From the bubbling waters of the Vltava to the ice of Nagano: patriotism in Czech music

Opera Libuse

October 28th is the Czech National Day, the anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, an opportunity look at the role of music - particularly patriotic music - in the creation and development of the Czech nation. A good place to start is Bedrich Smetana's opera Libuse, which is an early and very important musical manifestation of the Czech national awakening which had begun in the early 1800s.

The opera is about the mythical founding of the first Bohemian dynasty under Queen Libuse, and it ends with her stirring proclamation "Cesky narod neskona/ on pekla hruzy slavne prekona/ on neskona. Slava!" which means something like - the Czech nation will not die, gloriously, it will overcome the horrors of hell, and never die!

And this was a thumb in the eye to the Austrian emperor! Part of the impetus for Smetana's creation of the opera was to protest against the Emperor Franz Josef's failure to keep a promise - a promise to acknowledge the Bohemian Crown. The result was that Czechs remained second class citizens in their own land.

Smetana didn't stop there. He followed the opera up with his monumental cycle, Ma Vlast - My Country, which includes the immensely popular Vltava -or Moldau. But is this music patriotic? Indeed, how might we define patriotic music?

National anthems are a logical place to start: something to stir pride in one's country or nation or land, and then there are marches, to get people stirred up for military life, for battles, for pomp and ceremony. You could define patriotic music, narrowly, as music which serves the state. Of course the opera Libuse did anything but that - because there was no Czech state at the time - yet most Czechs would see Libuse as patriotic for just that reason: it served the emergent Czech nation. So perhaps we could broaden our definition to include music which serves the nation - nationalistic music.

Another piece of Czech music which was called into being in protest to an Emperor's decree was Josef Suk's Meditace - meditation - on the chorale Svaty Vaclav - Saint Wenceslas.

This has an interesting story. During the First World War, the Emperor decreed that all public concerts begin with the Austrian national hymn. This did not sit well with the members of the Czech String Quartet, in which Josef Suk played second violin.

So Suk sat down to arrange the ancient Czech hymn to St. Wenceslas, so the quartet could play that as well, but he got carried away and ended up with an extended piece - Meditation on the Saint Wenceslas hymn.

Not long after that, of course, the Czechoslovak state was proclaimed, and so a national anthem was needed and that would be 'Kde domov m?j?' - where is my home? This hymn is perhaps unusual among the genre as it is not at all militaristic - there is nothing about, as in the American one, bombs bursting in air, or monarchs being sent victorious, happy and glorious.

Instead it's a gentle piece about the beauties of the Czech lands. This was also a 'we're not going to be like them' kind of protest.

It is interesting that this did not start out as a hymn at all. It came from Frantisek Skroup's incidental music to a play called Fidlovacka, written by Josef Kajetan Tyl in 1834.

And that play is still in repertoire today here in Prague. Not incidentally, it was Skroup who wrote the first Czech opera, the Tinker (Dratenik) in 1826.

The early days of the Czechoslovak state were a deliriously exciting time, and many composers were inspired to write music in celebration of the new state. One such was Leos Janacek, who wrote - among other patriotic works - a piece for male choir in honor of the Czech legions who had fought in the First World War.

Popular musicians got into the act too, not least the legendary Karel Hasler, with numerous patriotic songs with titles like: 'Nase zlata republika' - our golden republic.

When the communists came, there was a whole new type of official state music. In this case, it was neither nationalistic nor necessarily patriotic as we have defined it. This music was meant to serve as an ideal presented as international, but in fact serving the interests of the Soviet Russians. In fact, it carefully avoids any reference to anything specifically Czech. The only national music is Russian folk song. Usually it is very effective. A classic example is the 'Kupredu leva' - left foot forward - march. It's all about going forward, comrades, and not giving an inch. If you listened to Radio Prague before the fall of communism, you will know this particular piece of music well, as it was the station's theme tune!

'Svet patri nam'
With hindsight a lot of this is unintentionally funny. There is a CD still available, called 'Svet patri nam' - the world belongs to us, including many of these communist propaganda songs. The CD's title is the name of a song composed by Jaroslav Jezek, from a satirical film of the same name, with words by the comedians Voskovec and Werich, which they wrote right after the German occupation in the late 1930's. The words are interesting, and you can see why Voskovec and Werich had to flee the country after the invasion.

Here is an excerpt - "The world is ours, there is enough room for everyone [a dig at the Nazis and their policy of Lebensraum of course], the world belongs to those who are optimists, and who come unquestioningly with us."

But the astonishing thing is that after the war the communists adopted this song as their own, without the slightest awareness of its irony. The version on the CD contrasts dramatically with Voskovec and Werich's original version. Irony is replaced with stirring pomp and grandeur and the result is quite absurd.

Curiously, the 1989 Velvet Revolution does not seem to have inspired any particular musical celebration, although there is an opera "Nagano" that certainly has no lack of patriotism. It was composed to celebrate the victory of the Czech Republic in the ice hockey finals at the Winter Olympics in Japan in 1998. Amusingly, the Czech goaltender, Dominik Hasek, sings in Latin, aptly enough, perhaps, given his nickname "God".

Few countries can boast better musical representation abroad than the Czech Republic. Composers such as Smetana and Dvorak really put on the country on the map, to a degree that far outweighs the country's size. Dvorak's New World Symphony is known the world over, but probably the piece that best symbolizes the Czech Republic throughout the world is Smetana's Vltava (Moldau) from his symphonic cycle, My Country.