Jazz Inspirations in the 20th Century Classical Slovak Music – the Music of Alexander Moyzes and His Successors


The generation of Slovak composers known as Slovak Musical Modernism, who emerged in the late 1920s and during the 1930s, adopted a concept of creative synthesis of the national sources (especially inspirations from folk music) with the influences of European impressionist and expressionist music. One of the Slovak Musical Modernism composers was Alexander Moyzes (1906-1984). The jazz elements that appeared in his early compositions were an exceptional impulse and response to the avant-garde musical milieu of the 1920s’ Prague, where Moyzes studied. However, such compositions met with sharp objections from the music critics in Bratislava. This not only turned Moyzes away from using jazz elements for the rest of his compositional career, but was also followed by their long-term absence in Slovak music for stylistic and political reasons. Although a short revival occurred when some of Slovak Music’s avant-garde emerged in the 1960s (Jozef Malovec and Tadeáš Salva, for example), jazz did not become a legitimately accepted source of new creative projects until the next generation of postmodern composers in the last quarter of the 20th century. Its shaping personalities, such as Peter Martinček, Norbert Bodnár and Peter Breiner, erased the traditional and conventional boundaries between the musical genres in contemporary Slovak music.

The topic of the present paper touches upon the mutual relationship of two relatively coherent genres which took place in the history of music during the twentieth century. Classical music, as a creative initiative of a majority, developed in the age-old European tradition of composed music. In the state of searching for new, mainly anti-romantically oriented compositional practices in the first two decades of the last century, an interest arose in jazz as something fresh, attractive, novel and unusual, as something which could refresh the continuity of the greatly “exhausted” tradition. Various features of jazz as a specific, minority genre, were utilized on different levels, structural (melody, rhythm, harmony, tonality, sonority) as well as genric, interpretational and social. It has to be stated in advance, valid mainly for the developmental profiling of Slovak music, that during the twentieth century, this interest capitalized upon unsystematic and occassionally obtained inspirations, as well as upon diverse means of their utilization.

In the 1920s, when the first jazz inspired compositions appeared in European classical music, e.g. by Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie (not to mention the American George Gershwin), Prague became one of the cities where musical life became enriched by the performances of jazz orchestras. For us, the capital of the then Czechoslovak Republic is significant since, in the interwar period, several young Slovak composers studied there at the Conservatory. The oldest among them was Alexander Moyzes (born in 1906), who studied there between the years of 1925 and 1930. It was natural that in the city, disposed towards receiving artistic impulses from Paris, in accordance with the Francophone cultural policy of Czechoslovakia in that era, jazz began to spread not only in the cafés but, as a fresh inspirational impulse, also among the students of composition at the Conservatory. From the Czech students, let us mention at least Ervín Schulhoff and Jaroslav Ježek, Moyzes’ classmates in the class of Vítězslav Novák. The young Moyes arrived in Prague from the town of Prešov in Eastern Slovakia, where he grew up under the supervision of his father, regenschori and teacher, bound to the provincial taste of the nineteenth century. The touch with Prague of the 1920s, with its rich and vibrant musical life, must have been something so novel and interesting for the young Alexander that among his compositions which fulfilled the requirements of his teachers (e.g. piano suite, graduation symphony, orchestral prelude), he included the Vest Pocket Suite for violin and piano, op. 7, as well. It is a composition dexterous in technique and lively in rhythm, with grotesque elements, echoing some of the unsentimentalistic features of Les Six of Paris as well as reactions to the metropolitan atmosphere of Prague – the titles of the second and of the last, i.e. fifth movement of the suite, “Andante di blues” and “Vivace di Fox” point to Moyzes’ inclination to jazz music. Unfortunately, the score of the piece got lost, so it is impossible to perform its qualities by sound. After his arrival in Bratislava, Moyzes did not fully renounce his experiences gained in Prague. However, in the Slovak metropolis, initially he met with opposition from the critics. When the Vest Pocket Suite was performed in a chamber concert in November 1928, the author was accused in the press of luxurious experimentation which Slovak music in the state of its development could not afford since it would have brought it to a dead end. For a short time, Moyzes still cultivated his interest in jazz elements, as seen in his Divertimento for piano, op. 11, instrumented for orchestra, as well. It is a series of six shorter, asentimentally conceived pieces showing the influence of jazz not only in the indicative titles of some of its movements like “Tango – blues” or “Waltz”, but in their music, as well.

Moyzes, who in the early 1930s introduced himself in Bratislava as a composer inclined to the Moderne and to novelties, demonstrated the above orientation in several further piano compositions Fox etude” [Fox Étude], “Jazzová sonáta pre dva klavíry“ [Jazz Sonata for Two Pianos, “Impromptu” (op. 14, nos. 1-3), as well as in the incidental music to the drama titled “ja+ja+ja = Ja” [me+me+me = Me] (which contains movements of “Tango” and “Fox”, as well). As a consequence of this orientation, musicologists of the 1930s classified Moyzes under the “avant-garde” Czech composers. The next example demonstrates Moyzes’ music from the first movement of his “Jazz Sonata” with the title “Slow” – we can hear reminiscences of the jazz composition “Bugatti Step” by his above mentioned classmate, the Czech composer Jaroslav Ježek. Contrary to Ježek, who remained inspired by jazz (as a member of the avant-garde Liberated Theatre) till his emigration to the USA and his untimely death, the twenty-six-year-old Moyzes made his farewell to jazz with the above works and never returned to these inspirations. For this reason, these works should be regarded as only temporary in both Moyzes’ formation and in the Slovak music of the era. Let us be reminded that the wave of an initial enthusiasm for jazz inspirations and their utilization in the classical music of the 1930s weakened in other European countries, as well.

The temporary character of Moyzes’ interest in jazz reflects the fact that during the 1930s, Slovak composers were striving to fill the gaps in the spectrum of contemporaneous genres – besides symphonic pieces, chamber, choir and cantata works they turned to the opera, as well. Primarily, these works meant a new adoption of Slovak folklore elements (folk songs and dance) on the basis of a synthesis with certain impulses of musical impressionism and expressionism (analogically to the development of Béla Bartók, for example). Later, during the wartime Slovak State, the cultural policy, inclined to the nationalistic ideas of the Nazi Germany, eliminated jazz from the spectrum of inspirations as racially and ethnically unacceptable music. This rejection was newly modified under the circumstances of the development of Slovak music after 1948, when Slovakia and its culture became part of the ideologic sphere of the Soviet Union. From the standpoint of politics and social class as the basis of socialist realism, “jazz” was defined in the Slovak press of the 1950s as a product of the “American culture”, a “hysteric manifestation of a dying capitalism”, as a foreign product, which cannot have its place in new Slovak music. In spite of these statements, in the milieu of Slovak musical life, the first jazz formations came to life, drawing not only upon traditional jazz, but also upon popular domestic dance music. A modest interest in jazz appeared also among the composers of classical music. This interest, which emerged among the young generation of composers who entered the music scene in the 1960s, and which corresponded to their avant-garde orientation, confronted the age-old traditionalism of Slovak classical music and its composition techniques. The search for new methods from the field of post-war Western European “New Music” included a collage of diverse musics, realized in an electroacoustic studio. These works include, for example, the electroacoustic compositions of Jozef Malovec, “Tmel” [Binder] and “Tabu” [Taboo], where one of the citations include a short passage played by a jazz combo. Malovec’s colleague, Ladislav Kupkovič, in his “Preparovaný text č. 3” [Prepared Text No. 3] combined the solemnity of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the banality of a contemporaneous pop music hit.

A major contribution to the confrontation of jazz and classical music can be found in “Transformations”, a series of orchestral works by Roman Berger. The composer approaches composition in a philosophical sense, as solving the problems which a professional composer faces. He seeks connections between tradition and the present on the level of form, structure, sound and meaning. In the final piece of the “Transformations” series, he presents the relation between the strictness of composed and notated music, and music based on improvisation, latitude and a specific sonority, which are the inherent qualities of jazz, as well. The tenor saxophone solo in the introduction, accompanied by delicate percussions, gradually develops into a section characteristic for the contributions of the classical “New Music” of the 1960s. As the example demonstrates, Berger’s confrontation is remarkable and unique in the context of Slovak music.

Tadeáš Salva, another representative of the 1960s generation, is inclined towards an instinctive, rather than rational, conjunction of various ideas. The composer elevated the sound of percussion sets to an eminent place within his instrumental and vocal-instrumental pieces. The scope of his inspirations is wide: it reaches from folk tune stylizations, through church music and European music of the past, to the serious expressions of the 1960s Polish school of composers. He did not avoid jazz, either. We will present three examples from his jazz inspired pieces. In “Žalospevy” [Laments] for reciter, soprano, mixed choir and chamber orchestra, dedicated to the memory of the Slovak National Uprising, at a culmination point of the composition, a clarinet melody accompanied by percussions appears as a basis for the rendition of the reciter and the entries of the choir. This instance is marked in the score as “à la jazz” by the composer. A frequent genre present in Salva’s oeuvre is the ballad, which is present in the tradition of Slovak folk poetry as well as folk song, and which combines lyric, epic and dramatic elements. The composer wrote several ballads for various vocal, vocal-instrumental, and instrumental formations. One of his ballads starts with an improvisational dialogue of Slovak folk instruments, the fujara (a shepherd’s fipple flute) and the Jew’s harp, to which he attaches a jazz combo layer (percussions, electric guitar and wind instruments). In the third example of Salva’s work, in the “Variations in memoriam Jaroslav Ježek”, fragments from the piano piece “Bugatti Step” of the Czech composer Jaroslav Ježek, mentioned in the beginning of the present paper, appear during an improvisation in the manner of a jazz combo.

Another group of composers entered the Slovak music scene in the mid-1980s, whose members, in accordance with the aesthetics of the so-called post-Moderne, break the traditional differences between musical genres as well as historical periods quite naturally. One of the members of this generation is Peter Martinček, who has integrated jazz elements to the scope of his inspirations. He does not regard them as a refreshment but as a full-fledged part of the composition as a whole. His style is based mainly on the appeal of melodic ideas in their repetitions and variations. From his work revealing the above mentioned inspirations, we have chosen two examples: “Passi di Jazz” for flute and harp, and a passage from his interesting “Missa Danubia”. In the beginning of the Sanctus from this mass, we can hear a rhythmically appealing vocal rendition of the Latin text accompanied by percussions and electric guitar.

One of Martinček’s classmates, Norbert Bodnár, applied melodic as well as rhythmic patterns from traditional jazz in several of his orchestral and chamber pieces, including his opera. As an example of Bodnár’s work, we will hear the beginning of his divertimento “In Blue” for wind quintet. Based on the title, everybody present here will surely note Bodnár’s reference to the famous composition of George Gershwin.

And, finally, a small refreshment: two examples from the “Beatles Concerto Grosso” series by Peter Breiner, a Slovak composer, conductor and publicist, presently living in the USA. The combination of a historical genre from the Baroque period with paraphrases of the melodies of the legendary band from Liverpool underlines the fact that jazz appeared in classical Slovak music not only as an occasional refreshment, but also as part of an interesting confrontation of the serious with the unserious, the concentrated with the lax, the strictly composed with the improvisational, and a saturated sound with a lucid one. In this confrontation, Slovak composers, fortunately, did not avoid even the position of musical pranks which are, after all, necessary not only in the field of composition, but also in the field of reception by the audience.