A Composer for Every Country: Austria

In the world of music history, Austria needs no introduction. Vienna, alongside Paris and Rome, rose to great cultural influence during the 18th/19th centuries, due in no small part to the expansion of the Hapsburg Family. Not just music, either! Austria was the birthplace of a great many names that made history books: Christian Doppler, namesake of The Doppler Effect; Gustav Klimt, decadent artist extraordinaire; Fritz Lang, director of Metropolis and M; Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher of words and logic; uh... walking meme Arnold Schwarzenneger, body builder and erstwhile governor of California. It's a lot, is what I'm saying.

In the world of music, the list of famous composers is kind of exhausting. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Joseph Haydn. Franz Schubert. Anton Bruckner. Gustav Mahler. Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Christoph Willibald Gluck. The of course, the Vienna Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan stood as symphony and conductor par excellence. Not one but two Viennese schools of composers? It's kind of insane to think about, but I guess that's what happens when you have successive generations of musically trained emperors dump obscene amounts of wealth into the arts.

Local tradition and popular music of Austria is no less far reaching. Like... Have you heard a waltz, don't say anything the answer is "yes." Why? Because not one, but two Strausses decided to become the GOATs of the waltz, and one of those waltzes ended up being The Blue Danube and was put into countless cartoons and also 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also, Strauss II has a golden statue in his image. Not just the waltz, but also yodeling. Ok, so maybe not everybody's favorite, but to demonstrate the reach of Austrian culture, I want to point out Takeo Ishi, a Japanese guy who yodels with chickens. I hesitate to say he is "famous." I just bring him up to make a point.

Then, for some reason, lederhosen were a prominent detail in Ren and Stimpy because... just because, I guess.

My composer for the day is Marianna Martines (1744-1812). Ok, she's not strictly Austrian, because her father was Spanish, but she was born in Vienna and lived there her whole life. As a child prodigy, she frequently performed for Empress Maria Theresa. Her musical education was secured by the poet and librettist, Metastasio (Pietro Trapassi), who also saw to it she received an excellent general education, as well. Now, in a little game of "find the connection," let me tell you this: Marianna Martines lived with her family on the third floor of a building in Michaelerplatz, a plaza constructed in 1725. On the first floor lived the dowager princess of the Esterházy family. In the attic, Joseph Haydn. I'll leave it to your imagination how Haydn was introduced to his future employ (hint, it was Marianna). The cantata I've chosen as a likely demonstration of her ability as a singer, but she was also an excellent keyboardist.

Her harpsichord/keyboard concerti are quite wonderful, as well. 

A Composer for Every Country: Czechia

The current Czech Republic is the result of Czechoslovakia's dissolution in 1993. The Velvet Revolution which led to that dissolution is one of the few historical examples I have found of non-violent protest actually effecting national boundaries. I feel I have to call attention to that fact for some reason. Alas...

Czechia is further split into three smaller historical entities: Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia. That no country is comprised of a single cultural entity is a recurring theme in my admittedly cursory readings of each country's history. Besides the Czech, there are two groups are of note. On the Western Bohemian side are the Chodové. These people were drawn from the Carpathian Mountains, near Slovakia, Poland, and Ukraine to serves as guards against Germanic expansion during the late 1200's. The Bohemian Shepherd dog breed is descended from the guard dogs allowed to the Chodové as one of many privileges accorded to them in return for their guard duty. On the Eastern Silesian side are the Silesians. This group is the the cultural descendant of Celts, Germans, Slavs, and Polish peoples fluctuating through the area. If you want to start an argument, get a group of Polish and Czechs together, then tell the Polish that the Silesians are Czech and tell the Czech that the Silesians are Polish.

Artistically speaking, Czechia is another one of those European countries which isn't really touched on in art/music surveys. And yet, especially during the 19th century, the ideal of the Bohemian held a certain exotic appeal. One need only look at Puccini's la bohème for a famous late Romantic example. For some reason, Bohemians were always poor artists with a predilection to dying of pneumonia (la bohème) or getting stabbed by jealous lovers (Carmen). Why? Because the 19th century French got all floozy about the Romani, and somehow or another got it into their French heads that the Romani all came from Bohemia. News flash: they don't, but jump 100 years later and suddenly "bohemianism" is short hand for certain artsy-fartsy counter-culture. Like hippies. I'm sure the Bohemians are pleased by this turn of events.

In music, the big thing everybody and their mother knows from Czechia (Bohemia, specifically) is the polka. The polka is everywhere. It has a particularly strong presence in Texas and Mexico, because a lot of Czech immigrants ended up in the Gulf coast area. One big example is The Beer Barrel Polka, written by Jaromír Vejvoda . If you've seen Liberace, you've heard this song, but it was a smash hit during World War II years.

My composer for today is a good trek off the beaten path and into the weeds: Alois Hába (1893-1973). His early education showed a natural interest in Smetana, whose influence is probably hard to escape in Czechia, as well as late Romantics like Debussy, Scriabin, and R. Strauss. He also developed a fondness for Schoenberg's music, but had decided that, really, twelve notes wasn't enough to work with, so he started writing for 24, an octave divided into quarter-tones. And then he went full plaid, producing a full microtonal opera, Matka. His music necessitated the invention of a number of instruments: quarter-tone clarinets, quarter-tone trumpets, harmoniums tuned in 1/6-tones. He even established a "Department of Quarter-Tone and Sixth-Tone Music" at Prague Conservatory. So what does this all sound like? I'm glad you asked! It sounds like this.

There's also a crazy jazz cover of one of his Suites for piano, performed by jazz group Planet MicroJam. Czech it out!

A Composer for Every Country: Slovakia

I forgot this blog existed, but now it's back for now? For a while at least. The "Composer for Every Country" idea started on Facebook as a gesture of solidarity during the COVID-19 pandemic. I'd already made a number of posts on my profile, so there's quite a back log (North Africa and most of Europe), but I might as well keep going where I left off, which is Slovakia.

Only recently separated from Czechia by the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, even the idea of "Slovakia" as its own nation is really new. Over the course of history, the Slovakian region has been controlled by the Great Moravian Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Also the Avars and... some guy named Samo? He united the Slavic tribes in the area, and seceded from the Avar for a time. That said, ethnic Slavs arrived in the area around the 5th century.

Like so many other nations, a lot of our contemporary understanding of local culture started up in the 19th century. Their traditional clothing is quite colorful, and while I'm no expert on the history of textiles and fashion, it looks kind of like a collision between Eastern European/Ukraine and German styles. No lederhosen, though. One of the distinguishing features of the region is their wooden architecture. The buildings have a deceptive simplicity about them. They're not super decorated, but their construction, particularly of the roofs, creates a certain texture that is quite nice to the eye.

Finding details about traditional Slovak music, however, has been frustrating, but I can tell you that the folk songs I've listened to sound like a dialect of Austrian songs. A well preserved dance is the odzemok, which involves a good deal of jumping, fancy footwork, and axes. The axes don't do anything in particular, but it does look impressive. And then, there's the fujara.

The fujara is an instrument that is really only found in the Slovak culture. Putting it into words is tricky... imagine a wooden flute. Now make it five feet long. Now attach another, smaller flute to the flute and put a mouthpiece on it, like a recorder. That's a fujara. It sounds like a flutey digiridoo, and you play it standing up because there's no other reasonable way to do it.

So our composer today is Ján Levoslav Bella (1843-1936). His career started in Levoča, where he composed a number of small form church tunes and folk arrangements. Then, in 1873, he visited Vienna and was exposed to the music of Schumann, Wagner, and Smetana, and he was never the same again. Upon his return, he wrote a large form symphonic poem called Osud a ideál (Fate and the Ideal) and began a general project of fusing traditional Slovak music with classical forms. The string quartet I'm posting is a result of that fusion.

To hear something more directly inspired by Slovak music, he has two sets of piano variations on different folk songs: “In Pressburg by the Danube” and "A Swarm, a Swarm is Flying."

Coming up is Czechia! If you have any suggestions for Czech composers (other than Antonín Leopold Dvořák, because everybody already knows about him) comment below!