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Hudba! The Unique Style of Czech Music

The »Czech it out!« festival is a chance to go on a musical journey of exploration around one of Europe’s most beautiful soundscapes: from 17–26 February.

When it comes to music, we can usually make ourselves understood in Europe: muzikë, musiikki, mousikí, muzika, musek, muziek, muzyka, música. But hang on, what’s that: hudba? That’s the Czech word for music, pronounced softly, with the consonants meeting respectfully in the middle: hud’ba. The Czechs also have a saying: Co Čech, to hudebník – every Czech is a musician.

Like all good sayings, it is probably an exaggeration, but there is some truth to it. Because even though the country has a population of only ten million, the three major Czech composers – Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák and Leoš Janáček – are extremely well represented on concert and opera stages around the world, which is quite remarkable for a relatively small country.

Prague / 1840
Prague / 1840

HISTORICAL STARTING POINT

There are several historical reasons for this phenomenon. From the High Middle Ages until 1806, Bohemia was a part of the Holy Roman Empire. However, for almost 400 years from 1526 until the end of the First World War in 1918, the Bohemian throne was occupied not by Czech rulers, but by the Habsburgs from Vienna. Over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century, a strong desire for national independence emerged in Bohemia as in many other European countries.

A steadily growing German-speaking minority had been living there since at least the tenth century – traders and professional classes in the cities, peasants in the wooded mountains. These eventually came to number a third of the total population. That worked without any problems for the most part, and led to a mutual enrichment both culturally and economically.

A STYLE OF THEIR OWN

Emerging nationalism turned the language into a symbol of difference. Czech-speaking and German-speaking Bohemians drifted apart. Before long, two parallel societies formed, each with their own business, social, political and cultural worlds. There were Czech and German parties, associations, theatres and opera houses.

This was the historical point of departure for the upsurge of Czech music in the nineteenth century, which culminates in Smetana, Dvořák and Janáček. Prague became an important centre for music once again, and Bohemia would have its own national style at last.

Bedřich Smetana
Bedřich Smetana
Die Moldau

THE FESTIVAL PLAYLIST

Smetana, Dvořák and Janáček conquered musical history from their Czech homeland.

THE CZECH REBIRTH

To this end it was an advantage in some ways that the nationalist-minded Czechs did not have a corpus of medieval poetry of their own, as had enchanted their German and French colleagues so completely. Music was therefore all the more important. Smetana, Dvořák and, a little later, Janáček were in the right place at the right time, and found three very different ways to inspire the »Czech rebirth« through music.

Bedřich Smetana (1824–1884), the eldest of the three, painted pictures and narrated scenes and stories from the country’s history through sound, e.g. in the symphonic cycle »Má vlast« (»My Fatherland«), in which he also elevates the Vlatva to national river of Bohemia.

Unlike the programmatic Smetana, Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) remained true to absolute music. He found the inspiration for his captivating rhythmic agility (»Dumky« Trio) in Czech folk dances, but he used that not so much to appeal to the nationalist consciousness of the Czechs, but to tell them stories about their country, their forests, their fairy-tales and people – not a matter of nation, but of homeland.

THE MELODY OF LANGUAGE

For Leoš Janáček (1854–1928), the youngest of the three, the political situation was quite different. The Hungarians had wrested extensive national concessions from the Emperor in Vienna in 1867; but right until its collapse in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy hardly made any concessions to the Czechs’ demand for corresponding status. Under no circumstances did it want to become a triple monarchy.

Leoš Janáček around 1890
Leoš Janáček around 1890

Disappointed, Janáček turned to Pan-Slavism, which emphasised the commonalities shared by Slavic peoples from Bohemia to Russia, including the quest for national independence. He looked to Russian literature for subjects for his operas (»From the House of the Dead«, »Káťa Kabanová«) and he drew inspiration from folk songs and Old Slavonic liturgical songs, as well as from the sounds of nature. Above all, however, what he studied was melody and the very special rhythms of spoken Czech, which are most beautifully expressed in Janáček’s »hudba«.

Text: Carsten Fastner

Elbphilharmonie Magazin »Auf Reisen«

Read more in the latest Elbphilharmonie Magazine »Auf Reisen« (German only).

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