Sunday 15 September 2019

Celebrating Czech music on its national holiday

A river runs by it: the castle of Cesky, Krumlov, in the Czech Republic
A river runs by it: the castle of Cesky, Krumlov, in the Czech Republic

George Hamilton

Today is the national holiday in the Czech Republic. That in itself is something of a paradox, for it's a commemoration of the founding of a state that no longer exists.

It was on Monday October 28, 1918, as World War I was coming to an end, that Czechoslovakia declared its independence from the Habsburg empire.

The Czech Republic and Slovakia - the two constituent parts of the new republic - went their separate ways 25 years ago, but the Czechs have continued with the celebration.

This isn't really that surprising, for what happened in 1992 - the velvet divorce, as it was called - was nothing like the seismic schism that shook them both free almost a century ago now. You can see why it would still be celebrated.

Nationalism was deep-rooted in what were known prior to 1918 as the Czech Lands - Bohemia, Moravia, and part of Silesia that make up the present-day republic.

But since the 16th century, when the region was taken over by the Habsburgs, the emphasis had been on all things German.

As the sands shifted, and history began to call time on the old order, so art stepped forward to seize the day.

Nowhere was this more evident than in music, where two composers in particular stood out - Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak. These two masters of the Romantic era put a distinctly Czech stamp on their output.

It's ironic that Dvorak is best known these days for his New World Symphony, and in particular its slow movement that has been turned into a song, 'Goin' Home'.

He had relocated to work in America at the now defunct New York Conservatory, but he missed his home place, and the words given to the largo of his symphony by one of his students caught his mood.

William Arms Fisher came up with the lyrics, but it was the musical master, Dvorak himself, who provided the tune.

He made the most of his three years in America, exploring the sounds and the rhythms he found there.

But while that Symphony No 9, 'From the New World', has become his signature piece, it's those Czech melodies that really mark him out.

His collection of Slavonic Dances, his Czech Suite - which presents a series of local dances in its five movements - and his symphonies present a glorious kaleidoscope of themes from his native place.

There's his wonderful Romance for Violin and Orchestra which I never tire of hearing, but my own particular favourite is the lively scherzo (3rd movement) of his 7th Symphony in D minor.

Bedrich Smetana could claim the title of the daddy of Czech Music. Born 17 years before Dvorak, in 1824, he mined the seams of a rich tradition of melody and rhythm. His opera, The Bartered Bride, is a treat.

You'll find his signature tune in amongst a suite of six symphonic poems paying tribute to his part of the world - Ma Vlast (in English, My Country).

One of those pieces is called Vltava, or, in the German that still finds its way to insert itself, Die Moldau.

It's the river that flows like the life blood of the Czech Republic, coming to life in two springs in the Bohemian forest, growing from a babbling brook to a stream, then on to become a torrent.

It flows past the castle of Cesky Krumlov, and on through the countryside to the city of Ceske Budejovice - home of the original Budweiser beer.

The music charts its course, taking in a gypsy wedding on its banks, then becoming more majestic as it reaches Prague and flows beneath the Charles Bridge below the castle, heading on to reach journey's end in a clash of cymbals and blasts of brass, tumbling into the Elbe for its journey towards the North Sea beyond Hamburg.

Smetana and Dvorak, providing the perfect musical accompaniment for the day that's in it.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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