The term ‘Slovak music’ is somewhat difficult to define. As we have learnt in our lectures, the entire heart of mainland Europe across the Danubian region has seen many changes of state and power, with the rise, fall and conflicts of mighty empires. The state we now call Slovakia has only been in place since 1993. Hence, Slovak music has certain overarching connections with the Czech Republic and other surrounding nations with whom borderlines have been bitterly fought. Nevertheless, we will examine how the traditional core that characterises Slovak culture has survived these conflicts and branched across Europe to influence some of the most famous names in musical history.
From the 18th century onwards, many of the finest composers representative of nearly all Danubian countries have frequently visited and had residence in Slovakia – Beethoven (Germany), Mozart (Austria), Bartók (Hungary), Dvořák (Czech) to name but a few. This creative flow across the banks of the Danube yielded extraordinary results. Beethoven debuted his Solemnis Mass, a progressive and fascinating polyphonic work, in Bratislava Cathedral.
Johann Hummel, a renowned Slovak composer and virtuoso pianist became the prodigy and apprentice of Mozart during his formative years. Also taught by Haydn and Salieri (now famously maligned due to his portrayal in the popular film ‘Amadeus’) he went on to forge a remarkable career and is widely acknowledged to have been one of the great European pioneers during the transitional period between the Classical and Romantic eras. During his lifetime, he established great friendships with the likes of Beethoven, Hiller and Schubert.
But perhaps the greatest contribution of Slovakia to continental music history is the richness of its folk songs. Sang by workers in the rural regions, the tradition and distinctive flair of the folk songs inspired Bartók to compose a suite with adapted melodies. Beethoven also wrote several ‘Lieder’ while residing in the Slovak countryside. In this, we see the cultural flow across the heart of the Danube in perhaps its most profound state. There is a great gulf between the simplicity of the Slovak meadows and the gilded concert halls of Vienna and Paris, but this intercultural inspiration through the medium of music propelled Slovak tradition and melodies onto Europe’s most prestigious stages.
Many traditional Slovak lullabies, trávanice (meadow songs) and military songs are preserved to this day. Slovakia, and indeed Europe at large, has remained infatuated with love of folk songs, Slovak nature, Slovak history and national heroes. While tradition is strongest in the mountainous settlements, Slovak songs and folklore are taught at home and in school, maintaining a strong sense of national cultural heritage. Many Slovak songs are ideal for dancing, with their quick rhythmic beats. Dance troupes such as Lúčnica regularly tour around Europe to great acclaim, performing in folk festivals that express great nostalgia for times gone by. Such troupes also exist in London. The Beskydy dancers are such a troupe who both perform and teach Slovak folk dance in Soho.
Thus, we see that Slovak music has fundamentally affected classical music history, inspiring some of the greatest pioneers in European history. This exchange has ensured that Slovak music remains a cultural mainstay across Europe, including right here in London.
But perhaps the most important lesson to be taken from the study of Slovak music is the heady patriotism that characterises all their musical ventures. From Eurovision entries that extol the beauty of their national forests to heavily traditional folk tunes, Slovakia’s musical exports all purport to emphasise the glory of the country, rousing strong nationalistic sentiment. Slovakia is not a country emancipated from the shadow of a greater nation (Czechoslovakia) but a country with a stoic and proud history that is transmitted through its music. Such patriotic pride is strongly evident in the following video, in which the award-winning Slovak tenor Peter Dvorsky closed his Bratislava concert with the beautiful song ‘Najkrajší kút v šírom svete’, a Slovak song symbolizing resistance and unity that relates especially to the year 1989 and the downfall of the socialist regime. The crowd’s roar of approval when the song begins demonstrates the prideful spirit that characterizes Slovak music.