Paseky nad Jizerou - a village of music

Village school, photo: Google Maps

If you were to hold a competition for the world's most musical mountain village, then I think the little community of Paseky nad Jizerou in north eastern Bohemia would be a pretty strong candidate. That's where we're travelling in today's show.

Paseky nad Jizerou is an idyllic village of little wooden cottages, clinging to the hillside on the edge of the rolling Krkonose or Giant Mountains, only about a hundred kilometers north-east of Prague. The whole region, especially the foothills of the mountains, has a rich musical tradition.

When I visited the village a few weeks ago 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. As we'll be seeing, in many respects the village is typical for the region.

Marta Breuerova the museum's curator showed me two looms from Paseky, which are still in good working order and on which she herself regularly weaves carpets.

"Villages were poor up here in the Krkonose and life was tough. From the beginning of the 17th century one of the only sources of income was weaving. The cottages were small and low, but there always had to be a loom. Given a choice between having a bench and table in their cottages and having a second loom, people would always opt for the loom."

These looms were a common sight here right up until the end of the 19th century, when people went instead to work in the textile factories in the valleys below. The natives of Paseky were also traditionally accomplished wood-carvers. In the past, every cottage would have had its own carved wooden Christmas crib. The founder of the Paseky museum is Josef Waldmann, and he showed me a Christmas crib that was unlike anything I had seen before.

"This is a nativity scene, all made of wood in Paseky. It's not just a nativity scene. It's actually an entire town, and all the figures move. There are blacksmiths, wheelwrights, people dancing, even the baby Jesus is being rocked in his cradle. Every cottage had a nativity scene, but they weren't usually mechanical like this. This is very special."

In one respect Paseky was always different from other villages in the highlands of Krkonose, and had more in common with the villages in the foothills a little further to the south. Josef Waldmann:

"There was something special about this village. The villages around were almost entirely German, with the exception of a few villages to the south-west, but Paseky had always been Czech. The Czech and German speakers always got on well. They spoke each others' languages, and there weren't any major conflicts, although there were some differences in the way of life."

In fact, Paseky was the northernmost Czech-speaking village in the country, an enclave in the traditionally German-speaking Sudetenland.

This was important to its musical history. 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.

I 've already mentioned that 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.

"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. The popular young Czech violinist, Pavel Sporcl, known as the Nigel Kennedy of the Czech Republic, plays an instrument made by Jan Spidlen.

As if founding a musical dynasty wasn't enough Venceslav Metelka was also a writer. He kept a diary throughout his working life, in which he captured numerous details of life in and around Paseky in the mid-19th century, and he also wrote an autobiography - "From the Life of a Village Teacher". Not only did his writings have literary merit in themselves, at a time when Czech writing was still emerging from a long period of silence, but they also inspired one of the most important and best known novels of the period of the national revival: "Zapadli vlastenci" - the forgotten patriots It was written in 1894 many years after Metelka had died by one of the popular writers of the time, Karel Vaclav Rais. To this day the novel remains a Czech classic. The Czech film-maker Pavel Stingl is fascinated by the story.

"At the time of the national revival the German language had become so dominant, that it was only really in country places that Czech survived. So the pioneers of the national revival decided to bring Czech back. They wrote history, they laid down rules for Czech grammar, and they wanted children to have some proper Czech literature to read in school. So they began systematically to write novels. Karel Vaclav Rais decided to find a Czech mountain village, and to set an interesting story there. The story would be Czech, about Czech patriots in the provinces, who'd visit Prague."

The naive patriotism of the story seems very dated to anyone reading it today, but it does have enormous charm. For this year's Paseky Festival, Pavel Stingl had an inspired idea - to adapt Rais's novel for the stage, adding just a hint of good-natured irony, and to stage it here outside the church in Paseky, in competition with the loud chirping of the summer crickets.

Around fifty people from the village and around took part in the performance. Hundreds of people turned up to watch, and the mountain village with no more than 300 inhabitants swelled with crowds of enthusiasts. Pavel Stingl:

"I was inspired by the fact that Paseky is the real place on which Rais's novel is based. He found Venceslav Metelka's diary, and his description of everyday life here gave him all the raw material he needed for his story. So that means that everything that we've seen today in this performance is about the great grandparents of the people who are actually acting in it."

The performance was one of the highpoints of this year's Paseky Festival. It is strange to think that a few years ago the village came close to extinction and its tradition could have been forgotten. After the Second World War, most villagers moved away to the local towns, which were virtually empty after the mass expulsion of the German-speaking population. It was largely thanks to the energy and imagination of Josef Waldmann whose lifelong energy competes with that of Metelka himself, that the village's past was not forgotten. 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. Given the magic of the place perhaps it's not surprising that Paseky has inspired not only performers but also composers. Two well-known Czech composers write regularly for the Paseky Festival, one is Jaroslav Krcek, the other Frantisek Xaver Thuri. The latter is sometimes described humorously as the Czech Republic's last Baroque composer, because of his devotion both to tradition and to the church. As in several previous years, he composed one piece especially for this year's celebration, a wonderfully atmospheric, romantic composition, Divertimento for Strings.

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."

I mentioned a short while ago that there are two composers who in recent years have devoted their energies to Paseky nad Jizerou. The second, Jaroslav Krcek, is close to the Paseky tradition in more ways than one. Not only does he compose music and direct the ensemble Musica Bohemica, but he also makes his own instruments. So let's end the programme with something by Jaroslav Krcek, the "Amen" from his Concerto Grosso, composed for the Paseky festival in 1996 being performed in the little church of Saint Wenceslas.