Easter Special

Passion Play in Hořice, photo: archive of Lipensko region

Radio Prague's special Easter programme focuses on the music of Czech composer and conductor Jaroslav Krček, who has arranged and recorded a number of traditional folk songs pertaining to this time of year as well as a number of his own compositions, which draw heavily on Czech Easter traditions for their inspiration.

One such piece is his spring pastoral dedicated to the month of April, a time when spring is in full bloom. April is also very often the month in which Easter falls and this is also referred to in the pastoral. There are many traditions associated with Easter in the Czech Republic such as the painting of eggs. In many villages in the country, eggs are painted in every household and then given to groups of carollers who come calling on Easter Monday.

Jaroslav Krček has fond memories of this custom from his own childhood in South Bohemia.

"At home my mother painted eggs and naturally she decorated them as well. But you couldn't get hold of the high-quality paints then that you can get today. So she would make her own paint from onion skins and use that to colour the eggs. Then she would decorate them with a piece of wire or some sharp object. Naturally, we needed to keep these in the house, because on Easter Monday groups of singers would come round and we had to give them eggs."

Photo: CzechTourism
Traditionally on Easter Monday, male carollers carry braided willow sticks, and go in search of girls and women whom they playfully whip in return for painted eggs. It's a longstanding tradition, which is thought to have its roots in ancient pagan fertility rites.

Jaroslav Krček says these customs are still enthusiastically observed in many parts of the Czech Republic:

"I have a cottage in the foothills of the Krkonos Mountains and to this day not only children but also adults do the rounds there, singing Easter songs. My wife and I wait for them every Easter Monday morning. Even adults come to whip the women. They have to receive eggs and of course they have to be given something to drink to keep their spirits up. This means that sometimes the carollers end up in a bad way."

Easter carollers sing many traditional songs and chants on their rounds. Jaroslav Krček has incorporated some of these into the second part of his pastoral dedicated to April in the Czech Lands. One of the ancient ditties included in the piece is a chant, which men often use to demand eggs from their womenfolk:

"This is a piece where I actually took texts of folk songs and sometimes even just chants. It includes texts about springtime, but also contains Easter texts like the one I just gave you a taste of. I put these to music and called it a "Spring Pastoral." I think it's a fitting tune to play at this time and it's also pure traditional Czech music."

For many, Easter is primarily a Christian festival, commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ. One traditional way of marking this event in Europe was the so-called Passion Play - a dramatic presentation of the suffering and death of Jesus. Many Czech villages also had this Passion Play tradition for centuries, although it died out in most places under communism. One village where it has been revived though is Horovice in south Bohemia, whose inhabitants commissioned Jaroslav Krček to write music for their play:

"After the Velvet Revolution here, they revived the tradition of the so-called Passion Play in the southern Bohemian village of Hořice in the Sumava Mountains. This lovely tradition had been established there since time immemorial. Naturally this tells the story of the resurrection and mystery of Christ. It was always done in such a way that the entire village took part, not just the men and women, but the children and old people as well. They made costumes and constructed a rough theatre or even did it in the open air. They brought this tradition back after the revolution around 1990 or 1991 and they asked me to write music for them. I did this and then recorded it with my Musica Bohemica ensemble."

The songs Jaroslav Krček wrote for the Passion Play written by the playwright Jindrich Pecka punctuate the story of the crucifixion. This piece, which we are about to play for you, dramatically recounts the events surrounding the last supper with highly poeticized lyrics written by Jindřich Pecka:

"Like the wind bending young leaves in the vineyard

the heads of the apostles bow before their lord

and his words cut them to the quick: never deny your master

Never deny your lord!

"Old and young follow him, from distant hamlets and great cities

but all ways are blocked and overgrown for those who betray

and his words cut them to the quick: never deny your master

Never deny your lord!"

The other song we have from the Passion Play has lyrics that are just as dramatic. These words describe the torment that Christ suffered on the cross:

"Anguish is a dark, freezing night

stone is a cold longing

a copper snake slithers in the sand

why won't the morning star come?

"The pale hand of Mary

shrouds the world in pain

she tries to find a way to him

but she seeks her son in vain

"Morning approaches and light slowly dawns

that night he passed through mountains of woe

and no one can fathom the wrongs

visited upon him by an evil world"

Despite its religious overtones, Jaroslav Krček says that Easter is also related to other peasant festivities associated with the coming of spring:

"Naturally, Easter is a holiday that is about the resurrection of Christ and the great mystery that occurred at Golgotha, but it is also about the resurrection of nature, because we are situated in a part of the world where nature reawakens at this time of year - we hear the birds singing again and the weather starts getting warmer. Our folk customs are also linked to this."

Jaroslav Krček has recorded and arranged a number of old Czech folk songs about the coming of spring. Not surprisingly many of these are about the weather such as a popular nineteenth century folk song, which beseeches the heavens to provide rain for newly planted crops:

"There's an extraordinary Czech tradition related to this topic and that is the spring song that pleads for rain. Naturally, the singers ask Christ and the Lord God for this and they also plead for there to be no hail or gales or storms. They ask for everything in nature to be right so that our crops can grow well, which is why they ask for it to rain. I recorded the piece with my ensemble in such a way that you can hear the rain coming at the end of the song."

Photo: CzechTourism
The last song Krček's musical adaptation of a poem by Karel Jaromír Erben, which he says is also associated with this time of year:

"I would also mention one other spring custom that is linked to nature and which may sometimes coincide with Easter and that is the 'spring queen game, which is something children play. They pick one beautiful girl from their number and adorn her with a crown of flowers like a queen. There's a beautiful little song about this, which is a nice tune to play in this context because it is resonant of spring in the Czech lands."

If you enjoyed Jaroslav Krček's compositions and would like to find out more, you can visit his ensemble's website at www.musicabohemica.eu

The episode featured today was first broadcast on April 9, 2007.