A Brief History of the Czech Republic
The history of a country usually relates events long past. But for the Czech Republic, the most significant historical developments are recent news. When we started these birds and music tours organized around the Prague Spring Festival, we knew the country as Czechoslovakia, a country about the size of Britain with a third of its population. But Czechoslovakia was in fact not created as an independent republic until 1918, after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of World War I. It consisted originally of the Bohemian crown lands (Bohemia, Moravia, and part of Silesia) and Slovakia (the area of Hungary inhabited by Slavonic peoples). To this was added as a trust part of Ruthenia (which has the distinction of having been an independent country for a single day in 1938). Despite the problems of uniting such a mixed group of people, Czechoslovakia made great political and economic progress, and it was the only East European state to maintain a parliamentary democracy through the interwar period.
In 1938, in a notorious act of appeasement, Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister, allowed Hitler to annex the Czech Sudetenland. In March 1939, German troops marched into Czechoslovakia. After the war, Czech Ruthenia was transferred to the Ukraine, and Czechoslovakia was incorporated into the Eastern Bloc.
Almost twenty-five years after the end of the war, the new Party Secretary Alexander Dubcek seemed to be carrying out social and economic reforms with great speed. This “Prague Spring,” intended to create “socialism with a human face,” promised to restrict the activities of the secret police and to return to the citizenry freedom of assembly, of speech, and of movement. The Soviet Union uttered grave warnings, and Warsaw Pact maneuvers brought in troops and tanks. Dubcek refused to believe that they meant any harm, but on August 21, 1968, Soviet tanks and allied forces moved in to restore order. Over 70 deaths and some 266 injuries were inflicted by this invasion, and once more Czechoslovakia was under the Russian heel, with the Czech Socialist Republic created under a new federal constitution.
Another twenty years later, starting in November 1989, influenced by events elsewhere in Eastern Europe, a series of student-led pro-democracy rallies were held in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. An opposition movement, the Civic Forum, was formed under the leadership of playwright and activist Vaclav Havel. By the end of November, the politburo had been purged, the National Assembly had stripped the Communist Party of its leading role, and opposition parties had been legalized. A month later, the rehabilitated Dubcek was sworn in as chair of the Federal Assembly and Havel became President of Czechoslovakia. The name Czech and Slovak Federative Republic was adopted in 1990, and Soviet troops withdrew in 1991. The Civic Forum split into two parties, the CDP and the CM.
A general election was held in June 1992, and Vaclav Klaus, leader of the Czech-based CDP, became prime minister. It was agreed that two separate Czech and Slovak states would be created in January 1993. All this came about peacefully without bloodshed or even rancor. Havel was elected president of the Czech Republic, which was duly admitted to the United Nations, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Council of Europe.
As to the more ancient history of Bohemia, Roman records reveal that a Celtic tribe, the Boii, settled there in the late sixth century B.C. Other Celts settled on the fringes of Slovakia and in Moravia, but they were all driven out by Germanic invaders about 100 B.C. No single group dominated until the appearance of the Slavs in the 6th century A.D. One of the Slavic tribes was called Czechs, after its leader Czech, who led them into Bohemia.
In the ninth century, Christianity began to reach these pagan lands. When Charlemagne established a protectorate over the Celtic, Germanic, and Slav tribes of the area, their lands became part of the Holy Roman Empire. Two priests with knowledge of Slavonic languages, Constantine (later Cyrill of the Cyrillic alphabet) and Methodius, were sent by Emperor Michael of Byzantium. Methodius would become Bishop of the Czechs and Archbishop of Pannonia. In A.D. 921, Bohemia came under the rule of a P?emyslid prince whose name is preserved in the English carol “Good King Wenceslas.” He was indeed “good”: like his mother, Ludmilla, Wenceslas was canonized.
Bohemia became very strong, and Prague became very rich, one of Europe’s most important trading centers. The P?emyslid monarchs wheeled and dealed, but made one error that cost Bohemia dearly when they invited German settlers to colonize forest and field and to develop the country’s resources. In 1310, John of Luxemburg founded a German-Czech royal dynasty that would last until 1437. His son Charles IV became Holy Roman Emperor in 1355, and during his reign the See of Prague (established in 975) was elevated to an archbishopric and a university was founded in the city.
The great religious reformer Jan Hus was born in 1371. The reform movement he founded, greatly influenced by the ideas of Wycliffe, had its culmination in the Battle of White Mountain outside Prague in November 1620. On the throne was the Elector Frederick, a Lutheran, dubbed “the Winter King,” so short was his reign. He was hard pressed by the Habsburgs and the Catholic League. Following the Battle of White Mountain the proud independence of Bohemia was smashed for three hundred years. The Habsburgs of Austria and Hungary, who had ruled since 1526, continued to reign until 1918.
Of necessity, this is a very abbreviated history of the Czech Republic. If the appetite has been whetted, John Burke’s Czechoslovakia (Batsford, 1976) is excellent reading.
The Czech Republic today
Area 78,864 sq km/30,461 sq miles
Population 10.3 million
Prime Minister Jan Fischer
President Vaclav Klaus
Political system Emergent democracy
Political parties Civil Democratic Party (CDP), right of center; Civil Movement (CM), left of center; Communist Party (CPCZ), left-wing; Czechoslovak People’s Party, centrist nationalist.
Religions Roman Catholic (75%); Protestant, Hussite, Orthodox.
Pruhonice Park is a prominent name in the world of horticultural and architectural landscaping. The foundations of the park as it looks today were laid over a hundred years ago. It was in 1885 that Arnost Emanuel Sylva-Tarouca married into the manor of Nostitz-Rienek. Sylva-Tarouca then decided to make use of the neighboring landscape to create a natural park.
The foundations of Pruhonice Castle were laid in the 12th century. The Church of the Birth of Our Lady was consecrated in 1187; records of the village of Pruhonice date from 1270, and the mural paintings in the church go back to about 1330. This castle was renovated by architect J. Stibral between 1889 and 1894, and rebuilt in the romanticizing style of the late 19th century, the so-called Bohemian Renaissance. This architecture shows the influence of the Late Gothic and Renaissance styles, and includes some genuine Czech architectural elements. At the same time, the foundations for the park were laid.
The brooklet running through the Botic Valley, the rocky headlands, and the mild knolls were all incorporated into the natural beauty of the park. Thousands of plants have been established. Since 1927, this entire area has been the property of the Czech state. In 1962, the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences assumed responsibility for the park and the castle from the Research Institute of Decorative Gardening. At present, the Botanical Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences is in charge of the whole place. The castle now houses offices and laboratories, along with an extensive herbarium and a specialized library connected to the National Museum. In 1984, the eastern wing of the castle was opened to the public for the exhibition of a part of the collections of the Gallery of Central Bohemia. We have permission (and our own key) to visit the park at any time, including dawn and dusk.
The Villa Bertramka
The Villa Bertramka was the home of the composer Frantisek Xaver Dusek and his wife Josephine Duskova, the celebrated concert-singer. Mozart stayed with them whenever he visited Prague, and it seems that this is the place he really loved. Here he wrote the overture to Don Giovanni, the beautiful aria “Bella mia fiamma addio,” most of La Clemenza di Tito, the priest‘s chorus and Papageno‘s songs for The Magic Flute, and a concerto for clarinet.
In the 1796 Jahrbuch der Tonkunst von Wien und Prag, we read that “Frantisek Dusek, that great virtuoso and composer for the piano, fully deserves the title Professor of Music, for in him Prague has not only a man who has trained a large number of master musicians, but one who can rightly be called a pillar of the art of music which has hitherto held its own.” Dusek is considered the founder of the oldest Czech piano school. His playing was characterized by a light touch and a gentle and expressive performance. As a composer, he worked in every field of music; over 300 of his works are extant. It is also significant that his works, most of which were written in the 1760s, bear the same melodic character as Mozart‘s. Thus, next to J.C. Bach and J. Myslivecek, Dusek can be said to be Mozart‘s closest predecessor.
From their first meeting in 1777 to his death in 1791, Mozart shared all his experiences with the Duseks; it was the Duseks who subsequently cared for his homeless orphans. It was the Duseks who realized that The Marriage of Figaro failed in Vienna in April 1786 not on musical grounds but because of the treachery of the Italian cabal, and who insisted that it should be staged at the Nostitz Theatre (now the Estates) in December of the same year; the opera was so outstandingly successful that the tunes could be heard from morning to night in the alehouse and on the street, in homes and in palaces, and of course at the Nostitz Theatre, where the cries of “encore” never stopped. So great was the enthusiasm that Prague invited Mozart to visit. He came in January and was bowled over, vowing to thank the people of Prague by writing an opera dedicated to them.
That opera was, of course, Don Giovanni. Never had Mozart looked forward so much to the performance of a new opera as when he left for Prague, the unfinished score in his bags. The premiere, intended to celebrate the presence of the Archduchess Maria Theresa, bride of Prince Anton of Saxony, was delayed three times. When the opera was premiered in late October, with Mozart at the podium, it was acclaimed with unreserved warmth. What importance Mozart attached to Prague‘s judgement is obvious from a conversation between Mozart and Jan Baptiste Kuchar, one of the four outstanding Prague musicians who became Mozart‘s friends and faithful collaborators (the others were Dusek, Josef Strobach, and Vaclav Praupner). Kuchar, a fine organist and cembalo player, was the first to arrange piano scores of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte, The Magic Flute, and Titus. Mozart asked Kuchar “What do you think of the music of Don Giovanni? Will they like it as much as Figaro? It is quite different!” Kuchar replied, “How can you doubt it? The music is beautiful, original, and masterfully conceived. Anything of Mozart’s cannot fail to delight the Czechs.” Whereupon Mozart answered “Your words reassure me; they come from an expert. Indeed I have spared no effort, no labor, in order to be able to offer Prague something that is excellent.”
The overture, Masetto‘s aria no. 6, the Don Giovanni/Leporello duet no. 15, Don Giovanni‘s serenade, and the entire second finale were all composed and first performed at the Bertramka.
The Bertramka and its hostess offered Mozart a kindly refuge and warm hospitality at a time when his creative powers were being taxed to the full. Arthur Schurig, Mozart‘s biographer, admits that the Prague audience played an important part in Mozart‘s life and in his works subsequent to Figaro. “It was in fact in the capital of Bohemia that Mozart was for the first time fully understood, valued, and loved. If any town has the right to be called his city, then it is not Salzburg, which Mozart hated, it is not Vienna, which left him to starve and forgot him in a mass grave, but only his golden Prague.” Schurig also observed “The Bertramka can be called Mozart‘s home, rather than the houses he inhabited in Salzburg and Vienna.”
For the 200th Mozart anniversary celebrations in 1956, the Czechoslovak state spared neither effort nor expense to turn the Bertramka into a lasting and dignified memorial. In the course of the work, a number of interesting discoveries were made. It was ascertained, for instance, that where the fireplace stood in Mozart‘s bedroom, there had originally been a window, and the room had been made considerably smaller by a wall, probably built after a fire in 1871. Everything was returned to its original state. All the objects relevant to Mozart‘s stay and creative activities in Prague were assembled in five rooms.
We hope to find time to explore those rooms and the grounds where, in between composing, Mozart played bowls. Maybe we will rest at the very stone table where Mozart is said to have frequently sat. We might even listen to the descendants of the very birds that no doubt inspired Mozart when he was writing Papageno‘s songs for The Magic Flute.
The Mozart/Dusek memorial at the Bertramka provides further proof of the fact that the slogan “Prague never failed Mozart and never will” is as true today as it was in 1928, when Leos Janacek wrote these word in the visitor‘s book at the Bertramka.
A Night with Mozart: The performance itself
This is an imaginative attempt to recreate the evening of November 3, 1787, telling how Mozart came to write the concert aria “Bella mia fiamma, addio!,” in which he took leave of his dear friend Josephine Dusek and the city that had given him so much happiness and so much inspiration. Mozart had been in Prague for a month, and eventually conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni at the Estates Theater. His opera of operas was acclaimed with unreserved warmth by the public.
For authenticity, the performers from the State Opera speak German. A resume of the sequence of events may be helpful, interspersed with the music played.
We are welcomed by Lady Josephine Duskova on the steps of the villa and drink champagne with her, just as she did with Mozart and her husband. She is now a widow, but recalls vividly that significant evening twelve years earlier.
In the drawing room, musicians are playing Josef Myslivecek’s Trio in D major for two violins and contrabass. Both Mozarts, father and son, were friends of Myslivecek, who was known in Italy as “Il divino Boemo,” the divine Czech. They first met in Bologna when Mozart was 14, and the thirty-two surviving letters prove the close cooperation between Myslivecek and Mozart fils). Josephine reads the excellent review of the premiere of Don Giovanni and reminds Mazart about the nervous atmosphere of rehearsals. She shows how Mozart taught Zerlina “to get really frightened,” demonstrating on the sleeping Dusek. Then she notices the music on Dusek‘s lap and hatches a plan.
Mozart is rankled by Josephine’s singing of an aria by Kozeluh, his greatest rival in Vienna and the only Czech musician to join forces with Salieri and Mozart‘s enemies. According to Nemecek, Kozeluh and Mozart once met at a party at which one of Haydn‘s string quartets was performed. After a particularly audacious passage, Kozeluh remarked that he wouldn‘t have written it like that, whereupon Mozart replied “Neither would I, because neither you nor I would have thought of it!” Mozart promises to write Josephine an aria more worthy of her talents—but not for nothing. Mozart‘s hostess responds to his allusions with equal ambiguity: “I can offer you beautiful… sweet… aria of Mozart.”
Mozart‘s Marriage of Figaro: Cherubino‘s aria “Voi, che sapete”
Jan Krtitel Jiri Neruda - Trio in G major for viola d‘amore, violin, and contrabass
Mozart‘s Don Giovanni, Calling in.
Mozart is again agitated that someone is courting Josephine in his presence—and what‘s more with one of his own arias (“Calling in”). But he is reassured when the singer, Croce, introduces himself as an understudy auditioning for the role of Don Giovanni.
Mozart‘s Marriage of Figaro, Figaro‘s aria “Non piu andrai”
Mozart‘s Don Giovanni, Giovanni‘s aria “Fin ch‘han dal vino”
Mozart‘s Don Giovanni, duet of Zerlina and Giovanni “La ci darem la mano”
Mozart leaves with Croce to discuss Don Giovanni, and Josephine challenges her husband and the musicians to try out Dusek‘s Trio in D major for piano and strings. Josephine does not hide her admiration for her husband‘s musicianship, but at the same time she reveals her concern about Mozart, who is in a hurry to return to Vienna to secure the position of court conductor and to introduce his new opera to the Viennese public. But everyone knows that he cannot expect anything good from the intrigues of Vienna. Mozart enters into their conversation: yes, he wants to show Vienna who he really is. “The problem is that the key figures already know well who you are,” counters Josephine, and asks her husband to order coffee for Mozart in the kitchen. She learns that Mozart already has chosen the text for her aria, and lures him into the drawing room, where she locks him up and vows that she will not release him until he writes the promised composition. Meanwhile, she checks out the libretto (Titan‘s aria from the opera Niccolo Jomelli), discovering that it is Titan’s farewell to his beloved. Is the similarity between their relationship and Mozart‘s fate purely coincidental?
Mozart finishes the area surprisingly quickly. But it will be hers only if she sight-reads it without any mistakes. Josephine, a little afraid, gives a perfect performance.
Mozart‘s “Bella mia fiamma, addio!”
Negotiating all the musical snares prepared for her by Mozart was very difficult. But how much more difficult was their farewell….
The Czech musical tradition and how we’ll be sampling it this year
Bohemia‘s musical tradition is both religious and secular. The Roman church’s Gregorian Chant quickly spread throughout the country, and St. Vitus‘s Cathedral in Prague (founded by Good King Wenceslas) has always been a great center of religious musical culture. The religious and nationalist movement initiated by Jan Hus (1373-1415) had a considerable influence on church music. Like the Lutherans and the Calvinists, the Hussites in Bohemia favored congregational singing, and they turned secular melodies to religious use by composing new lyrics.
During the reign of Rudolph II at Prague in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, foreign musicians were welcomed to the court. Prague had a Collegium Musicum starting in 1616.
The most significant historical testimony to the musicianship of the Czech nation is to be found in Charles Burney‘s “The Present State of Music in Germany.” On his travels through Europe in 1772, the British musician and writer visited Bohemia, where he wrote that he had often heard that the Czechs were the most musically talented nation in Germany, indeed perhaps in all of Europe. J.C. Bach, who was then in London, had assured him that if the Czechs benefited from conditions as favorable as the Italians, they would surely outclass them.
Burney traveled the length and breadth of Bohemia and observed with great interest how music was taught to the ordinary people. In Caslav, at the house of the famous organist and teacher Jan Dusik, he noticed a number of boys and girls from 6 to 11 years old reading, writing, and making music on the violin, oboe, double bass, and other instruments. There were four pianos in this room, and a boy was seated at each of them. “All the children of the peasants and tradespeople in every town and village in Bohemia are taught music at common reading schools,” he wrote, noting in particular that “Bohemians are remarkably expert in the use of wind instruments.”
We’ll start our own musical voyage of discovery in the Czech Republic with a private concert by a group of young musicians inspired in exactly the same way by their teachers, who carry on this splendid tradition. The award-winning Pipers of Trebon seem to get younger every year, but their playing is enchanting. Appropriately, the program will take us from Czech and European Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque music to South Bohemian folk song and eventually 20th-century pop and jazz standards. Today, just as as in the 18th century, the village teachers have always been the cultivators of the musical youth of Bohemia.
In 18th-century Prague, the choirmasters and organists took their pick of the singers and violinists for the monasteries and church choirs, where “instrumental music was cultivated with such love and delight that all who heard it were amazed at the masterly achievements of the ordinary Czechs.” The successor of Bohuslav Cernohorsky, the Czech composer known in Italy as the Padre Boemo (1684-1742), was Josef Seger (1716-1782), an organist known throughout Europe. Josef Myslivecek, Jan Krtitel Kuchar, Abbot Josef Jelinek, and Jan Antonin Kozeluh were among his pupils. Another outstanding organist and composer was Frantisek Vaclav Habermann (1706-1783), whose mass was played in England, where Handel himself copied it and later made use of some of the themes in his oratorio Jephthah. Habermann was the first teacher of Josef Myslivecek and Frantisek Xaver Dusek. Mozart also greatly admired the works of Frantisek Xaver Brixi (1732-1771), the modest but great organist and composer and conductor of the choir of St Vitus‘s Cathedral in Prague. During Mozart‘s stay in Prague, he asked Kozeluh, choirmaster at the cathedral, to show him the music archives. It was cold down there, so he kept his three-cornered hat on—but when he was perusing Brixi‘s Graduale, he took off his hat, made a sweeping bow, and cried out “You have to take your hat off to a man like Brixi.”
Social oppression and persecution by the Counter-Reformation caused many Czech musicians to leave their country for Germany, Italy, Russia, and France. Thus, Bohemia became known as the conservatory of Europe. One of the most famous of these musical emigrants was Jan Vaclav Stamic (1717-1757), who founded the famous Mannheim school that which had such an influence on Mozart—and virtually every musician of the late 18th century.
From Mannheim, Mozart wrote to his father about the impression that Jiri Benda‘s melodramas had made on him: they moved him like nothing else he had heard during his travels through Germany, Italy, France, England, Holland, and Belgium. Seldom did Mozart use words as extravagant as those he used to describe Benda‘s Medea and Ariadne on Naxos. Mozart became so fond of Benda that he spoke of him as his darling and took his works with him on his travels. A few days after his first expression of delight at Benda‘s melodramas, he wrote “Oh, if only we had clarinets! You wouldn‘t believe how incredibly beautiful such a symphony is with flutes, oboes, and clarinets.” He looked forward to introducing them to Salzburg immediately on his return.
Many other musicians and composers from Bohemia influenced Mozart. The Viennese Czechs included Vaclav Pichl (1741-1805), Archduke Ferdinand‘s own composer; Nissen (who married Mozart‘s widow) would later write that most of Mozart‘s earlier instrumental works bear the stamp of Pichl‘s taste and manner of playing. Other influential Czechs in Vienna included brothers Pavel (1756-1825) and Antonin (1761-1820) Vranicky (note the connection between the former‘s Oberon and Mozart‘s Magic Flute), the oboe and viola da gamba virtuoso Josef Fiala (1748-1816), Vanhal, J. Jelinek, V. Jirovec, F.X. Vositka, Antonin Rossler-Rosetti (1750-1792), J. Rejcha (1745 -1795), J. Janic, F. Hejna, and Frantisek Adam Mica (1746-1811). When a new symphony by Mica was anonymously performed in Vienna, Mozart immediately declared that he “knew the bird by his feathers,” and turned to embrace Mica in front of the entire company.
Just as Mozart was influenced by so many Czech composers, his own works continued to meet with great response and to have a tremendous influence in the Czech lands. The Mozart tradition became an inseparable and living part of Czech culture. The entire Czech “awakening” of the 19th century was permeated by the beauty and humanity of the master‘s legacy. To Bedrich Smetana, Mozart was a great example, and to Antonin Dvorak he was “the sun, giver of untold warmth.”
On our first evening in Prague, we’ll visit the Villa Bertramka, the home of the composer Frantisek Xaver Dusek and his wife Josephine Duskova and the place Mozart stayed whenever he visited Prague (see above), where we shall be treated to “A Night with Mozart.” Two nights later we shall attend a performance of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte in the gold and red opulence of the Smetana Opera House (State Opera).
In 1811, the Conservatory of Prague was founded. Its earliest director was Frederick Dionys Weber (1766-1842). But it is with Smetana (1824-84) and Dvorak (1841-1904) that the Bohemia of 19th-century Europe really came to shine. A host of fine musicians were contemporary with or slightly younger than Smetana and Dvorak: Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900), Leos Janacek (1854-1928), Gustav Mahler (1860-1911—born in Bohemia, although he received his musical education in Vienna), Vietezun Novak (1870-1949), Joseph Suk (1874-1935), and Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959). In 1860, when a new constitution made the Czech language compulsory in all schools, Smetana produced a series of eight works in the Czech language, which became the basis of the Czech opera My Fatherland. Dvorak produced a series of nine operas. Janá?ek followed with Jenufa, Fate, The Excursions of Mr. Brou?ek, Katua Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropulos Affair, and From the House of the Dead. Mr. Brou?ek (Mr. Beetle) premiered in the National Theater in Prague in 1920, the only one of Janá?ek’s operas to be heard for the first time outside Brno. It is particularly appropriate and exciting, therefore, that we shall be seeing a performance in this very theater.
In their 19th-century search for national identity, Czech composers were strongly influenced by the natural environment. Smetana‘s cycle of symphonic poems “Ma Vlast/My Country” is typical, with movements devoted to Bohemia‘s woods and fields, and “Vltava” tracing the course of the Moldau from its bubbling origin in the Sumava mountains to the mighty river that sweeps through Prague. (We shall hear it on the coach as we make the same journey.) Equally significant is Dvorak‘s op. 68 suite for two pianos “Ze Sumavy/From Sumava,” six movements inspired by his walks in the Sumava mountains. To bring this to life for us, the celebrated pianists Vera and Vlastimil Lejsek will be coming especially from Brno to Cesky Krumlov. We are honored that this famous husband-and-wife team—who have been playing together for forty years, have had many compositions dedicated to them, and enjoyed close associations with Milhaud, Britten, and Shostakovich—make this journey for us every year. Vlastimil Lejsek is an esteemed composer himself (one year he delighted us with the world premier of his latest composition), and he may also be persuaded to play his “Legends from Moravia,” which is very much in this same tradition.
By the time we reach Brno, we shall be steeped in this Czech musical tradition. A finishing touch will be a visit to Janacek’s home to learn more about his highly original style, influenced by Moravian folk music. We know the curator well, and she usually opens up specially for us. “Each folk song,” said Janacek, “contains an entire man: his body, his soul, his surroundings, everything, everything. He who grows up among folk songs grows into a complete man.”
It is appropriate, therefore, that our musical tour of the Czech Republic concludes with a feast of Moravian folk music—at the Ride of the Kings festival at Vlcnov and in a private performance in the wine cellars on our final evening, in many ways bringing us full circle from our first private recital by the Pipers of Trebon. And just as he who grows up among folk songs grows into a complete man, let‘s hope that those who grow along with this carefully balanced wealth of Czech music during our twelve days together will consider it a complete tour.
Updated: November 2009