The Fin-de-sičcle Czech Song: The Music of Neurasthenic Male Modernism

Geoffrey Chew, University of London


In the 1890s the composer Vítězslav Novák suffered an unhappy love affair; he wrote that this induced an attack of neurasthenia, which first prevented him from composing for months and then forced him to change direction, beginning with his song cycle Melancholie (1901) and continuing with quasi-autobiographical works such as his song cycle Údolí Nového Království (1903). These works are markedly different from his earlier works: they reject folk influence in favor of an international modernist style, and they use up-to-date texts by poets of the generation of the Česká moderna, especially Antonín Sova. It is symptomatic that their fin-de-sičcle style should have emerged first in the intimate genre of the song cycle with piano accompaniment--in songs by Novák, his pupils, and other Prague composers, in the first two decades of the 20th century, in an impressive repertory almost entirely unknown today, partly because Novák's reputation was eclipsed around 1915 by that of Janáček, and also partly because Czech critics were anxious to dissociate themselves from music they thought Decadent.

The repertory deserves to be unearthed, therefore. But why, from the poetry available in the period, did the composers, who were exclusively male, so prominently prefer erotic and pessimistic subject-matter? Novák's founding myth supplies part of the answer: in it, and in his appeal to the fashionable neurasthenia suffered by geniuses, he seeks to justify and authenticate the modernism of these works, in terms of a lived experience of painful emotion. And this emotion is necessarily sexual: the myth involves a construction of Woman by men, who find their inspiration in her. To illustrate this, and at the same time to introduce an unfamiliar repertory, the paper will present a few representative songs (concentrating on the relationship between music and texts), chosen to highlight the choice of poetic texts by composers--the poems they chose, and the gender politics these construct, as well as those (for example, the feminist poetry of Lila Bubelová) that they preferred to ignore.