Modernism and Czech National Music: Update 1

Image result for narodni divadlo

The National Theatre (Národní divadlo) in Prague

Now that I am settled in at William & Mary, I am ready to work on the bulk of my research project. I just recently got back from a 5-week summer study abroad program in Prague, Czech Republic! While I was there, I took classes, got to know the city of Prague and its rich history, made wonderful friends, and even saw a Czech opera (sadly, not the one I am studying)! I took three classes while abroad: Central European Modernism, Czech Art & Architecture, and Conversational Czech Language. Through these classes, learning Czech history, and experiencing musical culture, I learned a lot that I feel can apply directly to this summer research project. 

In my abstract (see previous post), I stated that Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen is “an example of the construction of national identity in Czech music, language, and culture through the use of Moravian folk music, Modernist language ideologies, and innovative musical techniques.” After taking the Central European Modernism class, specifically, I realize that this statement is vague in its treatment of the term “Modern.” I have always had an ambiguous idea of Modernism, often referring to it as a “movement” in itself. I now realize that Modernism, while difficult to define, is more of an idea or a concept, though it does encompass many movements within it. 


What is Modernism?


Through the course, I developed a working definition of Central European Modernism that can be outlined by three ideas:

  1. Alienation 
  2. Challenging reality
  3. Responding to conflict

(1) Alienation refers to the isolation of individuals or groups, which happened historically with the increased movement of people to the cities. Living in a city proved to be more “isolating” than rural environments. It also introduced people to new cultures. In this way, alienation leads to the creation of identity as people are no longer defined in relation to family/home. This social idea is often reflected in the arts and literature of the early 20th century. (2) Challenging reality refers to questioning a pre-existing phenomenon and/or creating an absurd idea to compare to society. (3) Responding to conflict refers to the arts and literature of the time being “reactionary,” often relating to current or past socio-political events, either directly or indirectly. While not completely comprehensive of every work that is considered part of “Central European Modernism,” these three ideas work together to form the concept of “Modernism” in the context of the opera that I am studying. 

In my research, I need to specify the movement(s) in Central European Modernism that the opera/book are a part of during the early 20th century. I need to look into the specifically musical movements during this time and compare/contrast them to the literary/artistic movements that I learned about. Once I figure out what movement(s) the opera/book are a part of, I want to look do research into the movement(s) and the effects of on the opera, itself, in a musical, historical, and literary sense (referring to the libretto text). 

While in Prague (and during my Romantic Music class), I realized that much of what we think of as “Czech national music” was created during the 19th century, most famously by the composers Smetana and Dvořák. In fact, Smetana and Dvorak are both buried in the Vyšehrad graveyard among many famous Czechs, but not Janáček. The Cunning Little Vixen first premiered in Brno, not Prague, in the Brno National Theatre (which was modeled after the National Theatre in Prague). Additionally, Janáček did much of his work in the region of Moravia, where Brno is located, as opposed to Bohemia, where Prague is located. Due to this distinction, I will need to do more research on the differences between Bohemia and Moravia, historically, and discuss this regional difference in the formation of Czech national identity. Was the national identity manifested differently in the different regions of the Czechoslovak Republic? Did the music reflect this difference? What made Smetana’s and Dvořák’s music different in terms of nationalism than Janáček’s? These are all important questions that I will need to heavily consider during the beginning stages of my research. 


Image result for moravia and bohemia brno

Map of Bohemia and Moravia, including the locations of Prague and Brno.


What’s Next?


I have set up a list of the following things that I hope to get accomplished in the next week, or so:

  • Research history of Bohemia vs. Moravia, generally and in terms of music
  • Research background of Czech national music
  • Watch the opera multiple times, likely multiple versions
  • Read the libretto translation
  • Read the book that the libretto is based on
  • While watching/listening/reading, consider the following:
    • How is this opera/book reactionary?
    • What aspects of the opera/book are “Czech” in nature?
    • How does that language contribute to the opera?
    • What “Modern” musical techniques are used?


  1. Hey Mary,

    I think it’s so cool that you combined your summer research with your time abroad. I was considering doing that too. I was in Austria for 5 months and everything was so different that everything seemed cool to research.

    I don’t know much about music or Czech Republic, but something really stuck out to me about your post. You wrote about alienation in urban areas. It’s very similar to something I was reading about in the book Lost Connection by Johann Hari. It explained how industrialization caused communities and neighborhood to lose some of their bonding aspect. People didn’t care as much about each other because they didn’t need each other like they did before. As a result, this disconnection and lack of meaningful relationships contributed to increased anxiety and depression. Urbanization and cities are thought to be so amazing for progress, but in reality, isolating yourself from the people surrounding you can be detrimental. It’s important that you included that into your research.