The heart of Moravia – through the eyes of musician Jiří Pavlica

Vít Pohanka, Jiří Pavlica, photo: Vít Pohanka

The Czech state has its origins in Great Moravia. This early Christian empire developed in the ninth century in the Morava River basin along an important trade route from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea. The cultural and religious identity is still rooted in this historical region. At least according to the musician, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Jiří Pavlica.

The Morava River flows for some 350 kilometers from the northern mountains on the Czech-Polish border mostly to the south where it forms an important Danube tributary. Since times immemorial, it has been an important transport artery along which the early Slavic state Great Moravian Empire was founded some 12 hundred years ago. No one is quite sure where was its capital. But with all probability, it was somewhere around Staré Město – which translated into English means literally “Old Town”. Jiří Pavlica was born there:

“When I grew up, I lived for a time in different places and traveled all over the world, but this has always been my home and my base, so to speak. So, when my parents grew old, they needed help and care, so my wife and I returned to stay here more or less full time. Our children were brought up here and it is a home for them, as well, even though they study in Brno a Prague. So, I have always been coming back, I was only able to travel knowing that I have this anchor, this base.”

Great Moravia memorial in Staré Město, photo: Palickap, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Jiří Pavlica has been promoting Moravian Folk music all his musical career which spans half a century. Not just in the Czech Republic: he and the Hradšťan ensemble have played a unique fusion of folk, classical, and rock music to audiences in dozens of countries all over the world. Even though he spends a lot of time in Brno and Prague but he still draws his inspiration from the Moravian landscape of his childhood:

“Right here at the mouth of the Bata Canal, we used to skate play ice-hockey in winter when I was a kid. You know, the Canal freezes over earlier than the river, and the younger ice is always smoother than the old ice, so we used to move closer and closer to the river. Once, I got a brand–new puck for Christmas present. It was a great present and I immediately took it here, only to lose it after someone shot it into the still unfrozen water. That was one of the greatest losses in my whole life!”

The historical significance of the places where he played as a child leaves no doubt in Jiří Pavlica’s mind: he must have been influenced by some deep currents of national, even religious consciousness:

“We are now at a cemetery, but when I was a kid, there used to be a lawn and we played football here. There were some old barns over there and they were swept away by huge floods on the Morava river back in 1997. When the place was cleared archeologists got a unique chance to start a proper survey here. They had suspected there were some remnants of a fortress from the times of the Great Moravian Empire. They did find the foundations and you can see them now on the surface. Historians believe that Svatopluk I of Moravia had a palace here.”

Jiří Pavlica and Hradišťan, photo: archive of Jiří Pavlica and Hradišťan

Svatopluk was one of the first rulers of the Moravian Empire. But why is this historical awareness important for Jiří Pavlica? How does it help the creativity of a musician in the 21st century?

“It is a good question, but I am not quite sure what to answer. I just feel it somehow inside, it is essential for me to be somehow connected with something like continuity. I just feel this tremendous arch of tradition and life spanning from the 9th century to these days. And I think I am trying to build on it. That is why I compose music to the old Slavonic texts. I work with the texts of Cyril and Methodius and their students.”

Not far from the church where we are talking, I can see a typical shopping-mall complete with fast-food restaurants, gas-stations just some 2 or 3 hundred meters away. These typical signs and institutions of 21st-century consumerism do not seem to diminish attachment Jiří Pavlica feels to the past of this place:

“I use it to find direction in my music. Wherever I went on this planet, I was glad I was able to say: Look, I am from a small country in Central Europe. We have this culture and music. This is what we are like and this is what I can give you. And I knew we were bringing something original, authentic, and unique, something no one else could give them. Then we just had to be concentrated and professional enough, so that we could pass this culture and music on. So, I believe that we should not forget our roots. Maybe learning and understanding our distant past can help us to get over the challenges and problems we face today.”

Jiří Pavlica has been the artistic director and the first violinist of the Hradišťan ensemble since 1975. His concert activity is, of course, now interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But his music is easy to find online.