Alois Hába and the History of the Quartertone Piano

Author / Artist: 
Publication Date: 
February, 2017

"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.