“Every Czech a Musician” - cliché or reality?
There is a saying: “Every Czech a musician”. But is there any truth in it? One can hardly doubt, that this country has a very long and rich musical tradition. But are Czechs really more musical than other nations? Vít Pohanka set out to find out, whether this saying is more a cliché than reality.
I am at a rehearsal of a children’s choir in a small town in the middle of the Bohemian – Moravian Highlands. This music ensemble has existed in the small town of Žďár nad Sázavou for many decades and has brought up generations of amateur music lovers. After the rehearsal, I stop to chat with some of its teenage members.
Katya, for example, has been singing under professional supervision since the age of five. She tells me about the joy and fun it brings into her life. She doesn’t want to study music at the conservatory or sing for money. It just makes her happy.
This children’s choir is only one out of hundreds if not thousands all over the Czech Republic. They are usually part of state-funded art schools that you can find in towns around Czechia. Most of the teachers are employed full-time and are also paid by the state. The parents pay just a small, symbolic tuition fee. The existence of this wide and omnipresent network of music education has got deep historic and religious roots.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Catholic Church needed to assert its influence in the Czech lands where Protestantism had threatened its position prior to and during the Thirty-Years War. Music became a useful instrument in its efforts to consolidate its unchallenged leading role in society. Milan Hlavačka is a professor at Charles University in Prague. His specialty is the history of the Habsburg Monarchy.
“Of course, the Catholic rite includes music production. It's a question of popularization of the mass, as we would call it today. The priests and other Church officials needed to offer quality music, and that’s why the Catholic Church was the most prominent patron of these composers. That is why they were hired by the Church itself or some local aristocrat as a sort of charity donation. This started a whole tradition or even a school of Czech musicians and composers in the 18th century such as Johann Stamitz who was trained and began his career in Prague and later went on to Germany to find fame in Mannheim where he founded a music school that bears his name to this day.”
But it wasn’t just about educating the elite and famous musicians. Music education became an integral part of general education everywhere.
“Every teacher had an obligation to help with the celebration of mass at the local church. He would kind of coproduce it with the priest. They would agree, on what hymns would come at what precise points of the mass. That is also why teachers were called “kantor” in the Church language: it comes from the Latin word “kantare” which means to sing. Apart from directing the music during mass, it was their job to constantly look for new talent and provide basic musical training to gifted children and young people. That is where the tradition of the unique Czech system of art schools has its roots.”
The tradition professor Hlavačka mentions is still very much alive and well especially in Moravia-the eastern part of the country. Closer to the Slovak and Hungarian sound, folk music of the Slovácko region around the town of Uherské Hradiště is known world-wide. Multi-instumentalist and composer Jiří Pavlica is one of its most prominent representatives:
“We have all these cimbalom ensembles or bands that play in and around Uherské Hradiště. I don't even remember off the top of my hat, how many, maybe there are seven, maybe ten, I just don't know. Some of them meet and play as part of their school curriculum. Others meet under the wings of local cultural institutions, so to speak, or even town halls. So, we have this systematic approach to cultivating young talents.
But they do not do all that work to conquer the music charts, they don't want to go into show business. They serve, in the best sense of the word. They perform at various community events, and they are constantly, as it were, in contact with people and part of their everyday life.”
Last, but not least, I sought the opinion of someone who not only performs music on a professional level but also comes into contact with students on the national as well as international level. Pavel Zemen is a concert pianist. He teaches at the Janáček Academy of Performing Arts in Brno. What’s more, he is a member of a jury of an international young musicians’ competition that takes place annually in this second largest Czech city.
“I think the musical tradition in this nation has roots and foundations deeper and more solid than most other nations. I believe that musicians of Czech origin are born with certain advantages, they enjoy care and respect that they would hardly find in other countries. There may be something like a genetic music memory. I hope it survives due to the traditions, and the way in which we bring up our children. As a young music educator, I consider it very important.”
So, is the saying “Every Czech a musician” still true? One thing seems certain: the tradition and presence of musical state-supported educational institutions, as well as informal music ensembles all “I think the musical tradition in this nation has roots and foundations deeper and more solid than most other nations. I believe that musicians of Czech origin are born with certain advantages, they enjoy care and respect that they would hardly find in other countries. There may be something like a genetic music memory. I hope it survives due to the traditions, and the way in which we bring up our children. As a young music educator, I consider it very important.”over this country, is unique and special. And, even if not all Czechs are musicians, they have probably many more opportunities to develop their talent, than people in other countries.