Magazine article Czech Music

Pavel Borkovec between Constructivism and Lyricism

Magazine article Czech Music

Pavel Borkovec between Constructivism and Lyricism

Article excerpt

The composer and pedagogue Pavel Borkovec is a distinct figure of the Czech interwar musical avant-garde, while his subsequent post-war creation represents a specific synthesis of post-Romantic and interwar avant-garde elements. Commemorating the composer's work seems fitting on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his death, as well as in the light of his having gradually fallen into oblivion and the subsequent boiling down of distinguished representatives of the Czech interwar, neo-Classicism-oriented avant-garde to one name: Bohuslav Martinu.


In the history of art, the terms "Constructivism" and "Lyricism" are commonly used to define opposite approaches to creation. The history of Czech 20th-century music, however, contains a number of composers who embraced distinctively rationalised compositional methods and at the same time strove to apply them in creating pieces with an expressiveness akin to Romanticism. One such is Pavel Bofkovec. Born on 10 June 1894, he studied philosophy at Charles University in Prague yet in 1915 was conscripted and would never complete his studies. After World War I, he decided to pursue a career as a composer. He first began taking private lessons from the traditionalist Josef Bohuslav Foerster, later on he was a student of Jaroslav Kfieka, and from 1925 to 1927 he attended the Prague Conservatory, studying in the master class under Josef Suk. In 1946 he was appointed professor of composition at the Faculty of Music of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. He taught until 1964, with pupils of his such as Jan Klusak, the currently acclaimed Petr Eben, as well as Lubos Fiser, Pavel Blatny and others, later going on to achieve fame. In the second half of the 1960s, Borkovec stopped actively composing and soon abandoned public life too. He died following lengthy health problems on 22 July 1972. Borkovec above all wrote orchestral and vocal-instrumental compositions, with the most esteemed being the symphonic allegro Start (1929), the ballet mime The Pied Piper (1939), Concerto Grosso (1941), Madrigals about Time (1958), Symphony No. 3 (1960), String Quartet No. 5 (1961) and Simfonieta in uno movimento (1963, 1968).

String quartets as a gauge of creative development

String quartets occupy a special position within Borkovec's oeuvre. He always wrote them in a period of transformation or constitution of compositional techniques and hence they provide an illustrative statement of the composer's changing aesthetic preferences. At the same time, they represent Borkovec's three markedly different creative phases. Although such division of an artist's life is usually a rather facile act, in this case it is well-founded. In his first period, Borkovec was influenced by late Romanticism, by the work of Bohuslav Foerster and Josef Suk in particular. Its nature is illustrated by String Quartet No. 1 (1925). His second period, the most relevant in terms of stylistic progressiveness, began in the late 1920s and is characterised by the composer's inclination to the Neo-Classicist and Constructivist interwar trends. As regards the quartets, it is represented by String Quartet No. 2 (1929), which can also be considered the first turning point in Pavel Borkovec's musical evolution. String Quartet No.3 manifests comparable aesthetic foundations, yet the work remained unfinished, with the last notes dating from 1940.

After World War II, Borkovec synthesised his previous creative methods. The initial phase of this synthesis is reflected in String Quartet No. 4 (1947), while String Quartet No. 5 (1961) bears witness to its final form.


Until 1928, Bofkovec was influenced by the lingering late-Romantic tradition, which can be appositely termed "post-Romanticism". According to the prominent Czech musicologist RI Fukaa, it is a specific continuation of the 19th-century ideational framework in the music of the composers who are sometimes defined as the "first generation of Czech modernism", with the leading representatives being considered Viterslav Novak, Leos Janadek and Josef Suk, Borkovec's teacher at the Prague Conservatory master school. …

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