Alois Hába and the History of the Quartertone Piano

February 8, 2017

Above: Composer Alois Hába posing with an August Förster quartertone upright piano. Links to further reading and videos of related works are at the end of this article.

"Play on the quarter­tone piano has ceased to be the acrobatic privilege of individuals and has become the basic starting point for understanding the common foundation of all piano technique."
- Karel Reiner (1938)

In The Man in the High Castle, science fiction author Phillip K. Dick imagines a history where the U.S. lost World War II. Among the many things examined in the book (and the current TV series based on it) is the effect of the military occupation on art. This dystopic world, however, is not merely speculative science fiction; it is rooted in fact. Historical records document the Nazi regime’s control and censorship of art, designating the contemporary arts as “degenerate” and associating them with Communism, Jewishness, and anti-German sentiments, worthy of suppression.

While The Man in the High Castle does not examine music outright, in real history the course of musical practices, including instrument design, was deeply affected by the war. Though many artistic movements survived WWII and flourished afterwards, others were severely curtailed, if not altogether extinguished. One is easily drawn to invert Dick’s alternate history and ask: What if the war had never happened? It is with this spirit of speculative re-examination that we turn our attention to the Czech school of microtonal music led by Alois Hába, and the remarkable quartertone piano that stood at its center.

The Path to 12-Tone Equal Temperament
When one sits at the modern piano keyboard, a quick reflection reveals the organic integration of keyboard design with equal tempered tuning. The chromatic half-step division of the keyboard octave maps the twelve equal divisions of equal temperament. The modern keyboard is a common-sense arrangement that allows for both the equal sounding of every tonal center and the comfortable execution of dissonant and non-tonal harmonies. The tuning and the keyboard reflect each other. But this design came about slowly, and not without dissent.

Modern keyboards have their origin in the Middle Ages. Their early incarnations consisted of a simple diatonic keyboard with eight adjacent keys, the equivalent of the seven “white” keys of the modern keyboard with the addition of Bb, reflecting the notes used in plainchant melodies. As music increased in polyphonic complexity over the course of the 14th Century, keyboard design followed suit. The Norrlanda organ from the late 1300s sports a manual keyboard consisting of the eight diatonic keys with four chromatic keys set a few inches above them, with a spacing similar to the modern keyboard. The chromatic keys in this and other early keyboards were tuned to pure thirds above the diatonic keys, demonstrating that they were considered musically subordinate to the diatonic ones. Over the course of the next few centuries the chromatic keys were lowered to be reachable with the fingers of one hand, and Bb moved to join them, forming the familiar design we know today. The chromatic keys, however, remained in their subordinate tuning.

Some found this design restrictive. Nicolai Vincentino’s “arcicembalo” from the mid-1500s, for example, divided the octave into 31 tones using a complex two-level keyboard with divided chromatic keys. In Just intonation, this increased the number of available key centers, whereas tuned to a mean-tone temperament allowed for all 24 tonal centers. Other non-standard keyboards were designed by Gioseffo Zarlino, Francisco Salinas, Vito Trasuntino, Marin Mersenne, and Joan Albert Ban, to name a few.

These alternate designs did not prevail, however, and the familiar standardized keyboard design, in conjunction with various mean-tone tunings, were in general use throughout the Renaissance and Baroque eras. That this tuning maintained the subordinate role of the chromatic keys is easily demonstrated in J.S. Bach’s Inventions & Sinfonias (BWV 772–801), which utilizes only 15 tonalities; the diatonic major and minor keys C through A, plus B minor, Bb major, and Eb major. But the late Baroque found advocates for “circulating” or “well” temperaments, which, like the arcicembalo, allowed every key on the keyboard to function as a tonal center. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was written as a demonstration of this capacity. While well temperaments paved the way for the acceptance of equal temperament, they are not equivalent, as each of the tonalities in a well temperament utilizes a slightly different tuning.

The idea of equal temperament is an ancient one: it goes back many thousands of years in traditional Chinese music and seems to have been theorized by Aristoxenus of Tarentum in the 4th Cent. BCE. It made its first appearance in modern Europe in 1580 when Vincenzo Galilei, grandfather of Galileo Galilei, began advocating for an equal tempered tuning in lutes, though there was vociferous opposition. Scholars disagree as to when equal temperament became the standard for keyboard instruments, but suffice it to say that the idea of the unity of the twelve keys of the keyboard and the twelve equal divisions of the octave gradually converged over the course of the Classical and Romantic eras.

Even as this convergence took hold, other ideas were afoot. Quartertones, pitches that reside in between the two notes of a half step, had historical precedents in Ancient Greece, while in Arab music they had been in use since at least the 10th Century. In 1840, Mīkhāʾīl Mishāqā, a Lebanese historian and scholar of Arabic music, published a mathematical formula defining a 24 equal-step quartertone scale. In Europe, quartertones received occasional consideration in the 15th and 17th Centuries, but made their first modern appearance in 1849 when Fromental Halévy’s Prométhée enchaîné used them in imitation of Ancient Greek harmonies. Three years later, the remarkable composer, author, and political revolutionary Johanna Kinkel wrote that Chopin’s chromaticism was an attempt to reach for notes in between the keys, stating “Emancipirt die Vierteltöne, so habt ihr eine neue Tonwelt!” (Emancipate the quartertone, so you have a new world of music!)

Challenges to the standardized keyboard also continued. In 1864, a 19-key-per-octave “enharmonic klavecin” was designed by Prince Vladimir Feodorovich Odoevsky, and in the 1870s, Robert Holford Macdowall Bosanquet created the multileveled “generalized keyboard” to play in 53-tone equal temperament. This temperament was also championed by Shohé Tanaka, a Japanese physicist and music theorist living in Berlin, who designed a 20-key-per-octave Just intonation “Enharmonium.” But these and other designs, like their earlier counterparts, attempted to realize or approximate diatonic Just intonation rather than expand the equal octave division for its own sake.

The Notes In-between
This, however, changed in 1892 with G.A. Behrens-Senegalden’s “achromatishes” quartertone piano, containing a cleverly designed keyboard that fit a set of slightly raised quartertone keys between the white and black sets. From 1902 to 1912, quartertone harmoniums were built by Max Meyer, Josef Anton Gruss, and Jörg Mager. In 1915, Mager published a book on his theories called Vierteltonmusik (Quartertone Music). That same year Willi von Möllendorf constructed a “bichromatic harmonium” using a keyboard design based on the standard black and white key arrangement with an additional set of gapped quartertone “brown” keys, and in 1917, Möllendorf published Musik mit Vierteltönen Erfahrungen am bichromatischen Harmonium (Music with Quarter Tones: experiences at the bichromatic harmonium).

At the end of the first World War the young Czech composer Alois Hába, who was living in Vienna after serving in the Austrian army, read about a lecture by Möllendorf in the newspaper. Having grown up performing in his father’s Moravian folk-music band, Hába was interested in the differences between folk music intonation and that of the classical tradition. Inspired, he composed his first quartertone work entitled Suite for Orchestra and began studying with Franz Schreker at the Vienna Music Academy. In 1920, Schrecker moved to Berlin to become director of the Hochschule für Musik, and Hába followed him. It was in Berlin that Hába met a variety of composers interested in microtonality and instrument design, including Möllendorf, Mager, Julián Carillo, Feruccio Busoni, Arthur Lourié, and Richard Stein. Hába also met Ivan Vsychnegradksy, a Russian composer who was living in Paris but frequently traveled to Berlin. At the time, Vsychnegradksy experimented with composing using two upright pianos tuned a quartertone apart, and he had also worked with the Pleyel company to create a two-manual quartertone “pneumatic-transmission” player piano but was unhappy with the result.

FIG 1. A piano-tuner's dream or nightmare? An inside look at the August Förster quartertone grand piano. (Courtesy of August Förster.)

The meeting between Hába and Vyschnegradsky was highly influential on both men. Sometime between 1923 and 1924, Vyschnegradsky, either alone or with Hába, contacted the Grotrian-Steinweg company to build a quartertone piano, though sources disagree on whether or not it was actually built. Hába, however, successfully worked with the August-Förster company to produce a quartertone grand piano (see Figure 1). This massive instrument was essentially a double piano: The body contains two stacked harps tuned a quartertone apart, while the keyboard features three manuals; the center manual sounded the standard tuning while the outer manuals sounded a quartertone flat. This ingenious keyboard design allows for fluid movement between standard pitches and quartertones while maintaining a foundation in traditional piano technique. Rather than learning a new keyboard, a pianist could simply expand their technique to include the outer manuals (see Figure 2). August-Förster used this keyboard for an upright quartertone piano for Vyschnedgradsky in 1928, while a second quartertone grand piano was sent to a conservatory in Cairo (see Figure 3).

FIG 2. The strength of this particular key arrangement is that it is relatively easy for pianists to adapt their playing technique to include quartertone pitches by accessing the notes above and below the middle keyboard.

Interest in microtonality was not limited to Berlin: English composer John Foulds used quartertones in his string quartet of 1898 while Russian Futurist composer Mikhail Matyushin began working with quartertones in 1913. By the '20s and '30s, quartertone composers in the U.S. included Charles Ives, Mildred Couper, and Hans Barth (who also built a quartertone piano). Also in the U.S., Harry Partch built unique instruments to play in extended Just intonation, while in Mexico Carrillo constructed instruments to play in a variety of tunings.

It was in Europe that composers began attempts to institutionalize microtonal approaches. One promising endeavor began in 1923 in Leningrad, where Georgy Rimsky-Korsakov (Nicolai’s grandson) headed up the Circle of Quarter-Tone Music, a small but committed group that produced a number of concerts with a dedicated performing ensemble that included Dimitri Shostakovich. However, by the late twenties, organizational issues plagued the Circle, and ultimately accusations of “formalism” from the Stalinist regime caused its dissolution.
FIG 3. The harp and string arrangement is clearly visible in this 1928 photo of a quartertone upright piano. (Courtesy of August Förster.)

In Berlin, Richard Stein hosted the International Quarter-Tone Congress at his flat in 1922, with Hába in attendance. Hába himself sought to create a department of quartertone and sixthtone music at the Hoschules. This effort proved unfruitful, and in 1923 Hába returned to Prague, where he soon began teaching workshops in microtonal music at the Conservatory, writing New Harmony-Textbook of the Diatonic, Chromatic, Quarter-, Third-, Sixth-, and Twelfth-tone Systems in 1925. His music became referred to as Musik der Freiheit (liberated music), though this term had as much to do with his athematic style as it did with his use of microtonality. In 1931, Hába’s quartertone opera Matka premiered in Munich, solidifying his reputation as the leader of the emerging microtonal school of music.

Hába’s efforts at instrument design continued. In 1931, August-Förster produced two more quartertone uprights, and by the mid-'30s Hába had produced two quartertone clarinets, a quartertone trumpet, four quartertone harmoniums (both cabinet and collapsible), and two sixth-tone harmoniums. Other composers and artists began to collect around him, perhaps most prominently the pianist and composer Erwin Schulhoff, who is considered the first master of the quartertone piano.

In 1933 Josef Suk became head of the Prague Conservatory, and Hába began teaching at the Conservatory in earnest. By 1934, Hába had established a Department of Microtonal Music, attracting students from throughout Europe and even Egypt. Many of these students became skilled interpreters of Hába’s work, such as the composer Karel Reiner who became noted for his skills at the quartertone piano. Tellingly, by 1936 the term “the Hába School” was used by Vladimír Helfert in his book on modern Czech music. This microtonal movement was emerging as a separate path in contemporary European music, a dynamic opposition to the dodecaphonic serialism embodied by the Second Viennese school. At the center of this movement was the quartertone piano, whose design had become standardized and was finding favor with an increasing number of composers and performers.

History Intervenes
This rising musical microtonal ferment, however, was about to collide head-on with political history. The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the WWI had left a majority of native German-speaking peoples in border districts of the Czechoslovak Republic, an area which came to be called the Sudentland. During the 1930s, with the majority of Czechs and Slovaks divided among several political parties, the pro-Nazi Sudetendeutsche Partei (Sudeten German Party or SdP) became the second largest political party in the Republic. Hilter soon encouraged the SdP to advocate for autonomy, a situation referred to as the “Sudeten Crises.”

Czechoslovakia was ostensibly protected by a military alliance with France and Britain, but in an effort to avoid military confrontation with Germany, both countries were signatories of the 1938 Munich Agreement, allowing Germany to annex the Sudetenland. Notably absent from this agreement was Czechoslovakia itself. The fragile Republic began to dissolve, and in 1939 Hitler informed President Emil Hácha of his imminent invasion, threatening Prague with aerial bombardment. Hácha, seeing no other option, ordered the Czech troops to stand down. On March 18, 1939, from the walls of the Prague Castle, Hitler declared the Czechoslovakian lands a Protectorate of Germany.

Hába was subsequently declared a “degenerate artist” along with a majority of his students. Performances of his works were banned, and the Conservatory was shut down. Karel Reiner, a Jew, suffered internment at the Theresienstadt, Auswitz, and Dachau concentration camps, though he ultimately survived the war despite being forced into a death march during its final days. Erwin Schulhoff, who was Jewish, homosexual, and a communist, died of tuberculosis in the Wülzburg concentration camp.

Post-war Setbacks
Following the war, the Czech school attempted to reconstitute itself. The Conservatory reopened, Hába became a Professor of Composition, and the Department of Microtonal Music was reestablished. In the 1946 elections, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, which had declared itself dedicated to democratic governance, won a majority. However, political alliances soon began to fracture and in February of 1948, with the backing of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party staged a coup and Czechoslovakia fell under Soviet dominance. While Hába’s compositional style changed to reflect the aesthetics of Socialist Realism, becoming more tonal and incorporating folk melodies, Hába soon came under accusations of being a “formalist.” By the Fall of 1948, the Department of Microtonal Music was shut down, and Hába was soon forced out of the school.

Despite these impediments, Hába continued to compose. While somewhat isolated behind the Iron Curtain, his works were occasionally performed, he attended the Darmstadt Summer Courses in 1956, and maintained an influential role on musical pedagogy in the Eastern Bloc. However, access to the quartertone piano proved difficult, and Hába’s final work for the instrument dates from 1959.

Many of his late works are quite evocative, and his String Quartet in Fifthtones from 1967 demonstrates a mature composer at the height of his powers. However, this and other works tend to stand in isolation, similar to the works of Vyschnegradsky or Partch; a singular creative force working predominantly within their own world.

Following Hába’s death in 1973, the quartertone grand piano was moved from the Conservatory to the National Music Museum in Prague where it currently sits on display along with the quartertone clarinets, trumpet, and a sixthtone harmonium (see Figure 4). Today, one of the remaining quartertone upright pianos sits in the Music Theory wing of the Academy of Performing Arts, largely unused.

FIG 4. Viewed from the side, you get a sense of the enormity of the August-Förster quartertone grand piano with its dual harps.

Imagining Possibilities
When examining this history, the promise of the Czech microtonal school seems apparent. The open artistic environment of inter-war Prague, the institutionalization of pedagogical approaches, the growing school of composers and performers, and the standardization of instrument design, all came together during a time of growing national identity. The temptation to speculate about a different history where the fledgling Czechoslovak Republic had remained free from the dominance of the Nazi and Soviet regimes—an inversion of The Man in the High Castle—is almost irresistible.

While quartertones may seem strange and harsh to those solely attuned to traditional tonalities, the history of temperament itself demonstrates a steady progression of previously rejected sounds becoming more acceptable with familiarity. One only has to read the polemics against Vincenzo Galilei’s tuning propositions to see how difficult equal temperament was to accept for some.

Likewise, the idea of a growing familiarity and acceptance of quartertone microtonality is not out of the question had the “Hába School” continued. It is easy to imagine how this increasingly prominent music may have intersected more thoroughly with like-minded composers such as Ives, Couper, Carillo, or Rimsky-Korsakov into the '40s, '50s, and beyond. And in the midst of this intersection would have been the quartertone piano.

It is doubtful that the quartertone keyboard would have supplanted our ubiquitous one, but it does not seem too much of a stretch to think that the possibilities inherent in the design would have inspired more than a few composers across Europe and the U.S. With this in mind, we can note that it was only a few years after Hába’s final quartertone piano works that Robert Moog first attached a chromatic keyboard to a modular synthesizer. Had the Hába/Vsychnegradsky design been common knowledge, it seems plausible that the idea of connecting such a flexible keyboard to the dynamism of electronic synthesis would have inevitably arisen. Had this merging taken place, the possibilities seem endless.

About the Author: 
A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, composer, improviser, and sound artist Matthew Goodheart has gained an international reputation for his expansive approach. Following an early career as a free-jazz pianist, he has developed a wide body of work that explores the relationships between performer, instrument, and listener. His diverse musical creations range from large-scale microtonal compositions to open improvisations to immersive sound installations – all unified by the analytic techniques and performative methodologies he has developed to bring forth the unique and subtle acoustic properties of individual musical instruments. In 2013-14, Goodheart received a Fulbright Grant to learn to play and compose new music for Haba's quartertone pianos. His resulting Four PIeces for Quartertone Piano, recorded on the quartertone grand at the Czech Museum of Music, is pending release. 
Further online reading:
The Haba School” Reittererova, Vlasta
The Hàba School” Spurns, Lubomir
G.A. Behrens-Senegalden’s patent for the “achromatishes” quartertone piano. 
Suzette Mary Battan’s dissertation on Hàba’s “Neue Harmonielehre des diatonischen, chromatischen, Viertel-, Drittel-, Sechstel- und Zwölftel-Tonsystems” (New Harmony-Textbook of the Diatonic, Chromatic, Quarter-, Third-, Sixth-, and Twelfth-tone System). Includes her English translation of the text.
Additional related videos:
Alois Hába: Sonata for Quartertone Piano, Op. 62

Alois Hàba, Suite for quartertone clarinet and quartering piano, No. 2, Op. 24 (1925). Performed by Milan Etilk, quartertone clarinet, and Vladimir Koul, quartertone piano:

Hàba discussing his history, compositional ideas, and demonstrating the upright quartertone piano (in German) 

Alois Hàba, String Quartet no. 16 in Fifth-Tone system, Op. 98 (1967), performed by the Stamitz-Quartet 

Ivan Wyschnegradsky, 24 Preludes in 13-Tone Diatonicised Chromaticism in Quarter-Tone System for Two Pianos (1934 , revised 1960 and 1970), performed by Marine Joste
Charles Ives, Three Quarter-Tone Pieces, (1923-24) performed by Josef Christof and Steffen Schleiermacher 

Erwin Schulhoff, Piano Concerto, Op. 1, no. 11 (1923) (not a quartertone piece). Of particular note is the final movement - “Allegro Alla Jazz” 

Keep up-to-date on the latest news
Get our Free Newsletter Here!

You Might Also Like...

Keys and Synths
Show Comments

These are my comments.

Reader Poll

What best describes your dream job?

See results without voting »