Czech musician proposes an alternative national anthem

Varhan Orchestrovič Bauer, photo:

‘Kde domov můj’ or ‘Where is my home’ is a song familiar to every Czech, whether he lives at home or abroad. It is the Czech national anthem. However, this particular arrangement is not what Czechs are used to hearing when the flag is raised during official events. The well-known Czech conductor and composer Varhan Orchestrovič Bauer, whose work has featured in a number of films, decided to revamp the anthem and liven it up a little.

If you are familiar with Czech classical music, you might have noticed references to other Czech composers, such as Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček and, most of all, Bedřich Smetana. The new anthem starts and ends with tones from Smetana’s Vltava, part of the symphonic poem My Country, which is probably better known internationally than the Czech anthem itself. What made Varhan Orchestrovič Bauer challenge the composer of the Czech national anthem František Škroup?

“I had a feeling that I have to express myself towards the Czech nationality. The Czech Republic will soon preside over the EU and I needed to say something to people.”

Does it mean that you didn’t like the original anthem?

“I loved it the way it was but I thought it was a good idea to incorporate more Czech music. After all, everyone knows the Czech Republic thanks to composers such as Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček or Martinů. And I felt I should incorporate their themes into the music of František Škroup. I wanted to admire them in front of everybody and to make the Czech anthem more Czech.”

So would you say that the original anthem was not Czech enough? That it didn’t express the Czech nature well enough?

“It did, but in the time of the 18th century, in the time when the Czechs were under the Austrian monarchy. It was very sad. I though we need to be more proud that we are Czech and that we are a valuable member of the EU.”

What should your version of the national anthem say about Czechs?

“It should say that we don’t always lose, I mean for example the Munich Agreement, the Russian invasion of 1968 or the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. All these things are buried somewhere deep inside, because we are a small nation in the middle of Europe. I have decided that it’s time to become independent; not alone, but as part of Europe.”

The original Czech anthem was composed more than 170 years ago by František Škroup as the opening scene of a patriotic opera called Fidlovačka. The opera, written by Josef Kajetán Tyl, was first performed in 1834 in the Prague Estates Theatre, at a time when Czechs were only a small ethnic minority within the Austro-Hungarian empire. Josef Kajetán Tyl asked Škroup to compose a festive patriotic piece but what he got sounds more like a melancholic, if stirring, folk song. How exactly did Varhan Orchestrovič Bauer approach the music?

“I kept the original music by František Škroup but I combined it with themes from the New World Symphony by Antonín Dvořák or My Country by Bedřich Smetana because these people are creating the image of Czech people outside the Czech Republic. At two points I changed the harmony but the new arrangement sounds more proud. It sounds like Carmina Burana.”

You have also changed the lyrics a little bit…

“The original anthem says: Where is my home? Where is my home? And I say: Where is my home? Here is my home. This year it will be 90 years since the establishment of Czechoslovakia as an independent state. So after these 90 years we do know where our home is and we have to say it: Where is our home? Here, in the middle of Europe. It’s an independent state with a long tradition of good kings. The thought of a united Europe - a European union of states comes from Jiří z Poděbrad, a Czech king from the 16th century, who was trying to make some kind of a union. So it’s important to say that the idea of a European Union is originally Czech.”

Would you say that the sound of your anthem is more optimistic?

“I would say it’s more optimistic now. It’s more glorious. But the change is not that big and not that disastrous. I didn’t change it too much. Only the feeling from the music is different. The sad anthem was all right for the 18th century. František Škroup wrote it when his wife was dying. In the theatre play by Josef Kajetán Tyl it was sung by a blind violinist. People cried in the theatre because he didn’t know where to go. He was blind and he kept asking: where is my home? I wouldn’t be able to touch the music if I didn’t love it.”

The new arrangement of the Czech national anthem by Varhan Orchestrovič Bauer premiered in August at a concert marking the anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. It will next be heard in January 2009 in Brussels, when it is set to mark the start of the Czech presidency of the European Union.