Thursday 18 January 2018

Prague - where the music flows beneath your feet

Bedrich Smetana
Bedrich Smetana

Standing on the Charles Bridge in Prague, the sense of history and tradition is palpable. The Czech capital is one of the few major European cities to have come through the ages unmarred by war or natural disaster.

Musically, there is a feeling of continuity too. Maybe it's the fact that the river Vltava, flowing beneath your feet, inspired one of the most magnificent tone poems. Or maybe it's just that the rhythms and riffs that are the sounds of Bohemia are so captivating and appealing.

Certainly Prague has been at the centre of musical life for centuries. The one-time heart of the Holy Roman Empire, home to central Europe's first university, has long enjoyed its status as a cultural hub.

In Mozart's time, opera was king. His Don Giovanni debuted there, so too the lesser-known La Clemenza di Tito. The composer had a special affinity with the place, famously remarking that his Prague audiences understood him. His 38th symphony, which is nicknamed after the city, was another work to be premiered in front of a Czech audience.

Composers from the region had long influenced musical trends. Johann Stamitz from Prague, who was to take charge of the orchestra at Mannheim in Germany, the leading ensemble in its day, was the first to use the four-movement form for the symphony, and also wrote the very first concerto for the clarinet. In turn, the city attracted the finest to its stages. Beethoven paid numerous visits. Virtuosi from Paganini to Liszt made sure to include Prague on their itineraries.

Czech nationalism played its part in the burgeoning musical scene. Bedrich Smetana's Vltava may be the most obvious expression, melodically charting the course of the country's principal river.

The music of Antonin Dvorak never forgot its roots. Even when he was blending traditional themes he found elsewhere - as in his New World symphony - there's still a sense of the sounds and the rhythms of home. Dvorak was most certainly a man of his place. The opera composer Leos Janacek is another whose roots are clear.

Today, you're spoilt for choice in Prague, with a host of magnificent venues staging concerts. Principal among them is the Rudolfinum, named after a Crown Prince. Dominating a square beside the river just north of the Charles Bridge, it was conceived as a monument to the Czech-speaking people, a House of Artists, complete with a line of statues of the famous along its roof.

In its time, it has played host to the country's parliament, and is now home to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

During World War Two the Nazis closed it down, and, in setting about putting their stamp on the building, produced one of history's great ironies. The Jewish-born Felix Mendelssohn would have no place in the lofty gallery of the greats. But they erred in identifying him and instead took down the statue of the composer with whom they most closely identified - none other than Richard Wagner.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10.00 each Saturday morning.

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