Encore: Dvorak's Rusalka and her rather small lake

Rusalka's small lake

This week we talk with the Czech musicologist Jiri Strelec about Dvorak's much-loved opera, Rusalka. The opera is about a water-nymph, who, through a witch's magic spell, leaves her underwater home to live on land - but with tragic results.

Rusalka's small lake
Now the Czech word for Rusalka's home is 'tunka', which is usually translated into English as 'lake', but in Czech it's something quite different, isn't it Dr Strelec?

"Yes, I think it's really something quite different. If we use the word 'tunka', we mean a very, very small lake, which is located in the woods. Dvorak visited very often such small lakes."

And when you say small, you mean really small. They're only a few metres across! They are very deep and surrounded by trees.

"It's very poetic. If you visit the Czech Republic and Prague, and if you are interested in music, especially Antonin Dvorak, you should visit Pribram, which is 60 km south-west of Prague, and close to Pribram is a tiny village called Vysoka. This is where Dvorak spent the summer and each holiday, and he wrote a lot of music there. Almost all his music was written there. And Rusalka was also written there, inspired by visits to the 'tunka', this poetic, small lake."

So if you visit Vysoka near Pribram, you can actually go to this 'tunka' that inspired this opera.

"Yes, there is a big board with 'Rusalcino jezirko', which means 'Rusalka's small lake'. This is the very lake where Dvorak was sitting and was inspired by the rolling hills, by the woods surrounding him and by these small lakes. And he saw this fairy standing above this lake. This was a great inspiration for his famous opera Rusalka."

The opera was premiered in 1901 at Prague's National Theatre, but it almost was premiered in Vienna. Can you tell us about that?

"Yes, it's a very interesting story. There was a very close connection between the Vienna State Opera and Prague's National Theatre, and at that time, at the very beginning of the 20th century, Gustav Mahler was the chief conductor of the Vienna State Opera. So Dvorak offered him the opera to be performed in Vienna. Gustav Mahler liked Rusalka and he wanted to perform it, because before he had performed only Smetana's opera Dalibor in Vienna. But there were some technical details concerning royalties, so unfortunately Vienna couldn't see Rusalka at that time. But anyway, Gustav Mahler really liked Rusalka very much."

It's certainly one of the most popular operas here in the Czech Republic - in fact so popular that someone - perhaps misguidedly - tried to make it into a musical here not too long ago!

"It wasn't successful, and there was discussion about this fact, if it is good, if it is possible, if it is good for Dvorak's musical heritage to be rewritten into a modern way. I think it wasn't successful. They weren't good arrangements, so it wasn't successful and it finished."

But it's still been in popular culture, having been featured in the movie 'Driving Miss Daisy'.

"Yes, the most famous aria was used in that film, and we are very proud that our music - Dvorak's music was used not only on the Moon - I mean the New World Symphony - but that his music, the aria 'Mesicku na nebi hlubokem' was used in the Oscar-winning movie 'Driving Miss Daisy'."

And Dvorak's music was chosen to represent humankind to the universe!

"Yes, that's right. American cosmonauts, when they landed on the Moon in '69, they brought a cassette with a recording of Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony. So this is something like the message of mankind to the cosmos.

Magic Carpet - world music in the heart of Europe

Petr Doruzka
Magic Carpet is Radio Prague's monthly music magazine that looks at music from Czech, Moravian and Silesian towns and villages. The programme covers a wide selection of genres, from traditional folk to the exotic and experimental.

It is presented by Petr Doruzka, one of the Czech Republic's foremost music journalists.

For copyright reasons we are unable to archive the programmes in audio, but here at least are a few words about some of the recordings featured recently in the programme.


15.08.2004: In the era of major companies and global pop it takes a lot of courage to be independent. The fretless bass guitar player Sina and her partner, guitarist Daniel Salontay, formed Slnko Records in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. In the beginning, they burned the CDs on their home computer, packaged them and sent by mail - but with growing success of their company this became harder more difficult. With their band, Dlhe Diely, they were one of the brightest surprises of last years Colours of Ostrava festival. Magic Carpet features both Dlhe Diely and Sina's solo albums.

Link: www.slnkorecords.sk

18.07.2004: The history of the Prague band Jablkon reaches deep into the past. In 1977 they started as an acoustic trio with two guitars and percussion and their music was in stark contrast to every existing fashion.Jablkon blended instruments with voices in very unorthodox way. The musicians invented a wide spectrum of howls, wails, screams, grunts and other deeply human sounds, and used just the right amount of this vocal seasoning to build a pattern, a momntum of a non-verbal message, or just a joke. Their music was like a well crafted building with a wild back yard; in the large scale architecture you can feel delicate melodies and musical forms of a sophisticated European origin.As years went by, the classical elements of their music became more apparent in 90's, when the band played with the classical violinist Jaroslav Sveceny, and made a rare appearance with a symphonic orchestra. Last year, the band celebrated the first 25 years of it's existence. On a memorable concert in the Prague Archa theatre, Jablkon performed with the Moravian Symphony orchestra and other guest players. Magic Carpet features the live CD from this concert.

Link: www.jablkon.com

23.5.2004:At the beginning of May the Czech nation celebrated joining the European Union. In Prague a big festival was held: The United Islands, with live music played on the 10 islands on the course of the Vltava River in the city. Yet the final concert took place on the mainland, with the Gypsy Kings, the world famous band from Southern France topping the bill, plus two promising local Roma bands as support, Gulo Car and Bengas. Why are the Gypsy bands so popular? Is this just a short lived fashion, or are Czech audiences bored with the non-Roma mainstream? And what can the Roma bands offer to international audiences?

Link: www.bengas.cz

20.6.2004:For generations the zither was one of the best loved instruments in Czech households. But now the delicate wooden box with a generous array of strings looks more like an antiquity than an instrument people play. The decline of zither in the Czech lands started with independence from the Habsburg Empire. The instrument was often identified as a German import, and the next generation choose to play guitar instead. Now the zither is coming back. One of the most gifted Czech players, Michal Müller, chose to study the instrument at the Vienna conservatory. He graduated 3 years ago, and now he's the one and only Czech zither teacher with a diploma - and also an adventurous and prolific musician.

Link: www.michal-muller.cz

See also The History of Music.

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