Paseky nad Jizerou - a mountain village celebrates its violin-making tradition

Paseky nad Jizerou, photo: ŠJů, Creative Commons 3.0

This is the season of summer music festivals around the country, but the festival in the tiny mountain village of Paseky nad Jizerou is special. This is an isolated community of little wooden cottages, clinging to a hillside in the Krkonose Mountains up in the north of the Czech Republic. What makes this village special is an extraordinary musical tradition, going back nearly two centuries. The Paseky music festival, that takes place this weekend, builds on this tradition. To give you a taste of the festival, and the very special atmosphere of Paseky, here is David Vaughan, with a report he compiled when he visited last year's festival.

When I visited the village the hillside meadows were filled with the wild flowers of high summer, and everywhere you could hear the sound of crickets and the occasional bellowing of grazing cattle. But I wasn't in Paseky just to admire the view. For one weekend in August every year, the village fills with musicians. It's not unusual suddenly to come across a violinist, or even a double bass player dressed in black tie and tails, carrying his instrument down a narrow mountain path, an incongruous scene in this isolated, pastoral landscape. In fact, if you're used to frequenting the concert halls of Prague, don't be surprised if you come across a few familiar faces.

A soloist from the Czech Philharmonic is practicing, just for the fun of it, in the little Baroque Church of Saint Wenceslas. As I walked in, I passed two men with French horns - all here to take part in an unusual and wonderfully atmospheric cultural event, the annual Paseky Festival.

Now in order to understand why musicians from the Czech Philharmonic have come all this way just to play - without being paid - in a tiny parish church, we need to look into Paseky's history. We don't have to go far. Just opposite the church is the old parsonage, perched on the hillside. It houses the local museum, and it's the best place to start if you want to understand Paseky's past.

At the end of the 18th century, the seeds of Czech national revival were being sown, after two centuries when the Czech language had been more or less overtly suppressed by the country's Austrian rulers, and in the towns and cities in particular, came close to dying out completely. The desire to cultivate the Czech language and culture was a powerful motivating force, even in little country places like Paseky. A local man, Josef Simunek, set up a village school. From the parlour of his cottage he would teach the village children in their native Czech. In 1827 his son took over, and then, three years later the young Venceslav Metelka arrived from nearby Sklenarice. In the spirit of the national revival, the two men worked with extraordinary energy. By 1844 they had managed to build a school for over a hundred pupils - the building, partly log-built and partly of stone, still stands today, and aptly enough, serves as a rehearsal room in the run-up to the annual Paseky Festival. Venceslav Metelka was clearly an exceptional figure. Alongside teaching he also set up a lending library, collected folk songs and hymns and organized amateur theatre performances in the village.

The villagers of Paseky were well known for their ability to work wood, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that after seventeen years of teaching, Metelka began to focus his energies on a craft for which both he and his village were to become famous: he began to make violins.

As if it were the most natural thing in the world the humble country schoolmaster Venceslav Metelka, founded an extraordinary violin-making dynasty. Josef Waldmann, director of the Paseky museum:

"Metelka came to Paseky as an assistant teacher in 1830. He married and put down roots here. He had children - very gifted children - especially Josef - they all inherited the gift of violin making. There was Josef, Vaclav and Johanka - she was the first woman in Bohemia ever to make a violin. Sadly she died at 18. There was tuberculosis in the family. All the children died young."

But one of the children, Vaclav, lived long enough to pass down the craft to others in the village, and the tradition grew. Josef Waldmann showed me the pride of the museum in Paseky - a fascinating exhibition that he has put together over the years, devoted to Metelka and the rich violin-making tradition he founded.

"This is a whole room full of musical instruments made in Paseky - violins, cellos, violas, double basses. Here in front of us there's a violin from 1864 made by Venceslav Metelka. Just below it, this is a very unusual instrument, a "viola d'amour" made by his son Josef Metelka. It's a beautifully made piece.... And here is the first violin made in Central Europe by a woman, by Johana Metelkova in 1859. She was the daughter of Venceslav Metelka."

At one time there were no less than 11 violinmakers just in Paseky. Their skills were passed down from generation to generation, and from family to family. Although there is no-one making violins in Paseky today - the last violinmaker in the village, Petr Shovanek died thirty years ago - the so-called Krkonose School is alive and well. Metelka's tradition has spread throughout the Czech Republic and abroad. There are still violinmakers in Russia, Germany and the Netherlands who can trace a direct line through their teachers back to Venceslav Metelka. The museum in Paseky includes a photograph of Jan Spidlen, who was born as recently as 1967 and is the youngest in a well known Prague violinmaking family that has direct links back to Metelka.

Being a native of this musical village, Josef Waldmann is himself a professional musician and his son Jakub plays in the Czech Philharmonic. It was under their initiative that Paseky's annual celebration of its musical tradition came into being. For Jakub Waldmann the inspiration was a spiritual one.

"We are believers in my family. Even in communist times we went to church. Because the communists suppressed church music, we really missed it. When I was studying at the conservatoire I used to come here to Paseky with friends and we used to perform for the mass here. That was back in 1980. Along with my father we put together an ensemble, made up of enthusiasts. Because there were really top musicians in the ensemble, the communists didn't dare to ban us from playing in case it caused a scandal..... Why do people like to come here? Well, it's hard to explain. You know, if you go into a church you feel a special atmosphere that's uplifting. It's also just fun. We're all doing it for free, and it feels different from our day to day work."

So this is how some of the Czech Republic's most renowned professional musicians come to be in Paseky for a few days each August. They perform in front of the beautifully preserved Baroque altar in the little church of Saint Wenceslas, and outside the sound drifts into the valley below. No-one really quite knows what has given the little village of Paseky nad Jizerou this extraordinary musical quality. I asked Jakub Waldmann. He shrugged his shoulders, but then pointed out one very particular feature of the village.

"If you walk along here through the valley, among the scattered cottages, you'll notice that there aren't any fences between them. You know, fences are a symbol - people hide behind them and don't take an interest in what's outside. Even back at the time of Venceslav Metelka, people got on well here. Even though the cottages were far apart they would always visit each other. You won't find many villages like that."