Welcome to Prague, one of Europe’s musical capitals and the first city we’re visiting on California Symphony’s Riverboat Cruise! These short blog posts are meant as musical companions to the cities and regions we will be visiting on this ten-day adventure and will hopefully help reveal why these composers and cities mean so much to me.
Prague and its surroundings have always been considered a musical wellspring. Bohemian musicians, particularly wind players, were often regarded as the very best and were valued members of orchestras throughout Europe well into the twentieth century. It was in Prague, not Vienna, where Mozart was first idolized and it is here where his Symphony №38 and his opera, Don Giovanni, were premiered in 1786 and 1787, respectively.
There are three composers who, for me, best define the Czech musical tradition: Bedřich Smetana (1824–1884); Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904); and Leoš Janáček (1854–1928).
Last year, the California Symphony performed Smetana’s Vltava (Die Moldau). Vltava is the second piece from a set of six tone poems called, Ma Vlast (My Homeland), and I can’t think of a piece that better encapsulates the political, social, and geographical history of a specific region more than Ma Vlast. We will all be walking over Vltava on a daily basis while in Prague as it’s the name of the river that splits the city in two! Here is my favorite recording of Smetana’s Ma Vlast: Czech Philharmonic, Václav Talich conductor, 1954: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPFvOnMl5cM
Another important performance of Ma Vlast, led by the great Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76R0N2GN6Jo&t=1038s
Smetana’s string quartets are incredibly important to this genre ofchamber music and this is an amazing video of his String Quartet №1 “From My Life”: https://youtu.be/_L1lPraMNUk
Antonín Dvořák is Czech’s most famous musical citizen. He is particularly important to us as he was hired in 1892 to be the director of the now defunct National Conservatory of the Music of America in New York City. For the three years that he spent in this position, he greatly influenced the direction of composition in the United States and led through example in trying to create a “American” style by composing his Symphony №9 subtitled, “From the New World,” and String Quartet №12 subtitled, “American,” String Quintet in E-flat, and his Cello Concerto in B-minor, inspired by Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto. If you use Spotify, here is my Spotify playlist of my favorite Dvorak recordings: http://bit.ly/DCDvorak
If not, here are some YouTube links to great performances of Dvorak’s most famous works:
Slavonic Dances — https://youtu.be/vnnJhr3AmIM
Symphony №7 — https://youtu.be/3thKh93NEEU
Symphony №8 — https://youtu.be/QXAv-NGppFw
Symphony №9 — https://youtu.be/g9qf5Trjtvw
Cello Concerto — https://youtu.be/nJSlmoXpzfM
String Quartet №12 “American” — https://youtu.be/pV-kbAydcwk
Perhaps the most iconoclastic and unique Czech composer, Leos Janacek straddled the 19th and 20th centuries and his music reflects this dramatic period of musical growth and exploration. If I were to identify one feature in Janacek’s music that is wholly his own, it would have to be his fascination with how the rhythm and cadence of the Czech language could be translated to musical rhythms and cadences. One of my favorite orchestral pieces by any composer is Janacek’s Sinfonietta. I will never forget the first time I first heard the majestic, yet somehow ancient and somewhat barbaric brass and percussion fanfare that is the first and last movements of this mysterious masterpiece. The movements in between seem to create a universe all its own, with incredible awe inspiring vistas, mixed with the brutal realities of country life. This recent performance by Sir Simon Rattle and London Symphony Orchestra captures all of this and more: https://youtu.be/BAmuvFglu0g
Janacek’s operas are where one can naturally hear how he successfully integrated the Czech language with his musical voice. His operas tell stories that are very tragic and often other worldly, but there is also a refreshing realism to his storytelling, both in terms of the libretto and his use of the orchestra as a character in the opera. One of my favorite of his operas, Jenufa, receives a transcendent performance here: https://youtu.be/DFbRCiChA1g
His chamber music sounds, particularly his piano music, like Beethoven’s in that it is incredibly personal…it’s almost like reading a personal diary. Watch this fascinating masterclass of In the Mists, led by Sir Andras Schiff: https://youtu.be/nourWqvItAc.
Some of you expressed interest in learning more about the music that was performed and composed in the concentration camp, Terezin (Theresienstadt), which is just outside Prague and was used as a propaganda tool by the Nazis as a ‘model’ concentration camp and made available for a now infamous Red Cross visit and inspection.
I direct you to explore the music of two composers interned at Terezin: Viktor Ullmann — http://orelfoundation.org/composers/article/viktor_ullmann/ -whose opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis was performed at Terezin, and one of the first composers to incorporate jazz into his music in the 1920’s; and Hans Krasa — http://orelfoundation.org/composers/article/hans_krasa - whose opera for children (and sung by children) Brundibar was performed on numerous occasions in Terezin. Also, multiple performances of Verdi’s Requiem took place in Terezin and more information about how this happened can be found here: https://www.defiantrequiem.org/concert-performances/defiant-requiem/description/