Czech Museum of Music celebrates Dvořák's 170th birthday


It’s September, and all other anniversaries aside, that means the birthday season of the genius Antonín Dvořák. Had the Czech musical maestro lived to his deserved age he would be 170-years-old this month, and music-lovers and –ologists are marking the occasion with all due enthusiasm. Alongside the Dvořák festivals and radio tributes this month there is also the uniquely interesting, interactive Dvořák exhibition at the Czech Museum of Music (Karmelitská 2, Malá Strana), which is our destination in this week’s Spotlight.

Antonín Dvořák
“My name is Eva Velická, I’m the chief curator of the Antonín Dvořák museum and the curator of this new Dvořák exhibition at the Czech Museum of Music. We organised the exhibition to mark the 170th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The reason was that our museum owns the largest collection of Dvořák documents in the world, so we really have a lot to show. But we also wanted to show other things than documents and scores, which could be a bit boring for people who do not read music, so we tried to connect the display of the documents with the presentation of the life story of Dvořák, and to connect that with a modern design and graphic conception.”

There are a lot of things in the Czech Republic that we can see from Dvořák’s life, we can go to his home in Nelahozeves, there is the museum in Prague dedicated specifically to him, so what can we see here?

“Both of the buildings that you mention belong to the National Museum, the Czech Museum of Music, but you cannot find originals there because it’s not safe enough. And these precious documents cannot be shown everywhere, and here at the Czech Museum of Music it is safe enough to display them. There are documents here like the original manuscripts of the New World Symphony or the original manuscript of the Slavonic Dances, precious documents about Rusalka, which are usually closed in documentary rooms and are not normally shown to the public. So they were especially brought here, where some of them are being shown for the first time.”

So can we take a look?

“Yes of course!

“Here you can actually touch Dvořák, you can feel him.”

Oh really? There’s a wall here with a picture of Dvořák, and there’s a hole in it with a kind of velvet sock that I can put my hand in and feel around… and I feel someone’s face…

“Yes, Dvořák’s face [laughs]. A huge, wide forehead, rather dark skin, bushy eyebrows…”

Ok, I feel the bushy eyebrows in my hand right now. This is very interesting, whose idea was this?

“Mine! I also prepared some things for the theatre, and these are really theatre-style things.

“And here you can touch his hand, which is quite small, I was surprised.”

How do we know how small his hand was?

“It was made after his death, this hand. I’m sorry, perhaps it’s not so comfortable to be touching his posthumous hand…”

It is a small hand…

“But he was quite tall, you can see here, 178 cm. At the time that Dvořák was alive that was quite a lot. And here we also have a DNA analysis. That showed a very interesting thing: that Dvořák, or his chromosome, comes from the Middle East or the region of the Caucasus Mountains or Pakistan.”

So he had something of a Georgian or a Dagestani in him…

“Yes, his sister, or his father, had quite atypical faces, dark skin and quite deep eyes.”

Do we know anything about the more distant history of his family? They were Czechs…

“Yes, it’s quite a long story, but they were from places around Nelahozeves, where Dvořák was born. It was a Czech family. You can compare it to Smetana’s family, who spoke mostly in German. Smetana learned Czech later on, you can see it in his writing; he made a lot of mistakes. But Dvořák’s family spoke just Czech, and he had to learn German in school later on. So he was really a Czech composer from the beginning, later he had a lot of invitations from Vienna and Berlin, but he really decided to be a Czech composer, and always insisted for example on writing his name as Antonín, rather than Anton, which was the German version and he didn’t like it.”

I’d like to ask you about this: in the wall of the exhibition here you have an old style train window. Dvořák loved trains…

“Yes, absolutely!”

Antonín Dvořák with his family
And if we go to Nelahozeves we can see that he lived only maybe 50 metres away from the train tracks.

“That’s right. We have a picture here of the church where he was baptised – it’s really right on the train tracks – and behind this church is the birthplace of Dvořák. They built this railway when he was 10 or 12 years old, he saw how they were building it. And it is said that there were a lot of workers from Italy and that they sang arias from Nabucco and other operas by Verdi. So one Czecho-American musicologist thinks that that was also the first time that Dvořák met Verdi’s and Italian music.”

There’s a legend that one of the Humoresques was actually written according to the thumping or steady rhythm of a train on its tracks, is that true?

“Yes you can also hear Humoresque no. 7 here at this display where we are talking about trains, but unfortunately we have not found any documents that would prove this theory. So it is said that the rhythm was inspired by the train, but we have no proof. There is just one document that shows us that he took inspiration from trains, and that is the 7th Symphony, where he writes that the idea came to him as he was riding a train to Budapest…

“Here we have Rusalka and a place to relax. And here, the water vibrates through the music of Dvořák’s Rusalka.”

So there’s something like a drum here, the top of which is just water, and underneath it is a speaker that’s playing Rusalka.

“Yes but just the low frequencies so that we cannot hear it but just see it.”

Can I ask about your personal interest in Dvořák? I understand that you are a musicologist, but why Dvořák in particular?

“I used to prefer contemporary music, and I always liked the music of the 20th or now the 21st century, but when I came to the museum two years ago and became the chief curator of the Dvořák museum, I found a lot of points trhat actually resemble contemporary music. It’s really very exciting and it’s not a boring thing, you can always find something exciting and something very new. And I try to present Dvořák as a really great name that can really bring inspiration, because in a sense he is still alive.”

This is an exhibition about his personal as well as professional life, so what would you like people to take away from it? Maybe people who already love his music but know little about Dvořák as a person?

“That he was not a boring person, even though he was from the 19th century, and that he was absolutely original – in everything that he wrote and did. We know very well that he was a strongly religious Catholic, and that he didn’t like ceremonies or big audiences, he preferred to be somewhere in the pub with his friends from the village. But on the other hand he was very hard-working, he really wanted to be successful, so it is always important to see both these aspects of Dvořák.”

It‘s fascinating that you have been able to take an exhibition about a person who died more than a hundred years ago and make it so very interactive. You must have spent a great amount of time just sitting and thinking up new ideas.

“We did. It took us about 10 months to prepare the exhibition, and a very important part of the preparation was the cooperation with the architect, two set designers and a graphic designer. I think you can see that here at the exhibition, that it’s the work of several people from different areas.”

But in only five years there will be the 175th anniversary of the birth of Dvořák, so will you be able to outdo yourself?

“I think we are going to celebrate a kind of ‘Czech music year’ or something like that, because 2016 will be the anniversary of many composers, not only Dvořák. So perhaps we will try to present all of these big names together. I don’t know we will do it, but we have some plans. And time also.”