Sorry for the long absence between posts. Instead of writing about music I’ve been busy experiencing it, travelling around Europe, exploring cities, making new friends and of course gathering more stories, musical and otherwise. I’m back in Brisbane now and have gradually returned to something resembling a normal routine, but it was just too difficult to write from the road. Pretty much every day was filled with activity – which made it busy but wonderful!
There are lots of things I could write about music I discovered while I was away, especially since the final week of my trip was spent at the Dartington International Summer School in the UK where I did some vocal masterclasses and a fair bit of choral and small ensemble singing as well. Such a fun and inspiring week, and a terrific way to be exposed to a lot of new music all at once. But I thought I’d start by recollecting my short time in Prague. Being a bit of a whirlwind tour (six countries in 33 days), each place I visited seemed to have an overriding theme for the brief period I was there. Berlin for me was mostly about Cold War history, politics and culture; Spain was primarily a linguistic journey (through both English and Spanish, and the often intriguing differences between them); Iceland showed me the beauty of the natural world like I’ve never seen it before. But my two days in Prague were quite a musical couple of days, spent meandering the streets, hearing live music, and visiting the graves and museums of the Czech Republic’s two most notable composers.
It started with a four hour train ride from Berlin which, after crossing the Czech border, takes a delightfully scenic route along the river Vltava (or the Moldau, in German) and into Prague. Through most of the trip I just put in my earphones, listened to some very appropriate Smetana and gazed out the window at charming villages. Arriving about lunchtime I wasted as little time as possible in getting out of the hotel to explore, but instead of heading into the centre of the city which I was saving for the following day, I walked south through backstreets until I reached Vyšehrad, or the High Castle, which was the seat of the earliest Czech kings. From up here, you not only get great views over Prague in all directions, but it’s here that both Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák are buried in the cemetery next to the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul.
The good mood I had enjoyed all morning was tainted only momentarily by a grumpy ticket woman at the entrance to the castle. My guide book had informed me that admission to Vyšehrad was free, but neglected to say anything about the small museum (really just one room with a few pictures and maps in it) at the front entrance which cost a tiny sum to look around, and so I sauntered in not even thinking about a charge or realising that what I was walking into was even a museum. Suddenly I was being told off by an indignant woman in Czech. A few other tourists glanced at me suspiciously. Yet every sign in the entire room had an English translation on it except for the one with the admission prices, so they weren’t exactly making it easy for the non-locals. I paid the equivalent of about one Aussie dollar to look around for all of three minutes, uncomfortably aware of the eyes of the ticket woman on me the whole time. I couldn’t tell if she thought I was about to steal something or if she merely considered me a bit thick, but I quickly left to explore the rest of the grounds.
A sunny blue sky and a good view soon helped me forget the unfortunate encounter, and I wandered around the grounds and gardens taking a few pictures and people-watching before going into the cemetery. It’s not a very big place, but many of the graves are small and quite close together, so if you’re looking for someone in particular it could take a while to find on your own. Fortunately there’s a small map at the gate, with a list of prominent Czechs and their locations, so finding the musicians I’d come to see wasn’t too difficult. Smetana’s grave is marked by a rather austere obelisk; Dvořák’s on the other hand is a little more elaborate, and a much larger plot which is part of the long wall of tombs behind a cast iron fence. I couldn’t help feeling that the inequality of headstones was a little unfair given that Smetana has been referred to by many as the “father of Czech music”, but I suppose Dvořák is the better-known of the two by people outside the country, and possibly more revered in his own lifetime.
If you read my post last year about the Sibelius monument then you’ll know that one of my favourite things to do when I travel is to listen to music while out visiting culturally or historically important sites. Finlandia under the composer’s sculptured monument in Helsinki. Arvo Pärt in the oldest church in Estonia. Italian renaissance polyphony in the duomo in Verona. So it seemed only natural that I would honour each composer at their grave by doing the same. I found a place to sit not far from each tombstone where I could close my eyes and listen. (Note: This sometimes attracts odd looks from people.)
I confess that it was only in the lead up to my trip that I really started to acquaint myself with Smetana’s work, and so Vltava seemed the obvious choice, the famous movement of Má Vlast (My Homeland) which is of course named after the longest river in the country. The opening portrays the river from its beginning as two small streams near the border with Austria to the south, and then becomes gloriously expansive as it flows through Prague and broadens on its journey towards Germany to the north. Wandering along the banks of the river the next day and crossing the iconic Charles Bridge, it was hard to resist humming the main theme which I’m sure is deeply rooted somewhere in the consciousness of all Czechs. However, I find it sad knowing that Smetana was completely deaf by the time he wrote it at the end 1874 – he never got to hear for himself the piece which most people know him for.
While I was more familiar with Dvořák’s music and could have chosen a number of things (the New World Symphony, the cello concerto, something from the Stabat Mater), I was moved to listen to one of my all time favourite arias, ‘Song to the Moon’ from Rusalka. The first time I heard a recording of Renee Fleming singing this it literally stopped me in my tracks. I am quite a recent convert to opera, but this may have been one of the first things which really hooked me. There’s a brief synopsis to the storyline on Wikipedia, but it shares similarities with Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid – Rusalka is a water nymph from Slavic mythology, who falls in love with a human prince. But as with all tragic love stories, their love comes at a cost. This aria is Rusalka asking the moon to tell the prince of her love. (Rusalka was also the name given to Dvořák’s house in Vysoká, a town about an hour south west of Prague where he spent much of his life and wrote some of his best and most mature works. You can just hear the wooden summerhouse and the small lake, and the large garden dotted with apple trees. It’s all right there in the music.)
So that was the beginning of my two days in Prague, supplemented nicely by street performers outside Prague Castle and around Malá Strana, and a ‘custom made for tourists’ but nonetheless excellent concert by a string quartet in the Old Town. I also passed a pleasant hour at the Dvořák Museum on my final morning listening to samples of his music sitting next to an upstairs window. Such a beautiful city with such a rich musical heritage. I will be back.