Traditional Czech music for Christmas

Czech Christmas music has a rich tradition, aptly enough in the land of Good King Wenceslas. He lived over a millennium ago and little or no Czech music from his day survives, but there is plenty from the 16th century onwards.

Adam Vaclav Michna z Otradovic, who was born in 1600, is often seen as the grandfather of Czech classical music. He composed Christmas carols that are loved by Czechs to this day. Another early Czech composer was Karel Holan Rovensky, who was a Jesuit priest and composed a massive songbook in the late 1600's. It includes over 900 pieces, many of which have to do with church holidays - and not least Christmas. There are several excellent recent recordings of some of these pieces, for example by the Ritornello Ensemble and Musica Antiqua Praha.

A musical form which was used almost exclusively for Christmas music, at least in the Czech lands, is called the 'pastorale'. These tell the Christmas story in a simple fashion, usually starting with the shepherds in the fields as they get the message to go to Bethlehem. They were frequently written by the village music teacher or priest, not to be any sort of high art, but just to add to the village festivities. This also means that many of the composers are anonymous.

There is a CD (on the Audion label) called 'Do Betlema Pastuskove', or To Bethlehem, Shepherds, which contains nothing but anonymous pastorales. One example is particularly sweet in its naive simplicity. It is called 'Hey, Jack, something strange is happening'. In it you hear a female singer saying, 'Hey, Jack, something funny is happening,' and he answers, 'what?' (Copak?), and she says 'God was born today', and he answers 'where?' (Kdepak?), and she says 'in Bethlehem', and he says, 'How?' (Jakpak) and so forth. And then they switch roles. It lasts only two-and-a-half minutes, but it gets the message across, and is quite delightful.

And staying in a popular or folkish vein, we can turn to Christmas music from the Wallachian region of Moravian, far off in the eastern borderlands of the country. Carols from the region feature the characteristic sound of local folk music - fiddles, clarinet, hammered dulcimer, bass and a rather nasal style of singing. There is one very famous Czech carol about shepherds called 'Pasli ovce Valasi', in which the shepherds are Wallachian.

The shepherds play an important role in Czech carols - not surprisingly given the country's rich rural tradition, and they are always also musicians. In one carol they even play the bagpipes by the manger, which must make for anything but a 'silent night'. There is a nice recording of this carol 'Hraji dudy v jeslickach' by the children's choir Bambini di Praga.

CDs reviewed in this programme are provided by Siroky Dvur