New Paths in Opera

Franz Schreker
Jaromír Weinberger
Viktor Ullmann
Hans Krása
Erwin Schulhoff

A conference on a book about avant-garde opera in interwar Czechoslovakia and a round table on the overarching theme of “Ertartete Musik”

Mon 9 – Tue 10 October 2023
Venue: Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University, Arne Novák Complex 1, Building C, Brno 


The colloquium has been organised by the Faculty of Arts of Masaryk University and the National Theatre Opera and the State Opera in Prague as part of the Musica non grata project, with financial support from the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Prague.

The Laurel Garland, or A Strange Cabaret in Strange Times


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Mon 09/10/2023
3.00 pm
Brno, Masaryk University
Tue 10/10/2023
3.00 pm
Brno, Masaryk University
previous performance next performance

Programme, 9 October 2023, 3–9 p.m.
The first day of the 57th International Musicology Colloquium Brno will present papers focusing on  avant-garde music theatre of the first half of the 20th century, accentuating composers who lived and worked against the backdrop of the social and political events in the First Czechoslovak Republic (Martinů, Schulhoff, Ullmann, Burian, Ježek, Hába, and others). It will centre of the theme of the book New Paths in Opera (Nové cesty opery), published in 2021 with the support of the Musica non grata project.

Programme, 10 October 2023, 3–8 p.m. | Panel discussion themes
The panel discussion on the second day of the 57th edition of the International Musicology Colloquium Brno will focus on avant-garde music theatre in the first half of the 20th century. It will feature renowned musicologists, directors of opera houses, as well as publishers and media representatives. How did opera respond to the turbulent social and political events in the 1920s and 1930s? How did the genre absorb the emerging jazz and new media? How was 20th–century music impacted by Nazism? How to approach unfinished or incomplete works? And how to build the relationship between contemporary audiences and Entartete Musik? A number of distinguished figures will share their opinions and experience: Albrecht Dümling, Michael Haas, Michael Beckerman, Herbert Gantschacher, Per Boye Hansen, Matthew Jocelyn, Vlasta Reittererová, Andreas Krause, Frank Harders-Wuthenow, Christopher Hailey, Aleš Březina, Petr Kotík, Jiří Štilec, Jiří Rožeň, Bruno Ferrandis, Barbara Dallheimer, John Gabriel, Lubomír Spurný, Gwyneth Bravo, Rachel Bergman, Miriam Weiss, Helena Spurná and Kai Hinrich Müller. Presented by Kelly St. Pierre and Tomáš Kraus. In English (first language) and German (second language).

Concert, 11 October 2023, 7.30 p.m.
Those participating in the 57th International Musicology Colloquium Brno will be invited to a special concert, titled The Laurel Garland, or A Strange Cabaret in Strange Times, which will take place on Wednesday 11 October at the Cabaret des Péchés (Jalta passage). The Brno Contemporary Orchestra will perform music by the Brno-born composers Pavel Haas, Fritz Grünbaum and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, as well as Erwin Schulhoff, Jaromír Weinberger, Robert Stolz and Mauricio Kagel. Conceived as a grand cabaret, the evening will include a performance of the band FlagArt Mondaria. The registered colloquium participants can purchase a ticket for CZK 100.  

Access to the media library | List of recordings | Registration
Contact us and get access to unique non-public recordings of opera productions and films with music by Bohuslav Martinů, Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krása, Alois Hába, Erwin Schulhoff, Emil František Burian and others! Titles will be available during the colloquium from 9 to 11 October 2023.

Papers on 9 October
Presenter: Kelly St. Pierre  

3 p.m. CETWelcome speech
Irena Radová, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University
Helena Spurná, Dramaturge of the 57th International Musicology Colloquium Brno

3.25 p.m. CET | Michael Beckerman (New York University)
“I Have the Right to Differ from Myself,” Martinů and the Avant-Garde. (EN, online)

What does Martinů mean when he states that he has never been an avant-garde composer? Is this true, and what can it tell us about Martinů’s notion of just what the avant-garde means? Is his renunciation of avant-gardism a simple matter of forgetfulness (we are reminded that several times Martinů forgot he had written certain works); an attempt to willfully rewrite his past; or does it reflect in a profound sense the way the composer saw himself? This presentation begins with these questions and raises further issues around the difference between views of the avant-garde in the 1920s and 30s, the 1950s and the present moment, asking why, in particular, the university, itself an incredibly conservative institution, continues to valorize the avant-garde as somehow more ethical and superior to more traditional approaches.

3.50 p.m. CET | Helena Spurná (University of Ostrava, Institute of Art History of the Czech Academy of Sciences)
Attracted by the Theatre. Composer Emil František Burian (1904–1959) (EN, in person)

When in 1999, after a long wait of 70 years, Burian’s “jazz opera” Bubu of Montparnasse was finally staged, the premiere left the audience completely perplexed. As it was a kind of model production attempting to capture as much as possible Burian’s vision of creating, the doubts were aimed at the work itself, which, according to the information available at that time, promised an ambitious opera with all the attributes of avant-garde poetics. A question hung in the air: Is this really what Burian intended, or perhaps, in his immaturity and inexperience, he just couldn’t guess how his opera would actually sound? The performance fully disclosed the contradiction between the overly dense orchestra and the comprehensibility of the sung word, which Burian strictly demanded from the singers. Although this work, in a way, occupies a special position in Burian’s oeuvre, it includes some features that are typical for Burian’s compositional and artistic work. The paper will briefly describe Burian the composer, pointing out a multifaceted use of music in his work. It will try to provide straight answers to the questions that constantly arise in connection with him: Why is his music played so little and is it only for external reasons? What is the state of the source material on the basis of which analytical insights are to be done? What part of his huge legacy can Emil František Burian, one of the flagbearers of the European artistic avant-garde, speak to us today?

4.15 p.m. CET | Brian Locke (Western Illinois University)
From “Jazzová revue” to Geopolitics: The Musico-Dramatic Transformation of the Liberated Theatre, 1931–1933 (EN, online)

Founded in 1926, the Liberated Theatre (Osvobozené divadlo) was initially the theatrical wing of the young Czech avant-garde Devětsil movement. Espousing Surrealism, Futurism, Poetism, and jazz musical influences, the troupe “liberated” Prague theatre audiences from old-world societal norms and cultural forms. By 1928, a core leadership of four interdisciplinary artists emerged: the comedians Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich, the director Jindřich Honzl, and the composer Jaroslav Ježek, who together produced twenty musicals over ten years. The Liberated Theatre soon advertised each production as a “jazzová revue”, wherein Ježek’s music would form a central aspect of the plot and a key element in marketing the theatre’s popularity. The comedians’ nightly improvised dialogues always addressed current events in Czechoslovakia and beyond. But with Caesar in 1932, the artistic team embarked on a new, bold trajectory: to reflect the geopolitics of their day through an absurdist lens, taking on no less than the Italian Duce, Mussolini. The zenith of these efforts was Osel a stín (The Ass and his Shadow), an assault on Nazi Germany just days after the Reichstag fire in 1933. Ježek’s contribution played a crucial role in this new musico-dramatic concept, wherein cosmopolitan and free-thinking artists could uphold “liberated” ideals amid the encroaching waves of totalitarianism.

– intermission 20 minutes –

5 p.m. CET | John Gabriel (Melbourne Conservatorium of Music)
“…dass in dieser Oper der Jazz zum ersten Mal zu dramatischer Verwendung kommt”: Erwin Schulhoff’s Flammen and the “Dramatic Use” of Jazz.  (EN, online)

Erwin Schulhoff was one of interwar Central Europe’s leading composers of Kunstjazz, or jazz “elevated” to the level of art. So, when Schulhoff wrote to his publisher, Universal Edition, that he was working on an opera in which “jazz comes, for the first time, to dramatic use”, they clearly expected something like a Zeitoper, those jazz-infused operas of the 1920s typified by Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf or Kurt Weill’s Dreigroschenoper. Instead, they received an opera with a “mystic philosophical and psychological plot” and chromaticism so dense, the score could hardly be played at the piano. Only after receiving the UE’s rejection did Schulhoff explain that he was not trying to write a Zeitoper, but something serious and sophisticated that could stand the test of time. Much like the directors at Universal Edition, modern scholars and critics have also struggled to reconcile Schulhoff’s reputation as a Kunstjazz composer with the opera’s limited use of jazz, and to place that jazz in the context of the opera’s otherwise thoroughly Expressionist and Symbolist content. In this paper, I use Peter Bürger’s theory of the avant-garde as a framework to analyse Schulhoff’s writings, correspondence and music, as well as the paradigmatic Zeitopern of his German contemporaries. I seek to explain what Schulhoff meant by “dramatic use” of jazz in the opera (and why he could claim to be the first to do it), and to clarify Flammen’s relationship to Zeitoper, a genre to which it seems so different, yet nevertheless resembles closely in certain small ways.

5.25 p.m. CET | Miriam Weiss (Universität Heidelberg)
“Ironizing the Tragic Moment”. The Dramatic Function of Jazz in Schulhoff’s Opera Flammen. (EN, in person)

After the First World War, jazz conquered the dance halls of the European metropolises and composers were also captivated by the music from the New World. Like hardly any other musician of the time, Erwin Schulhoff embraced jazz in numerous genres; from piano, chamber and ballet music to symphony, opera and oratorio. In the 1920s, he increasingly saw himself as a composer who wanted to make jazz acceptable to concert audiences as “art jazz”. Schulhoff’s only opera, Flammen, is one of his most extensive compositions. With the help of jazz, the moral and psychological decline of the protagonist Don Juan is musically traced. Schulhoff shows here a new aspect of his “art jazz”: the jazz idiom does not merge with the musical context, but becomes audible as a musical layer of its own – a jazz band that stands apart from the symphony orchestra. Furthermore, the clichés associated with jazz are decisively changed. While Schulhoff’s other jazz-inspired works were mainly dominated by the idea of “vital” and “ecstatic rhythm” in connection with a positively connoted eroticism, in his opera jazz becomes a symbol for Don Juan’s destructive sexual drive. The conference talk will show how Schulhoff integrates jazz into his dramatic concept and how it is involved in the characterization of the protagonist.

5.50 p.m. CET | Norbert Biermann (Universität der Künste Berlin)
Reconstructing the instrumentation of Jaromír Weinberger’s Frühlingsstürme. (EN, in person)

Weinberger’s first operetta premiered in Berlin on 20 January  1933, shortly before the Nazis seized power, and was taken off the stage only a couple of weeks later. Although the operetta is known to have been performed in Czechoslovakia after WW II, there was no full score available when in 2017 the Komische Oper Berlin decided to bring it back to the stage in 2020. I was commissioned to reconstruct the instrumentation, mainly on the basis of the printed vocal score. In my talk, I will share insights about my research on the work, the sources used, and the working process.

6.15 p.m. CET | Jeremy Zima (Wisconsin Lutheran College)
Franz Schreker’s Christophorus: an Ironic Zeitoper. (EN, online)

Perhaps no German composer endured a greater reversal of fortunes over the course of the Weimar Republic than Franz Schreker. In 1920 he was at the pinnacle of his professional and critical success: in that year he was declared “the messiah of German opera” by the press and appointed director of Berlin’s Hochschule für Musik. His pre-Weimar success faded, however, and by the end of the decade Schreker found himself embittered and overshadowed by his students. Additionally, he was increasingly uneasy with the rise of musical and technological modernism on the one hand and popular culture on the other. While his personal and professional correspondence bears private witness to Schreker’s anxieties and misgivings about the direction of German musical life, the composer also sought to make his case publicly on the stage. This presentation demonstrates how Schreker composed his professional and creative anxieties into his opera Christophorus (1925–1929), offering an ironic critique of current trends in German opera, most notably Zeitoper. Although it was written at the height of the Zeitoper craze of the late 1920s and features the trappings of modern urban culture, including “jazz” music and cabaret ambience, Christophorus is not a Zeitoper in the classic sense. It does not celebrate modernity; rather, it problematizes the breakdown in traditional authority structures while employing jazz-inspired music as the soundtrack to opium abuse and psychological trauma.

– intermission 20 minutes –

7 p.m. CET | Lubomír Spurný (Masaryk University), Vlasta Reittererová
Alois Hába: Searching for New Contemporary Music. (EN, in person)

From the early 1950s, Alois Hába wrote about 40, mainly chamber, works. Even though after WWII he did not cease composing in various tonal systems and continued to embrace dodecaphony and Webern serialism, during that time he did not generally seek novel genres and did not return, even belatedly, to avant-garde styles. Hába’s post-war creative period may seem markedly different, yet his artistic approaches remained consistent in many a respect. Serving as proof in this regard are his two visits to the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, in 1956 and 1959. On both occasions, he aimed to promote and confirm his own attitudes. Hába was the very first Czech composer to have actively participated in the Darmstadt classes. Although it can be argued that the visits were just episodes and that post-WWII avant-garde only began more significantly reflecting in Czech music during the 1960s through other composers, there is no dispute that by participating in the events Alois Hába overcame the contemporary restraints, thus paving the way for the accession of a younger generation of music creators. What is more, Hába witnessed in Darmstadt the establishment in the world of new music of such distinct figures as Pierre Boulez, Karel Goeyvaerts, Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen. 

7.25 p.m. CET | Gwyneth Bravo (New York University Abu Dhabi)
Staging Death: Opera’s Mortal Imagination in Works from Prague to Theresienstadt. (EN, online)

In view of the traumatic histories of the twentieth century that shaped the lives of many composers whose operatic works are the focus of this conference, the task of writing about them in meaningful historical terms is extremely difficult and is, necessarily, bound up with broader issues related to historiography, representation, and memory. My paper explores these histories with reference to three operas by Erwin Schulhoff and Viktor Ullmann—including Flammen, Der Sturz des Antichrist, and Der Kaiser von Atlantis. What these works share as a common theme is their engagement with the fundamental problem of the modernity of death and evil as a twentieth-century phenomenon, where each opera—in staging a dramatic encounter with death and tyranny—challenges us to re-examine our conceptions about sovereignty as it related to the politics of life and death. Drawing on twentieth-century philosophy and criticism as a framework for exploring the staging of death in these works—one developed in my forthcoming monograph Staging Death: Opera’s Mortal Imagination in Works from Prague to Theresienstadt—this presentation examines the multiple ways these operas reproduce, mediate, and create ‘a social imaginary’ and ‘imagination of death,’ which is central for understanding both European and German-Jewish-Czech modernity during the first half of the twentieth century.

7.50 p.m. CET | Rachel Bergman (Augsburg University, Minneapolis)
Anthroposophy and Viktor Ullmann’s Der Sturz des Antichrist. (EN, online)

Viktor Ullmann’s 1935 opera Der Sturz des Antichrist, based on Albert Steffen’s anthroposophic “dramatic sketch” of the same title, presents us with two complementary narratives of good versus evil and the inner workings of Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy. Not only does the text suggest allegorical and anthroposophical narratives, but Ullmann also enhances these narratives in several important ways: he distinctly sets each act to represent the three different worlds of Steffen’s text (physical world, soul world, and spiritual world); he draws upon Rudolf Steiner’s views on music in key moments of the opera; he develops an intricate system of leitmotivs; and he incorporates two significant quotations in the final act. 

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