Hudební Věda

Physiological Music: Czech Struggles for New Music in the 1920s

article summary

Miloš Zapletal

The term and concept “physiological music” sprang up in the early 1920s from the soil of German phenomenological music aesthetics. Paul Bekker employed it in defining the fundamental principle of New Music where it consists in the discovery of new beauty in an autonomous universe of sounds. The debate on “physiological music” then came to represent one of the crucial impulses for the development of Czech musical culture in the 1920s.

Czech critics and composers of the modernist generation (B. Vomáčka, V. Petrželka, J. Bartoš a.o.) viewed Bekker's concept and its collateral tendency of New Music – which they would often bracket as “asentimentalism” – on the whole negatively, even cautioning that for Czech music to follow this road could be fatal. In the fluid and disorientating situation prevailing in the first half of the 1920s, they took exception to the most extreme of what they knew of contemporary music, German in particular (notably the output of E. Krenek, P. Hindemith, as well as A. Hába's works from the early 1920s), which they associated with the notion physiological music. In any case, for them the only possible option for Czech music lay in the sphere of “psychological music” which, it should be pointed out, they did not regard uniquely as Romantic music (which had by then been surpassed), but rather as a living tradition which could and ought to be further meaningfully developed.

There, an important role was played by the national aspect. Critics pertaining to the modernist generation believed physiological music to be quintessentially German: sharp-edged, hard, intellectual, élitist, asentimental, technicist, and therefore utterly unsuitable as a model for new Czech music whose essential tendency, as they saw it, was to appeal to “hearts and souls”, and consequently could develop solely along the lines of “psychological music”.

In contrast to that, avant-garde projections concerning a new face of Czech music, which cropped up in the late 1920s (I. Krejčí, F. Bartoš, C. Blattný, E.F. Burian a.o.) would include as one of its prerequisites a physiological quality, in the sense of music which was set to immediately attack the human senses and stimulate the body to motion – i.e., a sense different from that outlined by Bekker.

Keywords: physiological music; avant-garde music; music criticism; history of music reception; Czech music; Paul Bekker; Neue Musik; Czech avant-garde

Translated by Ivan Vomáčka