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  • Opera and Ideology in Prague: Polemics and Practice at the National Theater, 1900-1938
  • Gary B. Cohen (bio)
Brian S. Locke: Opera and Ideology in Prague: Polemics and Practice at the National Theater, 1900–1938. Eastman Studies in Music, edited by Ralph P. Locke, vol. 39. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2006. 431 pages, $75.00

This book tells the fascinating story of how nationalist aesthetics, expectations about the social responsibility of art, and desires to contribute to modern musical development affected what Czech composers wrote and Prague opera directors staged during the early twentieth century. Historians of music as well as scholars of Central European intellectual and cultural history will find much to ponder here about how Czech music critics, composers, performers, and scholars debated the meaning of the nationalist tradition in Czech music. All this has important implications for the contests between conservative traditions of musical discourse and twentieth-century modernism that arose in many musical communities between 1900 and World War II. [End Page 126]

Until the fall of the communist government in 1989, few Czech scholars could tell this story with the insight and candor of Brian Locke's book. Nationalist ideology and inhibitions on avant-garde experimentation remained strong in Czech musical culture through much of the interwar period and only grew stronger during the Nazi occupation and the ensuing communist era, constraining composers, performers, and scholars alike. As a consequence, Czech musicologists and historians have found it difficult to develop an open, critical perspective on the impact of nationalism in all its guises on musical life in their country.

The conventional master narrative of Czech music history includes much about the lives and works of the more successful "mainstream" Czech composers from Smetana and Dvořák to Zdeněk Fibich, J. B. Foerster, Josef Suk, Vítě zslav Novák, and Otakar Ostrč il, with Alois Hába standing nearly alone as a paragon of avant-garde modernism in the pre-1938 era. There is considerable pride in the international success of Janáček and Martinů, but they tend to be considered apart from the other great names in the romantic nationalist tradition because of their distinctive musical idioms and due to the fact that each spent most of his creative years outside of Prague. Until recently, this master narrative largely ignored the Jewish composers Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann, and Hans Krása, considering them as equivocally Czech or not Czech at all.

In contrast, Locke offers what he terms a "de-hierarchized" narrative, populated with a broader array of composers who worked in Prague and received important stagings and concert performances before 1938, including Otakar Zich, Otakar Jeremiáš, Jaroslav Ježek, and Jaroslav Křička. German-speaking composers, critics, and performers such as Fidelio Friedrich Finke, Erich Steinhard, and Alexander Zemlinsky are also present, although their works were not produced in the Prague National Theater. Not only does Locke present a wider and more complex musical landscape in early twentieth-century Prague than we are used to, but his study also places the work of the various composers, critics, conductors, and impresarios in a well-woven analysis of the longue durée of debates about Czech national musical aesthetics and the social or national responsibility of Czech composers.

Locke takes as nodal points in that longer-term evolution three great musical controversies between 1911 and the late 1920s: the Dvořák affair of 1911–14, the Suk affair of 1918–19, and the Wozzeck affair of late 1926. Linking all three of these controversies was the long campaign of the Czech musicologist and critic Zdeněk Nejedlý, his students, and his followers, who tried to establish an orthodox nationalist view of Czech composition and of Czech composers' responsibility to the nation. One can find allusions to and occasional brief analyses of these controversies in older treatments of the individual composers who were affected by them, but Locke gives us the broader intellectual, ideological, and institutional context. The Dvořák affair broke out in 1911, when Nejedlý's disciple Josef Bartoš [End Page 127] published a retrospective on Dvořák's work which criticized that composer for being too heavily...


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