Magazine article Czech Music

Art Nouveau: Parallels in the Piano Music Of: V. Novak, J. Suk and M. K. Ciurlionis

Magazine article Czech Music

Art Nouveau: Parallels in the Piano Music Of: V. Novak, J. Suk and M. K. Ciurlionis

Article excerpt

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th century European music experienced a multiple branching of aesthetic and intellectual principles and values that in many ways reflected various kinds of social change. In simplified terms, it is usual to identify three stylistic movements as dominant at the Finde-Siecle, and in a continuous process of development (although each was naturally in a different stage of its development). These movements are late Romanticism (in fact its tail end), Impressionism, and Expressionism, which was fast gaining ground. Regrettably, however, treatments of the music of the time often forget its relationship to Art Nouveau in the visual arts, although in fact within the context of the general aesthetic climate an Art Nouveau influence was to a greater or lesser extent expressed in the work of many composers.

Art Nouveau (Czech Secesse, German Jugendstil, French Art Nouveau, English Modern Style, Russian Mo[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]epH) was a European-wide style that emerged at the turn of the 19th/20th century de facto as a reaction to the luxuriant historicism and eclecticism of the period. At the beginning Art Nouveau was associated primarily with architecture (P. Behrens, O. Wagner, J. Kotera), where it meant the vanguard of several later constructivist trends, and the fine arts (e. g. the French group Nabis, G. Klimt, A. Beardsley, M. A. Vrubel, and in the Czech Lands A. Mucha, J. Preisler, V. Preissig or E Bilek). It was defined primarily by fondness for broken colours, linearity, two-dimensionality, the unbroken undulating curve representing unforced movement on a surface, and concern for ornament, considered not just as decorative function, but as symbol. Art Nouveau influenced all the other arts and also had an effect on everyday life. Indeed, a convergence between poetry, music and the visual arts was one of its characteristic features.

The term "musical Art Nouveau" was employed only later, retrospectively, when books and articles where written on the whole subject. In the Czech Lands, Art Nouveau took a very distinctive form in all spheres of the arts, and so there has been interest in the problem from a specifically Czech angle. As far as Czech music is concerned, the names most often mentioned in connection with Art Nouveau are those of two composers whose similarities in many respects are balanced by their huge differences in others. They are Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949) and Josef Suk (1874-1935). Art Nouveau elements in the early work of Novak have been the subject of Jaroslav Volek's article Vitezslav Novak a secese [Vitezslav Novok and the Secession] (Opus musicum 1970, no. 8), and Suk's debt to the Secession is explored in Jarmila Doubravova's analytical essays Secesni rysy dila Josefa Suka [Secession Elements in the Work of Josef Suk] (In: (Ceska. hudba svetu--svet Ceske hudbe [Czech Music of the World--The World of Czech Music]. Praha 1974) and Symbol stromu: secese, J. Suk a soucasnost [The Symbol of the Tree: J. Suk and the Contemporary] (In: Dialog a imaginace [Dialogue and Imagination]. Praha 1998).

In the spirit of Asafjev's concept of music as an intonational art, in which composer and composition interpret the "intonational awareness of the age", I want in this text to draw attention to certain "Art Nouveau" parallels, certainly not based on direct mutual influence but nonetheless very striking, between Novak's early piano compositions, Suk's piano compositions, and the piano music written by the founder of Lithuanian national professional music, Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (1875-1911), who is better known in the world today as a painter, but who produced an original and quite large corpus of music. All three of the figures mentioned were not just inventive composers but good pianists. This was no doubt one reason why they quite frequently composed for the piano (in Ciurlionis's case piano is the main source for any understanding of his composition style), another being the considerable popularity enjoyed by piano music as a genre at the turn of the century. …

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