Prague exhibit explores role of music in modern Czech history

1980s pop albums, photo: archive of National Museum

From the Hussite wars of the Middle Ages to the Velvet Revolution of 1989, many pivotal events in Czech history occurred against a musical backdrop, at least in the nation’s collective memory. An exhibition at the National Memorial on Prague’s Vítkov Hill explores the links between music and politics, and shows what roles music assumed in modern Czech history.

Photo: archive of National Museum
The song Prayer for Marta was famously delivered by Marta Kubišová to tens of thousands of anti-communist protesters gathered in Prague’s Wenceslas Square in November 1989.

The event saw Marta Kubišová, banned by the authorities over her opposition to the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, perform publicly for the first time in nearly two decades.

Footage of Marta Kubišová’s impromptu performance on Wenceslas Square is included in the exhibition entitled Music and Politics, staged at the memorial on Vítkov Hill in Prague. National Museum curator Jitka Gelnarová showed me around.

“What we try to show is the fact that music is not just sound but can very a very strong and effective tool of political action. It can fulfil many functions in relation to politics. It can be used to legimitize a political regime, and it can also be used in protest against a regime.

“It is a strong tool because it affects both the rationality and the emotions of people. It can effectively convey political messages, and that’s why it’s employed very often. Art in general is used in this way but music in particular.”

Perhaps the earliest and one of the best-know examples of music playing a significant part in a historic process was the use of chants by the Hussite forces fighting against Catholics in the 15th century. The Hussites effectively used the song Ye Who Are Warriors of God in battles, instilling fear in the enemy’s ranks.

But the exhibition really focuses on modern Czech history, beginning in the revolutionary era around 1848.

'The Song of Liberty' by Bedřich Smetana,  photo: archive of National Museum
“In the Czech lands, the events of 1848 were similar to those in other parts of Europe and especially central Europe. They had to do with ideas of the French Revolution connected with Czech nationalism.

“Here we can see an original score written by 24-year-old Bedřich Smetana. He in fact took part in the fighting on the barricades in Prague, he was in touch with Czech radical democrats.

“The song is called The Song of Liberty, and when you hear it, you can understand the power of a revolutionary song. It has a simple melody and rhythm, and the message is also simple: it makes a case for the freedom of the Czech nation.”

Another section of the exhibit is dedicated to Libuše by Bedřich Smetana, considered the Czech national opera.

“Over there we are showing the connection between music and revolution while here, we wanted to show another function music can have – a tool in shaping a collective identity. It can be national, class, and so on. So here we can see how music was used in the process of the national revival of the 19th century.

“This wig dates to the early 20th century, and was worn by the popular singer at the time, Ema Destinová. She was a great supporter of the Czech nation’s aspirations, and played an important part in constructing the Czech national identity at the turn of the century.”

Music was heavily employed by the Czech nationalist movement, with popular folk songs and marches agitating and uniting the nation in its yearning for independence. But this changed somewhat after the creating of Czechoslovakia in 1918.

Jitka Gelnarová,  photo: archive of Charles University
“In the 19th century, music was an expression of opposition against the Habsburg monarchy which the Czechs were part of. But after 1918, the Czechs became the constitutive nation of the new country, and music had to play another role.

“It was no longer a tool of the opposition but it turned into a way of manifesting statehood. The national anthem was transformed into the state anthem, and songs were important in the promotion of the statehood.

“There were many songs connected with the Czech and Czechoslovak symbols such as the lion, and many for instance celebrated Czechoslovakia’s first president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.”

The exhibition Music and Politics features artefacts from the era of the Second World War, including the original score of the childrens opera Brundibár staged by the inmates of the Nazi-run Terezín ghetto. It also highlights Czech anti-Nazi propaganda broadcast by the BBC and the Voice of America.

But the heyday of music as a tool of propaganda came later, after the 1948 communist takeover of the country. Curator Jitka Gelnarová says that communist propagandists efficiently used music throughout the four decades of communism.

“They approached music as a propaganda tool and it was only the style that changed, as the society changed. In the 1950s, musical propaganda was very obvious and heavy handed.

But in the 1980s, they even used pop or disco music which was popular at the time. They always used the music that was popular to get their message across.”

Plastic People of the Universe,  photo: Anton Kajmakov
From the beginning, however, music was also important for the opponents of the communist regime. This became very obvious in the 1970s during the Soviet occupation when the authorities clearly showed they were not going to tolerate any art that could undermine the regime.

The band Plastic People of the Universe is the best known example of how the regime clamped down on independent musicians.

“Here you can see some of the examples of how people tried to resist the repression in the 1970s. This is the audio mixer and the amplifier of the band Plastic People of the Universe which we have on loan from the Pop Museum in Prague.

“By that time, the band was already banned, and they had to use equipment they themselves made.”

Visitors can also see for themselves whether they would be allowed to perform during communism. The exhibit features a sample of what was known as “requalification exams” that every musician had to take to get an official permit to perform. Jitka Gelnarová says these exams consisted in three parts.

“The first part was about the theory of music. But in the second part, there were questions about the political and social function of music, and that was the propaganda part. “

I see here that one question is ‘who is the head of the Communist party of Mongolia?’ These are authentic questions?

1980s pop albums,  photo: archive of National Museum
“Yes, they are. And the final part was practical when they had to show they can actually play the instruments. But that was not that important.”

The exhibition Music and Politics at the National Memorial on Prague’s Vítkov Hill runs the end of March 2015. For more information, visit the National Museum’s website at