Smetana’s segments and articulated themes came Janacek’s argumentative and reacting language. While his music is now broadly accessible, in the late 1940s it was rather a confined local affair. Before their regime worsened, Kundera and Bretislav Bakala, a fellow pupil of Janacek’s, made it into the studio just in time: one of their projects displays the pianist and conductor in Defiance, a late work by Janacek, a capriccio for piano (left hand alone) and chamber ensemble, its first recording:

Bakala Kundera

Their playing projects the ingenuity of Janacek’s microcosm, in part from their direct contact with him at the time it was composed. It reaches beyond our present’s cosiness to peer inside his vast personal music world, one that evokes enigmas like Bartók.

Janacek Capriccio excerpt

The world awaits more information and sounds from these people. One path that opened at this time led to Hašek’s The Good Soldier Schweik and Kurt Weill’s Three-Penny Opera, which will take on new dimensions after you experience Janacek. Writers such as Gombrowicz

Gombrowicz Witold Fot. Paczowski Bohdan

picked up the thread, leading into Existentialism, the kingdom later claimed by Sartre, who became yet another dull conventional disputant.

Weill: The Cannon Song

©Allan Evans 2013




Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *