The Czech Interwar Avant-Garde as a Revolution of Return, Civilism, the Microtonal System and the Atonal Style

By Haas, Petr | Czech Music, October 2010 | Go to article overview

The Czech Interwar Avant-Garde as a Revolution of Return, Civilism, the Microtonal System and the Atonal Style


Haas, Petr, Czech Music


The Czech Interwar avant-garde represents one of the most striking and distinctive periods in Czech music. It is familiar to the international professional and semi-professional public largely thanks to the microtonal system developed by the composer and theorist Alois Haba. Its leading representative Bohuslav Martinu is among the most internationally renowned of Czech composers and his music is frequently performed both at home and abroad.

In Czech-speaking milieux the term "avant-garde" first appeared in the mid-19th century, i.e. at the period when the originally military expression came into political usage where it was used first in France and later in other areas of Europe to denote a primarily leftwing political grouping and later also artists in the forefront ("advance guard") of progress. In the most famous Czech modern lexicon, Otto's Encyclopaedic Dictionary, the entry "avantgarda" dates to the 1930 edition, in which its author speaks of the artistic avant-garde as progressive art and states that "the avant-garde in literature, theatre and cinematography is an expression denoting an energetic, pioneering movement in a particular field of the arts [...] and so people write of avant-garde literature, painting, theatre and film."

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In Czech-speaking society, the term "avantgarda" related to artistic activity appears first at the end of the year 1920 with the formation of the socially and artistically avant-garde group known as Devetsil Arts Association. Its members were first and foremost literati but later included composers (see below). In its manifesto, Prague Monday, of the 6th of December 1920, the founder artists did not define themselves as avant-garde but the main instigator of the Devetsil, and leading Czech critic and theorist, Karel Teige, used the word in a speech made at the Prague Revolutionary Stage on the 6th of February 1921. Czech musicology has employed the term "avant-garde music" since the beginning of the 1930s. It was then the founder of musicology at the Masaryk University in Brno, Vladimir Helfert, for example, who employed the term in his respected writings.

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The Czech Modern Movement, Social Expressionism and the Transition to the Avant-Garde

The protagonists of the Czech inter-war avant-garde are very closely linked to the Czech modern movement in music, which in its first generation included the composers Leos Janacek (1854-1928) and Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949), and also Josef Suk (1874-1935), who like Novak had been a pupil of Antonin Dvorak, as well as Otakar Ostrcil (1879-1935), not only a composer but an enlightened promoter of avant-garde music in the years when he was head of the opera of the National Theatre in Prague.

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In the case of Leos Janacek, we can also justifiably speak directly of a "social expressionism" with ideological links not just to the Czech literary modern movement but also to future avant-garde movements. In the words of the Czech musicologist and composer Milos Stedron, Janacek's "social and Slavonic expressionism" consists in the "exaggeration and acoustic compression of the expansive action". Janacek's vocal and vocal-instrumental work took on a social dimension through its partial orientation to folklore; the folk quality in his music consists not of mere citation of folk songs but of the highly individual transformation of the folk idiom leaving an "authentic core" of characteristic harmonic and melodic elements. In this way one of the unspoken but real and practiced programme principles of the Czech interwar musical avant-garde was essentially fulfilled in his work. Janacek's music was played at the concerts of the Pritomnost [The Present] association and did so at a time when this group was already focused exclusively on avant-garde music (see below). Other expressions of the sympathy for Janacek felt by avant-garde movements included his honorary membership of The New Music Society of California (1925), where in 1927 he found himself at the side of e. …

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