Ma vlast, the Czech Republic's unofficial national anthem

Photo: CzechTourism

There's no doubt that Ma vlast - or My Country - by Bedrich Smetana is the most popular piece by this composer among Czech as well as foreign audiences. The whole cycle of symphonic poems is played mostly on special occasions, such as the opening concerts of the Prague Spring festival.

For Czech natives it is a work which makes them feel almost as if they were listening to the national anthem. Czech Airlines is also aware of this, to a certain extent, "representative" role of the piece, and often plays it to their passengers inside the aircraft upon landing at Ruyzne Airport in Prague. Along with words from the captain comes Smetana's enthralling music - and this certainly isn't a random choice. It captures the imagination of the most hardened of returnees and, at the very least, it engages the foreigner because he has probably heard this familiar melody somewhere before. Ma Vlast is thus essentially becoming an advertisement for the Czech Republic.

Recently I conducted a survey, which attempted to map out the views of the music-loving public at the beginning of the 21st century on one of the fundamental and best known works in Czech music literature. I collected 53 opinions on the cycle, where I asked them to reflect upon the theme: "How can one view Ma vlast today"?

Are we still able to form an independent view of this work and see it "in our own way" or do we interpret it in the way we were told to at school? As an illustration, let's mention the view of a young respondent in my survey, when I asked her what she imagines and what she feels when she listens to Ma vlast: "My interpretation of the piece is ingrained inside me - it was instilled in me even before I heard the work for the first time, so I'm influenced by it and I doubt that the feelings I get when I listen to it are my own. I had a patriotic reaction to the piece implanted in me."

On the other hand, it's clear that a large majority of Czech audiences have their own, personal attitude towards Ma vlast. When they hear the work, Czech concert audiences generally imagine the Czech countryside and see images of old Czech legends and scenes from Czech history. If the younger generation occasionally voices reservations about Ma vlast, it's surprising how much enthusiasm most respondents had for the work in general. They even spoke of "strong euphoria, almost rapture", feelings of "joy", or simply "wonderful" emotions. There probably aren't that many works which would have such an impact, particularly on Czech concert-goers. So, the next time you listen to Ma vlast, I hope you - like many Czechs - enjoy the most profound emotional experience!