Czech Composers in the Post-Modern Era, Czech Music CD Series #1: Chamber Music

Article excerpt

The CD published as a supplement to this issue of the magazine could not possibly claim to illustrate the recent development of Czech music in full or even as a representative cross-section. It is far too small (someone important will always be left out, and even the pieces selected do not represent the whole output of their composers), and so while Czech Music Quarterly has decided to acquaint readers with Czech music by the direct method of providing them with sound recordings, it is long-term enterprise and this CD is just the first piece in the mosaic. The series is deliberately not conceived as a chronological view, as will be clear from the very first CD which focuses mainly on the current middle and younger generation of composers. Here composers born in the 1950s rub shoulders with one composer 20 years younger.

Despite great diversity of style, the generation to which the five older composers belong (out of the six on the CD) shares a number of more general features that have to do with their common historical experience. These features are individualism, resignation to what for years was enforced isolation from the international "festival" mainstream coupled with resistance to identification with the conservatively minded institutional musical life in the Czech Lands. Orchestral pieces are almost absent from the lists of their works (the situation in Czech orchestras being unfavourable to the attempt) and most of their output has consisted of chamber music written for a circle of like-minded performers. To this day their work tends to be performed as part of their own projects, ensembles and small festivals. Their example is highly illustrative of the much in the life of Czech music over the last 30 years.

Let us therefore first take a look at the period of the 1970s and 1980s, when this generation grew up and started on their active careers. These were the two decades of the rigid Neo-Stalinist regime installed in 1968 by Soviet tanks after Czechoslovakia's brief experiment in cultural and political liberalisation. It was an epoch that brought centralist control and conformism to the life of the Czech arts. Official concerts of contemporary music were for long years grey and boring affairs. Conservatism also ruled the music schools where composition was taught. At the Music Faculty of the Prague Academy of Performing Arts the key teaching posts in composition were held by mediocre composers, prominent in the Communist Party. Composers like Martin Smolka, who were students during this period, did not feel themselves to be the heirs of these conformist composers in any respect. Instead they tended to see themselves as the successors of the Czech avant-garde of the 1960s, i.e. of groups of composers who at the time were ostracised and driven underground into the position of musical dissent. In their biographies Martin Smolka and Petr Kofron for example identify their teacher as Marek Kopelent, who gave them private consultations since at the time he was not allowed to teach at any school.

Compared with the politically extremely regimented Prague, the situation was rather better at the Janacek Academy of Performing Arts in Brno, where a group of progressively-orientated composers with a broad outlook and serious interests in new musical trends continued to teach even in the 1970s. In Brno the truly outstanding teacher of composition was Alois Pinos (see CM 4/05), who published important works on the theory of composition and kept up contacts with the Darmstadt Courses, where he was regularly invited as a teacher and to which he took his own students. Peter Graham, Josef Adamik and Petr Kofron, for example, all studied in his class. It was in their circle that there first developed a clear search for new, in the broad sense of the word "post-modern" stylistic orientations, as it were in an attempt to find a way out of the all too familiar territory where the wearisome and in fact already anachronistic conflict between the ruling Czech traditionalism and the forbidden fruit of the 1960s avant-garde was still endlessly raging. …