The Controversy over the Place of Antonin Dvorak in the History of Czech National Music

By Ottlova, Marta | Czech Music, January 2008 | Go to article overview

The Controversy over the Place of Antonin Dvorak in the History of Czech National Music


Ottlova, Marta, Czech Music


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The title of this article might be regarded by many as an overstatement. Indeed it is almost hard to believe that at the close of the 19th century, when Antonin Dvorak--and thanks to him, Czech music as a whole--was enjoying not only recognition at home but also enormous success in Europe and overseas, a group opposed to Dvorak came into existence at Prague university, which would subsequently try to leave him out of the picture when chronicling the development of modern Czech music. The issue subsequently became a matter of public debate on the music scene in the period 1911-1915; dubbed the "Dvorak battles", it would fill the pages of the music journals and the daily newspapers.

In that period, which was so sensitive about national matters, objections were even expressed to Dvorak's growing success beyond the borders of Bohemia. His success was interpreted as a betrayal of the nation's art, and because he accepted commissions from abroad he was accused of trading his art for momentary success. The idea of progress--as the keynote of historical thinking in Czech and European musicology well into the twentieth century--engendered a stereotypical construct that contrasted the successful (albeit conservative and spontaneous) musician that was Dvorak, to the suffering, progressive genius and thinker that was Bedrich Smetana, regarded as the founder and creator of Czech national music. Although it may seem no more than a brief polemical episode, the extreme anti-Dvorak standpoints of those days cast a shadow for a long time over the historical appreciation of the period of development of modern Czech music, as well as over Dvor k himself. And because it was closely bound up with the issue of what history is and what creates the national culture, it also determined what questions were posed by historical research.

The following metaphor from Jaroslav Vrchlicky's elegy To Antonin Dvorak, which the great Czech poet wrote immediately after the composer's death in 1904, might serve as a fitting introduction to our reflection on the way Dvorak was received at the time: "In the desert God created an oasis and a crystal cavern, And a swaggering Czech hurled a stone therein." These lines also express the sharp contradiction that Vrchlicky and much of the Czech music public felt between what Dvorak's music said to them and what the Czech music historians where trying to foist on them--and this was long before the period of uncompromising controversies. The fact is that in the critical reflections about Dvorak's music around the turn of the century, the composer was viewed exactly in the spirit of Vrchlicky's metaphor as "the creator of a positive antipole to the world of power, reason, reflection and creative sorrow, of escape from the world of reality", as an antithesis to the "world of the diseased and the weak".

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Let us therefore attempt to view the controversy from a musicological standpoint, even though one cannot tackle fully either the personality of the main protagonist of those polemics, Zdenek Nejedly (1878-1962), Professor of Musicology at Charles University in Prague or that entire period of controversy solely from the viewpoint of a single field of study. A musicological approach can, however, help throw light on the basic issues of those debates and proclamations, which seem so impenetrable in terms both of their extent and the knottiness of the arguments, particularly in view of the fact that the arguments to do with music history and compositional techniques were sometimes a front for cultural and political interests.

In a way, the controversy over Dvor k was a continuation of the disputes between Czech Wagnerians and anti-Wagnerians from the 1870s, which, in view of the approaching tenth anniversary of the Provisional Theatre (the first permanent Czech theatre, 1862), coincided with reflections on the present and future of Czech national opera.

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