Slavko Osterc Between Neoclassicism and Expressionism

  • Ivan Klemenčič


Slavko Osterc (1895-1941) was a modernist and avant-gardist, was the leader of the second historical avant-garde generation in Slovenia. During the period between the two Wars and during the first years after 1945 he was considered as a rationalist apart from being precociously advanced, while after the Second World War he was described as a neoclassicist. But these views failed to take into consideration the stylistic nature of his entire opus and disregarded the avant-garde side, in the 1980s, a more complete scientific view of the composer was formed, but it has still not been fully accepted by the public. In human terms and consequently in terms of aesthetics, Osterc was a complex personality. At first a romanticist and a self-taught artist, he was artistically formed during the years of his late studies in Prague (1925-1927) under the influence of his teacher Hába and also of the expressionist values cultivated by Schönberg. Under these and subsequent influences he further formulated his own original expression. He continued his career as a lecturer on composition at the Ljubljana conservatory, where he was exposed to the spiritual climate of the local environment, especially to the writing of the critic Stanko Vurnik and the neoclassicist style or New Objectivity, and his expression was close to that of Hindemith. During the final period after the early 1930s, the responsibility to himself and to the broader world demanded of him radicalisation, particularly by accepting late expressionism and an avant-garde direction. During this time his works were mostly performed abroad, which gave the composer new encouragement; Slovene music experienced an international breakthrough after the national awakening during the March Revolution. The initially romantic composer had developed, in more than 170 works, under the influence of Stravinsky and of his Prague studies. He accepted the prevailing high or mid-period and, in part, late expressionism along with New Objectivity This remained his style, though with some exceptions, up to the end of 1929, when neoclassicism prevailed. The composer's main intention was not to parody the past, particularly not neoclassicism in its narrow sense. Rather, he wanted to modernise baroque compositional procedures and further assert the spirit of the 20th century. A proof of this is one of his best works, Suite for Orchestra (1929) and a high number of compositions of obviously humorous, religious and mostly "absolute" character, which were written up to 1934. A year earlier, a gradual radicalisation of expression took place (as in, for example, the slow movement of the Concerto for piano and wind instruments, 1933) down to a late expressionist stage. This is characterised by atonality a spiritual and disharmonious attitude towards the world and the objectivisation of subjectivism. In the piano pieces entitled Arabesques (1934), this type of constructivist expressionism is contextually radicalised (unlike Schönberg's music, which is more radical in the constructivism of the twelve-note technique) to the form of a play of tones or ornament. According to Piet Mondrian, this type of expressionism no longer seeks to "convey tragic formulation, but abstract beauty." From this period on, the composer's rational nature became more obvious in some works, while in others, emotional tension or introverted expression prevailed. But in some ways Osterc reaches beyond the absolute musical basis of late expressionism. In the piano pieces Fairytales (1937), he expresses a protest against the threatening storm of war in the form of pacifism, while in the ballet mime Illusions (1937-1941), he is concerned with the fate of the planet's population and sees through the world of mere illusions. In 1938 a most explicit regression to the previous style occurred. His last work Sonata for violoncello and piano (1941) remains compositionally undefined between the elements of the twelve-note technique, under the influence of Schönberg's theosophical monothematism, and Hába's anthroposophic collectivist athematism, which demands an increasing number of twelve-note rows. The composer's illness and death put an abrupt end to his development, although his style would probably not have been purified at a later stage. Despite the fact that in his last work Osterc insisted on expressionism, he remained torn between equal shares of neoclassicism and expressionism. Both styles were constantly present in an obvious or latent way. This, of course, pointed to the conceptual vacillation between the material and spiritual, and also between the objectivist rational element and the subordinated subjectivist emotional element, between the distinctly extrovert aspect and the defining introvert aspect, and finally between the radical and the regressive. In artistic terms, this polarity was reduced to the vacillation between the modernist and the "postmodernist". The issue here is not one of a personality profoundly divided between the terrestrial and the metaphysical, which had to be expressed through music, but an issue of the coexistence of human opposites at the aestheticai and stylistic level, and also in the context of the opposites of the 20th century. In this way, fated to be a modern Janus, Slavko Osterc, along with Marij Kogoj, marked Slovene music in the period between the World Wars. The composer ventured beyond the meaning of his time with his advanced role, his international breakthrough and his artistic achievements.


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How to Cite
KlemenčičI. (1995). Slavko Osterc Between Neoclassicism and Expressionism. Musicological Annual, 31(1), 11-23.