A Blast against Orientalism?: Josef Dobrovský’s Establishment of the Outlines of Czech Music Historiography

Geoffrey Chew, University of London

In the first two versions of his Geschichte der böhmischen Sprache und Litteratur (1791 and 1792), Dobrovský laid out for the first time a narrative, based on his conception of the fortunes of the Czech language and Czech vernacular literature, which was capable of constructing Czech music history. It later became decisive for virtually all Czech music historians, starting with those of the National Revival (such as Smetana’s friend Josef Srb-Debrnov). From this point of view, Dobrovský’s fourth, “dominant” (herrschende) period of Czech literature, that of Hussite song, and his sixth and last period, that of the “decay” (Verfall) which (following the seventeenth-century exile Paul Stržnský) he said had set in after the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, were of crucial importance – the latter not least because it allows for further periods of “revival” to be initiated, which later historians were glad to add to his account.

A comparison of Dobrovský’s historiography with that of a major predecessor of his, Martin Gerbert, Abbot of St Blasien, will show how innovative and courageous he was. Gerbert, a generation older, is conventionally regarded as one of the founding fathers of historical musicology, and touches in his De cantu et musica sacra of 1774 on music of various periods by Czech and other Slavic composers, whether or not to vernacular texts. Both he and Dobrovský were Jesuit-trained priests of non-aristocratic origins, spending most of their working careers under the influence of Austrian patronage; both were typical Enlightenment scholars, seeking to dispel ancient myth by assembling as many primary sources as they could, and by subjecting them to critical study. But Gerbert is much more cautiously Catholic. He may be innovative in discussing Slavic music at all, but he is less so in dealing with Catholic and “heretical” music completely separately; indeed he sees fifteenth-century Bohemia through the lens of the heretics of the first Christian centuries. This has crucial consequences for Czech music, for he implicitly terminates the continuity of Bohemian music of the Middle Ages at the onset of Hussitism. Dobrovský, on the contrary, seems far more modern in dismissing sectarian claims in favour of a continuous national narrative.

Christianity, said Frederick the Great of Prussia around this time, was “an old metaphysical fiction, full of [...] contradictions and absurdities, born in the passionate imagination of the Orientals.” Even though Dobrovský is far from rejecting Catholicism in his work, the comparison with Gerbert may be instructive – and perhaps not only for music history – in showing how far traditional scholarship in late 18th-century Austria remained to some degree “Orientalist,” how far a new “realism,” even if driven by nationalist agendas, was at the base of the Czech National Revival, and how far even Frederick might have agreed that the work of this particular dreamy Slav may (perhaps paradoxically) deserve to be called anti-Orientalist.