Czech Music Quarterly: Notes on the premiere of Thy Kingdom Come

publikováno: 4.7.2018

Alois Hába the Visionary
Notes on the premiere of Thy Kingdom Come
Vlasta Reittererová

We bring this text on the occasion of the world premiere of Thy Kingdom Come, an opera by Czech composer Alois Hába (1893–1973), composed using microtones (i.e. intervals smaller than those found on a piano), specifically sixth-tones. The opera was staged by the New Opera Days Ostrava festival (NODO), directed by Jiří Nekvasil and conducted by Bruno Ferrandis, with the choir Canticum Ostrava, the ensemble Ostravská Banda and the Ostrava New Orchestra. The premiere took place on the 24th of June in the Jiří Myron Theatre in Ostrava.

In the 19th century, music was ruled by drama. As literary programme, it made its way into symphonic music, and drama became an important element in so-called absolute music. Opera became a prestigious form, offering an opportunity for composers to connect various artistic disciplines. Operas were used to express national and political positions, ethical ideals. And, most importantly, audiences called for opera. Few composers could resist the ambition to compose for the stage.

Alois Hába studied with Vítězslav Novák at the Prague Conservatory and Franz Schreker at both the Music Academy in Vienna and the Musikhochschule in Berlin. Both of Hába’s teachers composed operas. Novák drew on dramatic adaptations of comedic material on historical topics, and was received with uncertainty as a musical dramatist. With the exception of his first attempt, Schreker wrote his own libretti. At the time, he was one of the most performed operatic composers on the German stage. 

Searching for a basis for his opera, Hába felt closer to Schreker’s path between post-romanticism and expressionism. He also shared a propensity for symbolism and abstraction with his teacher. He was impressed by the conflict among the characters, as well as by the psychological, erotic, and ethical background of Schreker’s plots.

Hába aspired to a contemporary opera: he had no need for historical characters, the dramatic conflict was to arise from divergences in moral positions, social circumstances, education, and interests. From the beginning of the 1890s, when he began continuously applying his energy to the study of Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposofic teachings, philosophy and esotericism also entered the arena.

A large number of Hába’s text sketches have been preserved; sometimes entire scenes, worked out in some detail. More than thirty fragments dated after 1919 attest to the importance he personally attached to opera. The sketches show repeated failures in structuring the plot, but they are also permeated by repeated or similar narrative motifs. 

When Hába put down an idea, the music was secondary – there are no identifiable sketches of the music. Hába was first and foremost after a functional groundwork and a manner of scenic production. In the first years of these contemplations, he even considered including medium that was brand new at the time: film.

Operatic Realism I
It took a full decade before he found a topic he would stick to. The musical material came as if it were obvious. Hába’s first opera, Mother (Matka) was created at a time when several important moments for the composer came all at once. In 1922, his String Quartet op. 7 was performed, the first written in the quarter-tone system. 1924 saw the first public presentation of the quarter-tone grand piano, constructed by the August Förster company following Hába’s instructions. By this time, he was fully invested in micro-intervals. 

The reactions to his lectures and promotional concerts ranged from respect to doubts, scepticism, and derision. An often rehearsed argument was that on the small scale of a phantasia or a suite, composing in quarter-tones might be possible and consumable, but it was certainly inadequate for any larger works. The insistent Hába was set on proving these naysayers wrong. 

Two moments were crucial in instigating Hába to compose this opera. Privately, it was his separation from his wife, whom Hába met during his studies in Berlin – his family never approved of her. Hába set this opera – which contains autobiographical elements, a species of return of the prodigal son – in Valašsko, where he himself had grown up. He justified the use of quarter-tones through this source, which he also referred to in his theoretical writings: the folk music where he was from used micro-intervals quite naturally. 

Matka – under its German title, Die Mutter – was premiered on the 17th of May 1931 at the Week of New Music in Munich. It was only produced in Czech on the 24th of May 1947 at the Theatre of the 5th of May (now the Prague State Opera; part of the National Theatre), where Hába was managing director at the time. The last production was by the National Theatre in Prague in 1964 for performances at the Prague Spring and Maggio musicale Fiorentino festivals – a recording was made of the latter performance. To this day, Matka remains the only evening-length opera composed in quarter-tones. 

Operatic Realism II
We find notes for another opera almost concurrently with the creation of Matka. At the time of its premiere, the world began waking up from the economic crisis of 1929. This brought political tension within which Czechoslovakia found itself between the dangerous developments in Germany and the no-less strange progress in the Soviet Union, in which many saw hope, and others a threat of the same kind as that posed by national socialism. 

Hába had a strong social feeling, and he felt a need to contribute to the current debate: “Expressing the conflict of capitalism as death threatening to throttle the life of theatre, education, freedom of the press (…) widening the budget for death – war – from this conflict then construct a resistance and a victory of the proletariat – weave in an entry of the unemployed after a discussion with the author – show a way out.” 

These were the words he put down at the time, which contain the foundation of his next opera. Once again, he considered quarter-tones, now not as an icon of a folkloric setting, but a means of expressing the conflict within the social order and the fickle changeability of human character. He then abandoned the topic for some time.

If Hába’s claims in a radio interview broadcast in 1970 are true, it was chance that put Ferdinand Pujman’s libretto into his hands. Pujman had directed the Munich production of Mother, and this new text was based on a short story by the Soviet writer Fyodor Gladkov. Pujman was writing a libretto for Hába’s brother Karel, also a composer, but the libretto came at an extraordinarily opportune time for Alois.

He composed his second opera, Nová země (New Country) in 1935 and ‘36, working in the (standard) half-tone system and the athematic style; his own term for a compositional method in which no musical idea is repeated or varied and the stream of music never stops moving forward. The proclaimed athematicism was not thorough, however: the introduction to the opera includes a quotation of the Internationale, which was enough for many to label the opera Bolshevik propaganda. 

The story is set in a Ukrainian village at the time of forced collectivisation and famine. It has an optimistic conclusion, but it also includes stories about drastic events such as cannibalism, sabotage, and the breakdown of marital relationships. For the followers of communism, this was a denigration of the noble ideals of the Soviet state. 

The opera was accepted by the National Theatre in Prague, rehearsals were under way, but fear of political provocation led superior authorities to stop the production. It was only produced – in a concert version and for a single evening – on the 12th of December 2014 at the National Theatre in Prague, conducted by Petr Kofroň.

Opera of Symbolically Expressed Reality
After the production of New Country was cancelled, Hába returned to the abandoned idea. It shared a social focus with New Country, but in addition to the original intention of expressing the conflict of capitalism in connection with the threat of war and cultural decadence, anthroposophy and its symbolism entered the opera under the influence of the events and general atmosphere of the times.

In 1934, Brno saw the premiere of the anti-war opera Honzovo království (Honza’s Kingdom) by Otakar Ostrčil, which was then produced in Prague the following year. Bloud, Josef Bohuslav Foerster’s opera based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, was produced that same year, wherein the mission of mankind is expressed through Christian love. Hába had certainly seen both these pieces. 

He also knew from manuscript the work of his student and friend Viktor Ullmann, who in 1935 finished his opera Der Sturz des Antichrist (The Fall of the Antichrist), based on a drama by the anthroposophist poet Albert Steffen. With its story, in which the trio of Priest, Technician, and Artist are to decide whether they will be exclusive servants of the Regent and only the Artist is capable of standing up to the dictator, Ullmann stated clearly his opinion on the artist’s position in society. In each of these works, Hába found something that was also occupying his own mind: the pan-human idea of Christian love, opposition to war, mysticism, an expression of the artist’s position.

Operatic Allegories
In 1934, when Hába was asked by the International Music Office in Moscow to formulate his thoughts on the culture of the West and the Soviet Union, his answer included the following: “The Soviet Union was the first to begin creating a new social order, (…) but one cannot claim that Soviet culture created a new synthetic world-view, containing within it total knowledge of the basis of man, his development and his earthly and cosmic function”. 

Hába was convinced that against this gap and against the “decomposition and decay of Western culture stands Steiner’s anthroposophy as a new foundation of knowledge, from which able young workers gain fruitful impulses in all areas of scientific study, art, and education”. Steiner’s conception of the tripartite social organism, composed of the political, economic, and spiritual spheres, which refers to the ideals of the French revolution, is “after Marx’s teachings a more comprehensive and scientifically differentiated instigation to build a new social order. (…) Steiner’s ideas can be used to objectively measure what has and has not been achieved in the USSR, as well as that which cannot be achieved in the West for now”. 

Hába’s attempt to combine Steiner’s anthroposophy with Marxist teachings was naive, but he never abandoned this conviction. Two sides of his personality came through: the idealist and visionary on the one hand, and the pragmatic “rustic youth”, as Hermann Scherchen, conductor of the world premiere of Matka, once referred to Hába. We find both these aspects in Thy Kingdom Come. 

While New Country was mainly concerned with the material aspect of life, it is mostly an idealist non-specificity which fills the pages of the “Christian-socially-anthroposophic” Thy Kingdom Come. The socialist – or rather socialisational – idea is expressed in the sense of Rudolf Steiner’s teaching as noted by Hába: “Socialism as it presents itself today – as a demand – will always lead to conflict, unless it is linked with two other things. First: free spiritual life. Second: an insight into the spiritual background of nature. Socialism without spiritual science and without freedom of thought is non-rationality.”

That, after all, became apparent later, following the communist take-over of 1948 and the acceptance of the so-called Zhdanov Doctrine: the socialist regime put Hába among the “formalists”, whose music was distant from the needs of the contemporary people.

The content of Thy Kingdom Come is in constant conflict: on the one hand, it is schematic and could be put on a poster, on the other hand it is full of complicated symbols, which could not – and perhaps were not meant to – be generally understood. The central idea, however, is simple: one-sided service to the development of technology and capital has brought about social destitution; people can easily become inconsiderate, which leads to wars. 

In simplistic terms, we could label the opera a “mysterium” of class struggle: the three competing elements are the capitalists, bureaucracy and the proletariat. The first act shows a group of factory workers discussing their situation while on their break. They complain that pressure on their effectiveness turns them into soulless machines: “RATIONALISATION IS THE PEAK OF EVERY CIVILISATION. PURPOSEFULLY SIMPLIFY WORK.– Do you feel? Do you think? Are you happy or unhappy in this world? Who will ask you! What do they care, they who build the pyramids of capital. They pressed one fingering out of us”, says one worker about the slogans that adorn the factory walls. 

The factory informants relay the director’s decision: the decline in sales necessitates a restriction of production, which will lead to redundancies. In case of rebellion, violence will be used. The second scene is a symbolic portrayal of the three parties outlined above (capitalists, bureaucrats, the proletariat) through the characters used in anthroposophic teaching: Lucifer, Ariman, and Christ, two forces of evil and one force of good. 

Lucifer (Bearer of Light; biblical snake) represents sensuousness, Ariman (a destructive spirit derived from Zoroastrianism; ruler of darkness) the temptations of the material world. Christ’s activity balances the powers. Interspersed among scenes taking place in the realistic environs of the factory, the director’s office, and the periphery of a city is an allegorical scene – a dialogue of those three characters, the central idea of which is: Man must first know his own essence, only then can he free himself, set out on the path of Christ, thus dispensing with the need for both Lucifer and Ariman. 

The next scene begins with a meeting of the Intellectual, the workers, and the unemployed on the periphery. Standing in front of accommodation for the unemployed, they comment on the shop windows, full of goods. The policeman tells them to move along. Meanwhile, the factory director consults with the workers’ confidant on how to avoid a workers’ revolt. The confidant suggests: “Uniforms with colourful shirts, flags and banners, marches and songs, meetings, soaring speeches, promises of new orders, curses of old evils, celebrations and oaths. That will increase the crowd’s self-confidence. But all this only on weekends and holidays, like the Word of God. On weekdays, work. Food in a common kitchen, inexpensive. Instead of a roof, a tent above their heads, like a young romantic hiker.” The agitative method is successful: there is no revolt.

The last scene is titled “Theatrum mundi” (Theatre of the World), which is a metaphor used in Baroque theatre to express the insignificance and vanity of all worldly action; a conception of the world in which people are “actors” and God the “director”. In this scene, the Author himself enters the narrative, asking the Scribe, a character who possesses historical memory, what he can change as an artist. The wise Scribe suggests he turn to Christ, and the chorus concludes: “Christ in us and his Kingdom on Earth!”

The opera’s finale is unconvincing: the Author puts the solution in the hands of God, the “director”. Hába wanted to avoid awakening much hope with his opera in the middle of the war, but he also wasn’t pathetically calling for struggle and resistance. If an individual cannot change fate, there is nothing left to do but to accept it.

We find the ideas that appear in the libretto scattered throughout Hába’s notes and sketches from the preceding ten years, but we cannot reconstruct how the final version of the libretto was put together. We can assume Ferdinand Pujman, whom Hába chose to collaborate with, played a significant part. The opera, which was originally to be called The Unemployed (Nezaměstnaní) changed not only its name, but also probably its message. 

With this work, Hába the musician gave himself over to a vision other than a manual for a reparation of the world. That was a further extension of the tonal system, never yet used for such an extensive work. First, he had quarter-tones in mind, but in 1937, the August Förster company built an improved sixth-tone harmonium with bassoon, clarinet, and flute registers. Hába had already composed an opera each in the half-tone and quarter-tone system, so he opted for sixth-tones, which he could recognise safely thanks to his perfect pitch. He could also sing them; he had a detailed conception of the resultant sound.

Even though Hába’s third opera is in sixth-tones, he simplified the performance requirements. The orchestration, which in addition to the sixth-tone harmonium (kept today in the collection of the National Museum – Czech Museum of Music, which graciously loaned it for the premiere production in Ostrava) includes common instruments capable of playing microtones: three harps (each tuned differently), six trombones and a slide trumpet, a full string section and a rich arsenal of percussion. 

Sixth-tones are used throughout in all the instrumental and vocal parts. The declamative vocal parts are not too distant from Leoš Janáček’s speech melodies, with gentler, more detailed shades of intonation. The opera has twenty five solo parts, the mass scenes feature quick exchanges of short statements, as in common conversation. 

We might ask how Hába imagined this might be rehearsed and produced. In the case of the quarter-tone Matka, he could rely fully on his student Karel Ančerl, who studied the vocal parts with the soloists as an assistant to conductor Hermann Scherchen. He did so at a normal, half-tone piano at first, but then he acquired an August Förster quarter-tone instrument. There was no piano reduction of Thy Kingdom Come; only the sixth-tone harmonium could serve as an aid for the répétiteur. Most of the rehearsal material had to be prepared for the world premiere in Ostrava.

Only the score was published in print: by Hába himself, printed at the Paul printers Holešovice in Prague. The print is not dated, but Viktor Ullmann’s last works were printed at the same printers before his transport to Terezín, so we can expect that Hába’s score was printed immediately after he finished the instrumentation: March 1942.

At a time when there was not a sliver of hope that an opera such as Thy Kingdom Come could be produced, Hába immersed himself in a dream of an “opera of the future”. His sixth-tone vision had to wait until 2018 before it was realised.

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