Słowacja - Slovensko - Slovakia

Tracing the Story of Slovak Music

Publication: 14 October 2021

NO. 9 2012



Otakar Zich, offering methodical instructions for how a Slovak composer should write music. He should know folk songs, use the native tongue, be a native of Slovakia and be able to meet the requirements of contemporary music, but above all he must “reject pure experimentation typical for the epoch… for “the young, nascent music does not yet have solid foundations.”

The phenomenon of “national music” took shape in the 19th century as an element of the emergence of national identity. In countries deprived of national sovereignty, lacking the institutions of musical culture, the national component was repressed – despite the fact that in many of those countries a rich international musical life thrived. What was needed was an intellectual elite, which would penetrate the international community and turn culture into a pillar of the nation’s life. This is what happened, for example, in Bohemia, where the economic prosperity of the bourgeoisie already endowed with a Czech mental set (and the patronage connected with it) created the conditions for the emergence of national culture. Institutions were established, such as a university, the National Theatre, the National Museum, a concert hall and the Rudolfinum Gallery, and then the Chamber Music Society and the Philharmonic. All that – alongside new artistic trends (Symbolism, Modernism, Art Nouveau) – created a solid foundation for the development of Romanticism and Modernism in Czech music. The “Czech national music” programme, which appeared as late as the middle of the century, found expression in the great artistic personality of Bedřich Smetana, as well as Antonín Dvořák and Leoš Janáček.

Slovaks in Austria-Hungary

But in Slovakia (then called Upper Hungary) only the Austrian and Hungarian nobility was culturally strong. The impecunious Slovak landowners, petit bourgeoisie and intelligentsia living and working in the countryside (mostly teachers and clergymen) had a limited scope for action. While Prague was the principal centre of the “Czech awareness” taking shape, the German Pressburg (today’s Bratislava) was regarded as the geographic centre of the country, the parliament and coronation city of the Habsburgs, providing the best conditions for high culture. Local magnates of German and Hungarian origin could compete with Vienna, as exampled by the operas staged by Miklós J. Esterházy and George L. Erdödy in the 1770s. Initially, national self-realisation was difficult for the Slovaks. The first clearly national perspective, based on the concept of Panslavism, was put forward by Ján Kollár. It is to him and to Pavel J. Šafárik that the Slovaks owe the first published (without scores) collection of Slovak folk songs, issued in two volumes: Písně světské lidu slovenského v Uhřích (Lay Songs of the Slovak People in Hungary, 1823, 1827).

Ján Levoslav Bella and Slovak national music

Ján Levoslav Bella (1843–1936) was the only powerful talent who tried to transcend the local circumstances and realise the Romantic ideal of national music. He attempted to implement the Romantic myth of a grand future for Slav music. Bella believed that German and Romanesque music had exhausted their sources and they should be replaced by Slav music (or rather Slovak music, leading to a revival of European music)[1].

Bella entered the musical scene in a period where choirs dominated the musical life. Their repertory was looked after by a whole legion of editors of folk songs, the so-called venčekári (literally “wreath men”), for example Ján Egry, Michal Laciak, Ľudovít Vansa. An ideal pursued by national revival activists was combining composition with folkloristic inspiration. These simple pieces satisfied the provincial tastes thanks to the love – typical for the period – of the patriotic style, but also thanks to their lack of technical complexity.

But Bella was the first to recognise the natural character of the mutual bond between the Czechs and Slovaks. This is why he got in touch with the Prague music community. He published his key reflections in progressive Czech periodicals and they informed the public about the existence of an “important composer from Slovakia”. Some of his works had their first performances in Prague. And it was also here that he got recognition from Czech experts as a professional and modern composer. Reviewers of Fate and Ideal regard Bella’s music as an “example of progress”. His voice is part of the desire to establish a line of Czech national music Smetana – Dvořák – Fibich – Bendl – Bella, but it was clear even then that Bella had chosen his own, “non-Smetana” path.

In 1881 Bella converted to Lutheranism in Budapest and then settled in Transylvanian Sibiu, where until 1921 he was the organ player in the main Lutheran church. Here he composed the opera Kováč Wieland (with a German libretto based on Richard Wagner), first performed in Bratislava as late as 1926. Bella returned to Slovakia in 1928 and again took up Slovak themes. Besides many songs and choir pieces to German texts, the core of his oeuvre is formed by religious music (56 Catholic and 19 Lutheran songs), arising mostly from Cecilian aesthetics.

Czechs and Slovaks: the myth of Slovakia in Bohemia

Relations between Czech and Slovak musical culture were established in the first half of the 19th century. At this early stage they were mostly confined to individual contacts and the idea of creating a Slav – meaning also Slovak – national music (Šafárik, Kollár, Štúr and through them, also Bella). At the turn of the 20th century, the Czecho-Slav or later Czechoslovak idea already contained powerful Czech national awareness.

It gave the Slovaks an opportunity to claim the right to a glorious past, to join ranks with a cultivated nation, to draw benefits from the position occupied by Bohemia in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire – which would become even stronger if the two nations united. In the eyes of the Czechs, Slovakia was a mythological country of a beautiful, pure and hard-working people, distinctive figures from Radúz and Mahuliena, and its folklore was felt to be representative for Slovakia abroad, especially in Bohemia itself (unfortunately, the Slovak music culture is still officially understood in this way).

In the period when the First Czechoslovak Republic was born, a number of local composers were active in the Slovak countryside, later called predecessors of Slovak national music (Viliam Figuš-Bystrý, Mikuláš Schneider-Trnavský, Mikuláš Moyzes, the German-educated Fric Kafenda and Alexander Albrecht, a composer of German origin born in Bratislava).

The times of Masaryk – a cult of Czech music in Slovakia

As early as 1918 in the democratic state of Masaryk, there began a process of building institutions of musical culture; its basic elements, such as the National Theatre (also in Bratislava), artistic and university schooling and a musicology seminar were established in 1921 at the Philosophical Department of the newly founded Comenius University. The first university-trained composers were active, the Prague students of Vítězslav Novák, jointly labelled as Slovak National Modernism: Alexander Moyzes (1906–1985), Eugen Suchoň (1908–1993) and Ján Cikker (1911–1989).

The first professional music critics also appeared, the most prominent among them being Ivan Ballo and Antonín Hořejš. Ballo was an advocate of adopting the standards of the Czech musical high culture, and was inspired by the views of such Czech authorities as Otakar Zich, offering methodical instructions for how a Slovak composer should write music. He should know folk songs, use the native tongue, be a native of Slovakia and be able to meet the requirements of contemporary music, but above all he must “reject pure experimentation typical for the epoch… for “the young, nascent music does not yet have solid foundations.” Therefore, he should take as his model the work of Vítězslav Novák, called by Zich “our most Slovak composer”.

A “Novák myth” was gradually born, the myth of “solid foundations”, valid practically until the collapse of communism in 1989. After the Second World War and the takeover of power by the communists, ideology transformed the myth into an ossified attachment to tradition, where the bogeyman of experimentation is combined with aesthetics of Zhdanov’s socialist realism and Novák’s model as a frozen norm gradually lost all content becoming an empty form.

Eugen Suchoň, after such wonderful works as the interwar Nox et solitudo, Sláčikové kvarteto (String Quartet), Baladická suita (Ballad Suite) op. 9, Burleska pre husle a orchester (Burlesque for Violin and Orchestra), Žalm zeme Podkarpatskej (A Psalm of the Sub-Carpathian Land), endows his works with features quite precisely defined by critics – features constantly present in the music written by later generations of Slovak composers. Despite the proximity of Vienna, familiarity with Schönberg’s school, which made an impact on Suchoň’s early work, he remained faithful – as Ivan Ballo writes – to the “values growing from the Slovak soil”.

According to Ballo these values are emotion, sensitivity, inner warmth, favouring emotion over the intellect, rejecting experiment as irresponsible, rejecting fashion as an expression of artistic superficiality, condemnation for impressing the audience with refinement and effects. He also expresses resistance to “artistry” as opposed to “healthy masculine sensitivity” and “seriousness and uncompromising views on artistic and artistic-aesthetic issues”[2]. With Ballo and Suchoň contemporary Slovak music becomes an act of responsibility – not only artistic but also moral, with regard to the value of an artistic work.

The Slovak state – internal emigration. The arrival of communism, the first act of violence against national music

The sad times of the Slovak State in 1944–1945 were not particularly productive for Slovak music. The leading composers, who chose internal emigration, created works of anti-war and national character (Cikker: Vojak a matka [A Soldier and a Mother], Cantus filiorum, Ráno [Morning], Suchoň worked on the opera Krútňava [Whirlpool]) and worthless residues of nationalism appeared on the musical scene.

The communist victory in 1948 and the arrival of the Stalinist dictatorship and terror put an end to the flourishing of contemporary music in the national vein. The first victim of the epoch, incidentally also the first contemporary opera written by Suchoň, namely Krútňava, staged abroad as Katrena (composed in 1941–1949), was pronounced as being idealistic by the ideological commission of the Communist Party. In its original form the opera had only one premiere in the Slovak National Theatre, in 1949 (four performances), and later it was produced only in the censored version.

The communist censorship excised the Poet and Lookalike, actors of a philosophical argument, and erased everything that was Christian, such as forgiveness and every expression of faith, imposing on the work a petit bourgeois and collectivist communist morality: the “whirlpool” of contradictions between life, reason and feeling is turned into an ideologically correct, realist and folkloristic story. The opera has been staged in this form until today. Almost 60 years later, the Bärenreiter publishing house put out a reviewed original version of the work[3]. It turned out that the interference of censorship completely destroyed the logic of the opera and deprived it of its original ethos.

After Stalin’s death: New Music in Slovakia

After the Stalinist hell of the 1950s, when a lot of false music of a panegyric nature was written (usually naïve, expressive of the instinct of self-preservation), as well as ornaments of the revolution and mass songs, a change of direction towards the New Music took place.

This change was brought about by the emphatic movement of the young generation from the 1960s, which radically swept away – by word and deed – the frozen and antiquated communist doctrine, accomplishing a change in style of the Slovak musical culture. The 1960s generation of composers featured Ilja Zeljenka, Roman Berger, Ladislav Kupkovič, Ivan Parík, Miroslav Bázlik, Jozef Malovec, slightly younger Juraj Hatrík, Juraj Beneš, Tadeáš Salva, Jozef Sixta and the youngest of them, Vladimír Bokes, who joined them later.

From the very start, each one of them was a characteristic creative personality, offering distinctive poetics, although initially, of course, there was a fascination with the strongest wave of New Music, the second Vienna school and the Darmstadt circle (Nono, Stockhausen and especially Boulez). Slovak music, unlike Czech music, had no pre-war avant-garde tradition to draw on, and the aesthetic and stylistic turn towards the new (western) music of the 1950s was much more direct and radical here.

But the search for one’s own way began very early: Peter Kolman (b. 1937), Miro Bázlik (b. 1931), Ivan Parík (1936–2005) and later Vladimír Bokes (b. 1947) remained attached to the Vienna school, although they were also open to other inspirations (the great author of miniatures, Parík, combined the 12-tone style with archetypal structures of the Slovak folk song and later, in his last religious works, with the modality of the Gregorian chant).

Jozef Sixta (b. 1940) unfailingly found in his crystal clear, almost ascetic instrumental music his own harmonic system, just as Juraj Beneš (1940–2004) found it in an idiom which sparkled with all possible genres and vocal-instrumental combinations and glittered with a synthesis of many techniques.

Tadeáš Salva, a radical acoustic inventor, created an undoubtedly Slovak idiom of the so-called ballad and became “the most Slovak” of all Slovak avant-garde composers.

Ilja Zeljenka (b. 1932) already showed in his first mature works of New Music numerous brilliant techniques, and built his poetics, just as the Polish “pragmatic” Zygmunt Krauze did, exclusively “from himself”, in touch with the living practice of performing and with the audience.

Roman Berger (b. 1930), after the initial inclination towards the rigorous ethics and aesthetics of Schönberg, got ever more deeply immersed in an idiom permeated with the notion of “Polishness”.

Jozef Malovec (1933–1998), as the only Slovak composer, studied in Prague under J. Řídki and V. Sommer; he wrote Kryptogram (1965), a composition remindful of today’s Postmodernist repetitive music, as well as electro-acoustic music.

Juraj Hatrík (1941) was present in the New Music movement since the very start, but today, because of his “traditional” and ambitious music, attempts at categorising him as a member of the 1960s generation are usually regarded as misleading.

The composers themselves started to practise professional criticism and conduct discussions among themselves. The master of lampooning servile reviews and Party lists of the “best composers” was Kupkovič, while Pospíšil and Berger appealed for independence and freedom of choice for the composer. Kolman excelled in writing penetrating articles on contemporary music.

Smolenice Seminars on contemporary music

In 1964 Kupkovič founded Hudba dneška (Today’s Music,), and in 1968 the first “Darmstadt” Smolenice Seminar on Contemporary music took place, although they were only organised for three years and disrupted by the hateful influence of the omnipotent and omniscient Party elite, which nevertheless felt threatened.

During its short existence Hudba dneška gave many concerts in Slovakia and abroad, and was the first to play the first, astonishingly mature works by young Slovak composers, most of whom received prizes, for example at the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) Festival.

Electro-acoustic studio of the Slovak Radio – among the best in the world

One of the main centres of New Music was the Experimental Studio of the Slovak Radio (institutionalised in 1965), founded and directed by Kolman. It achieved an excellent technical level and good reputation, also abroad. The intense international contacts and recognition found reflection in the high quality of the Studio’s technical equipment, comparable to that in the electro-acoustic centres in Warsaw (which helped build the Slovak Studio), Koln, Paris and other cities.

Invasion – Normalisation

The seven-year long explosion of freedom, the inventive artistic individualism of the New Music generation, suddenly ended with the shocking invasion of Soviet and other “friendly” tanks.

It took as long as three years, until 1972, for the Party coterie to make a decision to exclude from the Composers’ Association – meaning also from the musical life of Slovakia – of a selected group of composers and critics who seemed the most dangerous: exiles Kupkovič and Šimai; as well as Zeljenka, Kolman (forced to leave the country), Berger and Hatrík. The artists were forbidden to present their music anywhere and lost their principal source of income. It also affected several critics. Among the masters from the older generation, no single composer dared – like Witold Lutosławski in Poland – to use his authority to defend the students and successors in the trade and stand up against destroying musical creation and the composers’ community.

An ideology of a “broad front” was proclaimed. A review of music from that time, usually played to celebrate various anniversaries under this ideology (1972–1976), is really saddening[4]: cantatas paying homage to the regime and other programmatic compositions, a lot of works in marginal genres, works for the choir and folkloristic compositions by second rank pseudo-authors.

Banished musicians

The banished composers were initially in shock but later slowly adapted to the “non-existence”, which can not only be an existential trauma but also a moral dilemma: which way to choose in this stalemate and what compromises are allowed? Even completely normal behaviour could constitute a problem, for example the participation of a group of composers partly or fully excluded from the Slovak Composers’ Association in the musical Meetings in Baranów – seminars on contemporary music held in 1976 in Baranów Sandomierski called Music in the context of culture. When the artists came back to Slovakia, the Slovak Composers’ Association launched a wide-ranging investigation into the matter – also covering those who were no longer members – with the help of the security police.

“The fateful year” 1976

In 1976, Miroslav Válek the minister of culture, a tragic figure in Slovak art and one of the most talented poets, who sold himself to this dirty game, proclaimed a new ideology to replace the “broad front” – the ideology of “quality”. The excluded and expulsed were invited to make an act of self-criticism. Official institutions, the Slovak Composers’ Association, the Slovak Music Fund and the monopolist Slovkoncert Agency, made a decision to organise a regular Week of Slovak Musical Creation. It was choreographed by a special commission in accordance with current ideological trends, defined by the resolutions of the Communist Party Congresses.

Since the first edition of the festival, dedicated to the anniversary of the Victorious February, it was “regulated” by campaigns connected with official and Party anniversaries – the composers had at least to underwrite these initiatives if they wanted their works to be performed at least once a year. The works were screened by the commission to see if they fulfilled the ideological criteria.

Denigrating the accomplishments of the “disobedient” authors, not liked by the powers-that-be, lead to deformations: a feverish creative explosion or the opposite, silence and internal emigration, or to a deliberate or even subconscious adapting the music to the requirements of the Party. The authors lost touch with reality, many were reconciled with the thought that their works did not have to be performed. Today, some of this music seems too closely in tune with the party line, which makes it impossible to perform it, and most composers are unable to review and modify it.

The authorities even interfered in the anatomy of the works. The wonderful vocal miniature from 1978 by Ivan Parík Jesenné stádo (The Autumn Herd) with the text by Milan Rúfus, aptly presents an image of Slovak society struggling in hopelessness: under the pressure of censorship it had to end on a major rather than minor note, so it has two different finales: fatalistic and optimistic, which in the last analysis means “fatalistic optimism”.

To obtain permission for his Canticum pre soprán, zbor a orchester (Canticum for soprano, choir and orchestra, 1978) to be recorded, Miroslav Bázlik had to remove the text of a psalm from his score, which meant that one of the first Slovak Postmodernist pieces lost the part containing a confrontation of serialism and allusion to Bach’s choral – it is almost as if we listen to Beethoven’s 9th without the Ode to Joy. The composer sent the work to the jurors of the prestigious Marie-José Prize in Switzerland, and won it, so that the institution which attempted to destroy his work was forced to accept and reward it.

Bokes vanished from the musical scene for a decade, as he dared to use the aleatoric technique in his Piano Concerto, and what’s even worse, did so in 1976, the watershed year of “self-criticism” and comebacks.

Corruption – comfort – commercialism: exploded illusions and depression

Corruption was getting ever more rampant, the elitist community of composers and wider circles of music-lovers knew about these matters, about trampling on the values, but the methods used by the system were perfect, masterly. Both gathering all the pro-regime (“in-court”) critics, the only ones allowed to publish both in the Party and on-Party press, literally in one place (the seat of the Slovak Music Fund) and the daily brainwashing by the nomenklatura management was an unrivalled move.

The feverish, hate-mongering campaigns by venal – or simply naïve – musical criticism still strongly distort the public perception, not only of contemporary but also classical music. The next generation (1958), tactically favoured by the old nomenklatura, slipped – not really anticipating the consequences – into the warm embrace of the so-called communicative music, the most refined ideology of the expanding communist comfort. This development was “officially” launched in 1980, when the Drama Commission adopted “communicativeness” as the main criterion for accepting compositions during the “Week”.

The young Postmodernists entered the musical scene with the first, today legendary multi-style compositions of Vladimír Godár (b. 1956), the minimalism of Martin Burlas (b. 1955), the ironic persiflage of Marek Piaček (b. 1972), the Postromanticsm of Peter Zagar (b. 1961) and the female idiom of Iris Szeghy (b. 1971). At its finest, Slovak musical art in the 1980s kept up with the musical development of Europe but was still imprisoned in a cage. The musicological “elite” made certain that all “villains”[5] were excluded from musical life and all musicological reflection, as if they had never existed.

Velvet revolution: international festival Melos-Étos

The year of the Velvet Revolution meant a break-through not so much in the musical creation as such, but in its social status, which deteriorated. The main reason was that “specialists” on socialist realism and manipulating musical history did not relish the prospect of being ousted, and succeeded in staying in power.

In 1991, Berger, one of the initiators of the idea of an international festival of contemporary music, in an opening speech of the symposium called Music and totalitarianism and held during the first edition of the festival Melos-Étos, spoke about the problems with organising it, which had dragged on for 25 years.

The organisers of the International Festival of Contemporary Music in Bratislava were well aware that the work of domestic artists had been marked with a long-term chronic isolation from the world. The systematic brainwashing contained in the principles of socialist realism could not but leave some traces. We hope that at least part of what has been built will be continued.

A permanent element of the festival is an international symposium on key issues of contemporary music, such as Music and totalitarianism; Music as a message; The old in the new; Contemporary music between the east and the West.

 A sad awakening

The current situation is beyond the scope of this article but had a decisive impact on it. There is no comprehensive publication which would disperse the clouds of ignorance surrounding the recent history of Slovak music and separate the wheat from the chaff[6]. The young generation is unable and has no resources to tell the truth from the lie. Values are no longer taken into consideration – in this respect the “wall in the head” (as the Germans call the relics of the still strong communism) has not even started to teeter, and we cannot be sure if it will ever collapse.


[1] We may recall here the idea of Messianism put forward by Samo Bohdana Hroboňa (1820–1894), who, fascinated with Kollár’s idea of Panslavism, saw the fate of the Slavs as a reflection of Christ’s passion.

[2] Quoted in: Naďa Hrčková, Tradícia, modernosť a slovenská hudobná kultúra, Bratislava 1996.

[3] Its author is an advocate of progressive domestic “classics”, the avant-garde composer, theorist and teacher Vladimír Bokes.

[4] Zuzana Mojžišová, Súčasná hudobná kultúra v 70. až 90. rokoch na Slovensku, degree thesis, FiFUK Bratislava, 1978.

[5] Ľubomír Chalupka, Štýlotvorné formovanie mladej skladateľskej generácie v 60.rokoch na Slovensku, doctoral thesis, FiFUK Bratislava, 1988.

[6] An exception is v. 7, Naďa Hrčková, Dejiny hudby, Hudba 20.storočia (2), Bratislava 2006, Praha 2007, where Slovak composers and Slovak music are not an isolated “composers’ ghetto”, but an integral part of European developments.

About authors

Naďa Hrčková

A professor of musicology. Since 1962 she has been working at the Musicology Faculty of Comenius University in Bratislava. She is the author of numerous publications on musical culture, the development of Slovak music in the European context and modernity in music. Her most important work is a seven-volume history of music (Dejiny hudby, Ikar, Bratislava).


Copyright © Herito 2020