Some Experimental Trends in Post-War Czech Music

Article excerpt

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. …