Thursday, May 12, 2016

Dvořák never tried to be progressive?

This is the article that prompted me to start this blog.

When I found this article about a Dvořák festival, I skimmed past the subhead, so I missed that the author led his story by explaining that Dvořák is "sometimes dismissed as having little to offer intellectually." That statement in itself isn't so bad; surely, some do claim that (including, apparently, the author).

The story never debunks this claim. Instead, Antony Bateman reaffirms it:
As the festival will hopefully remind us, Dvořák’s music never tried to be progressive. It might not engage deeply with the intellect, but it does with the heart and the imagination in the most direct way possible (does music really have to engage the intellect anyway?).
There are quite a few problems with this paragraph. First of all, what does it mean to be "progressive"? This is a loaded term in music history. The idea of music being "progressive" is tied to the nineteenth century and usually implies that the composer is following the ideas of Wagner and Liszt. This is in contrast to more "conservative" composers like Brahms. But "progressive" does not automatically mean "innovative," as Brahms (and indeed Dvořák) developed a lot of original ideas in their compositions. Nor should "progressive" imply "intellectually engaging," as Bateman does here. Plenty of people find Dvořák stimulating.

When I complained about this article on Facebook, my friend Michael Cooper (a musicologist at Southwestern University) pointed out that Germans have historically been the ones who decide what "progressive" means and which composers it can apply to, withholding the term from various groups into to make them as outsiders. Dvořák is Bohemian, so by nineteenth-century standards, his music isn't German enough to be progressive. In the twenty-first century, we should be more wary of these labels.

Secondly, even if "progressive" does mean "Wagnerian," then it's false to claim that Dvořák's music can't claim that label. As my friend Emma Parker (a Czech opera scholar) points out, Dvořák employed several of Wagner's techniques in his operas, including leitmotif and continuous melody. He was conscious of these trends and implemented them in his own works, particularly in his most famous opera, Rusalka.

So, here's my advice: Stop categorizing composers as "progressive" or "not progressive." It implies a hierarchy that historians don't really adhere to anymore, and the word itself carries a lot of baggage. Also, please stop making claims about composers' abilities to engage people intellectually as though this is objective fact. Your brain is plenty active when listening to any music.

Next post: Does a recently discovered libretto prove Salieri killed Mozart? HINT: No.

Source: "Simple Pleasures? In praise of Dvořák's music" by Antony Bateman in The Guardian


  1. I bet you could do an entire series on "(anti)-intellectual" as a way of dismissing composers (or maybe forming the canon?). Being too intellectual (e.g. Schoenberg, Britten) is bad, but so is not being intellectual enough.

    Some of that probably maps onto the creativity argument you mention via Wagner in the previous post. Balancing creativity and technique (Style and Idea? Art and Craft?) seems to be an easy entry point for critiquing a work.

    Also (and I think this is implied in how you use 'Germans') for Dvorak (and Prague more generally) the direct comparison was often with the more cosmopolitan Vienna. Prague was the boonies and Vienna was the center of culture. Through that there are all sorts of implications about which culture/language/ethnicity was superior, and how Imperial Vienna related to the rest of the Habsburg Empire.

    Emma Parker can probably speak to this better than I can. Brian Locke has also written about it extensively in his book.

    Looking forward to the next post!

    1. Thanks for reading! Yeah, there are so many issues at play here that one post doesn't do it justice. I predict that there will be plenty of opportunities to explore "intellectual" as a descriptor, as it will continue to be tossed into articles like this without a second thought.

      Thanks for your comment, and if you ever want to contribute to this blog (perhaps after I've had it running for awhile and have built a readership), please let me know!

  2. As Linda well knows because she recently powered through my chapter on Dvorak, Sarah's right. Most Czech music was interesting because it was Czech and the Czechs were "simple". Even Hanslick, who was born in Bohemia, thought Prague was a total backwater.

  3. A little late to respond but I was really glad to see this post and I think it’s absolutely spot on. As someone in the early music world, I see this a lot where a lot of great music is neglected because it doesn’t anticipate later trends in music enough. It’s especially a problem in 16th century music, where things kind of sound close enough to standard practice harmony to group them together. Case in point, one composer I really love is Miguel de Fuenllana who published one book of music in 1555 and I’ve seen him often written off with a quick conservative stamp. This is despite the fact that he was totally attuned to all the dominant musical trends of the time, but he can’t be progressive because he wasn’t experimenting with chromaticism like the one or two composers at the time who were, Gesualdo wasn’t even born yet!

    The Germanic influence is also very important and something that I feel isn’t brought up enough. To bring it back to early music again, it’s worth noting that if you look at many of the “winners” from the 16th century (that is to say, they get at least a little more than a quick name drop in general music history classes) like Palestrina, De Lassus, the Gabrielis, or Isaac, they have strong connections to Germany if they didn’t actually live there for a period. Palestrina especially is often considered the absolute pinnacle of the 16th century style, but I can’t help but think that’s in no small part due to the fact that he’s the composer who Fux, and thus Bach had the most access to. I’d be hard pressed to find anything in his music that puts him above Gombert, Willaert, or Morales to name a few, and contemporary sources seem to agree.

    That’s the end of my little rant, but I love the blog and I hope you keep it up!

    1. Thank you for both points, which are great contributions to this discussion! I specialize in the 19th century, so I very much appreciate that you pointed out how this problem extends to the reception of earlier composers. I hope you continue to enjoy this blog!