Skip to main content

Michael Beckerman: I have so many memories of Brno

The honorary title of doctor honoris causa of Masaryk University was awarded to respected musicologist Michael Beckerman who has devoted a significant part of his professional career to Czech music.

Michael Beckerman

Joining the pantheon of holders of honorary doctorates of Masaryk University, on Thursday, October 13th at the Aula of the Faculty of Law, was renowned musicologist Michael Beckerman. Since 2003 he is a Professor of Music and department chair at New York University; between 2010–2012 he was vice president of the American Musicological Society.

His lifelong interest in Czech culture brought inspiring insights into the work of Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček or Bohuslav Martinů. Recently he focuses on the musical culture of the Terezin ghetto, with emphasis on the significance of composers Gideon Klein and Pavel Haas. He was part of several projects investigating the limits of musical expression in the condition of concentration camps. He was active in the process of the foundation of the OREL organisation which cherishes the legacy of musicians persecuted by the Nazi regime. He is also actively involved in the activities of the Terezin Composers’ Institute.

We know that you know Brno very well. Are you looking forward to the city and visiting Masaryk University?
As you may know, I lived in Brno with my wife in the late 1970's and I studied with some of the brilliant scholars at Masaryk University, then UJEP. I have so many vivid memories of the city, from drinking my first glass of burcak at a Janacek Festival in the fall to lively evenings in local wine cellars, to drinking a beer under the portrait of Janacek which used to hang at Stopka, to exciting scholarly conferences and concerts. I've always loved Brno and its people, but I have to say that in some ways it was a gritty city in those days. So now when I see the town, so beautiful and interesting, I discover something new with each visit.

Considering the warm and ongoing relationships I have with my colleagues at Masaryk over many years it is always a delight to return to the university, and I expect to discover some new "official" places where such ceremonies as this one take place.

What new things do you want to experience or visit in Brno?
I'm signed up to give a separate talk at a conference at the beginning of the week, so I'm afraid I won't have as much opportunity to sightsee as I usually do. But in all these years I really haven't had a chance to explore the area around the Augustinian Monastery and I would love to do so. This was such a vivid and original intellectual and cultural centre, as we know, for a time home to both Janacek and Gregor Mendel, and so many others. As much as I want to relive my earlier days in Brno, I also want to explore some of the new things in the city and meet new people.

What are you currently doing in your field?
I have had two main areas in my career: Czech classical music, primarily of the 19th and 20th centuries, but also with interests in both earlier music, as well as folk music and jazz. I'm continuing this work, primarily with recent articles on Dvorak and women, issues of Czechness in the music of Michna, and an essay exploring the relationship between the great Brno composer Jan Novak and Bohuslav Martinu. My second area has to do with music in the camps, and I've been exploring this for the last 15 years or so, writing articles about composers like Gideon Klein, and more recently, investigating the relationship between the Haas brothers, Hugo and Pavel; especially Hugo's posthumous commemorations and references to Pavel's image and his music in the B-movies he made in Hollywood in the 1950's. Inspired in part by this study, I'm now working on a project that seeks to validate the individual artistic experience; arguing that because of our different tastes, backgrounds, skills, moods, interests, and bodies, we all experience artworks differently, often radically so. Rather than try to paper over individual taste by insisting that these experiences are shared, I choose to explore that aspect of our relationship to music, film, literature and other arts by highlighting the differences in our reception and understanding.

Are you planning further cooperation with pedagogues or students of Masaryk University?
I certainly am. I have worked before with several of the scholars in the department, and am involved with the Terezin Composers' Institute and Prof. Lubomir Spurny. My close ties to the university are sure to be heightened by the great honour they are bestowing on me and my time here this week. I originally came to Brno out of love for the music and ideas of Leos Janacek. The fact that Janacek got the first honorary degree at Masaryk makes my award both a great, great honour, and also completely humbling. While no musicologist can possibly hope to have anything near the impact of a composer like Janacek, I hope to continue his intrepid spirit, the spirit of Brno and the spirit of Masaryk University as long as I am alive.