UK musicologist: "My parents were horrified when I went to Czechoslovakia, they thought I was a spy"

Although now in his 80s, Geoffrey Chew is still writing about Czech music. The British/South African musicologist devoted most of his career to the music of the Czech Lands and Slovakia as Emeritus Professor of Music at Royal Holloway University in London and as editor of articles on Czech and Slovak Music for the online Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He has also translated Czech literature, including a translation of Karel Hynek Mácha’s ‘Cikáni’ (Gypsies) which was published in 2019. For his contributions to Czech music and culture, Chew was awarded a Leoš Janáček Memorial Medal by the Leoš Janáček Foundation in 2018.

London | Photo: Free-Photos,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

Born in South Africa, Chew has spent most of his life in the UK and when I meet with him at the Southbank Centre in London, he calls himself a “citizen of nowhere”, wryly referencing the former UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s notorious comment at the 2016 UK Conservative party conference that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere” (he adds that “if that’s what Theresa May wants to call us then fine – I’ll go along with that”). But, despite an academic career focused on Czech music, Chew has no Czech heritage or familial relations whatsoever.

So what on earth, I asked him, drew him to Czech music in the first place?

“I did an undergraduate degree at Cambridge, and the faculty librarian was, I think, having an affair with the lady in the český hudební fond (the Czech Music Fund) at that time, and he said ‘Why don’t you do something on Czech music?’

“So I thought, nice idea, it’s something different that would get me to see a place that I’ve never seen before, and maybe make some connections between Czechoslovakia, as it then was, and Austria.

“So I chose a research topic that combined the two and I travelled around very happily for about 18 months in central Europe, living in Prague and also Brno, in the mid-60s.”

Photo: Barbora Navrátilová,  Radio Prague International

I suppose during Communism they didn’t appreciate your efforts so much?

“Well, my research topic absolutely astonished them, because it was something that a Czech musicologist, Jiří Berkovec, had planned on doing, but I came in – this strange English postgrad – and started going into the archives, and they were astonished.

“It was reviewed by them, but they absolutely didn’t count on us publishing it. I didn’t realise at the time quite how sensitive a political topic it was.”

Vánoční zpěvy českého baroka, Bohemian Baroque Christmas Songs

What was the topic?

“It was Vánočni pastorely, which seemed like something obscure and not very important to me at the time.

“But there was a literature behind it that made it out to be a kind of Czech speciality of the 18th century, something completely national and very typically Czech.

“However, I was aware of the fact that there was also a literature across the border in Austria about pastorely saying how Austrian they were.

"So my idea was simply to compare the two. But that was more controversial than I realised it was going to be for the Czechs.”

What was it like being there in the mid-60s?

“Fantastically interesting, and really exciting for somebody of that age. I made good friends and I was lucky with the people who looked after me, that they were quite happy to take me in, feed me, deal with me, and cope with the police enquiries about me as well, and tell me how to manage myself safely. It was wonderful.

“When I arrived in Prague I was going to do all my research there. But it turned out that that was the year of the Spartakiáda, and the result of that was that there was absolutely no accommodation anywhere in Prague for anybody, whether they were Czechs or foreigners. But I made a good friend who was a guitarist at the conservatoire in Prague, and he let me sleep on his floor in a house which was about 100 metres from Old Town Square. Expensive real estate now – it wasn’t then.

“But he was a wonderful character – he always used to tell stories in those days. And the secret police knew him because of his foreign contacts, and assumed he was absolutely fluent in French. But he wasn’t. He used to go and sit in pubs and make noises which sounded like French with people in the background writing notes about him.

“One day we turned up at a foreign language cinema on Václavské Náměstí and they were showing French films that week. They had a lady who used to show up and do simultaneous translation – she would stand in front of the screen and translate the dialogue for the audience – but she hadn’t turned up that day.

“They noticed that Honza was in the audience so they said, ‘You must come and translate for us’. He didn’t know French at all! So he stood up in front of the screen, watched what was going on, and he made a story completely up. And it was absolutely brilliant.

“About halfway through, the lady turned up and took over – but nobody noticed that it was any different! He was an amazing storyteller – still is.”

Wenceslas Square in 1970s | Photo: Czech Television

What did your friends and family think about you pursuing a research interest that they might see as obscure?

“Anything that I would have done they would have thought was obscure and uninteresting, so it wasn’t a problem [laughs]. Everybody was bemused, my parents, my family and so on, they didn’t know what it meant.

“My parents were absolutely horrified when I went to Czechoslovakia because they thought I must be a spy. But actually it was interesting that I was never approached by either the South Africans or the Czechs to do any spying.”

They obviously thought you weren’t spy material.

“Something like that. Well, they were probably right.”

Did your parents ever come round?

“Well my dad eventually visited Prague and he was fascinated [laughs].”

So they got over their notions that you were a spy?

“They got over the shock.”

You’ve also taught at the Masaryk University in Brno. How was it different teaching courses on Czech music in the country itself as opposed to in the UK?

“Well, that was interesting – they’d got me in to teach there because they had hoped that graduate students would be happy to have lectures in English or German, but it turned out not quite like that. So in the end I had to teach them in Czech and have discussions in Czech – but it was kind of alright. It was interesting anyway.”

You’ve also translated Czech literature. How did you end up learning Czech?

“Well, I knew that I was going to have to do a research topic. So I took myself along to the lecturer who was teaching Czech at that time in Cambridge – that was Karel Brušák. He was a wonderful man – he knew all the people in the First Republic. Goodness knows what he did during the war – it must have been quite interesting. But he ended up in Cambridge, anyway, and his knowledge of Czech literature was just phenomenal. So that was a great step forward for me.”

How do you keep your Czech up – do you read in Czech regularly, or do you talk to Czech friends?

“Well, I don’t have very many Czech friends to talk to where we are but I read quite a lot. I should read the newspapers more than I do, because I think reading 19th and early 20th century Czech literature is not actually very good for keeping your language up.”

Illustrative photo: Kat,  Flickr,  CC BY-SA 2.0

Good point. How long did it take you to learn Czech?

“I haven’t learnt it yet.”

Well, you were good enough to lecture in it.

“Well, I could manage.”

Would you say there’s a connection between Czech music and Czech literature?

“Well, at the moment I’m writing a chapter on music in the Czech lands in the 17th century, and to take that as an example where the Czech solo song and poetry is such a fantastic achievement for that time, and it’s something where the literature and the music come together, absolutely. But that’s not the only period that that would be true of.”

What would you say is distinctive about Czech music, if anything?

“It has always been said that there is a distinctive Czech element in Czech music which comes from the folk culture. I don’t know whether that’s really true or not, but it’s something that one can pick up on, and it’s something that’s often been said, so in reading the criticism and the history, you come across that all the time.”

Why do you say you’re not sure that it’s true?

“I think it’s a slight romanticisation of what goes on. For example in the 17th century, when culture was being taken to the lower classes, but also to aristocrats who spoke Czech mainly, and accommodation was constantly being made to get on the right side of them, to meet them where they were, and to deal with that. So there is something to be said for that.”

Leoš Janáček | Photo: Moravské zemské muzeum Brno

Is your favourite Czech composer still Janáček?

“Oh I think so, yes.”

And what do you particularly love about Janáček?

“It’s the raw directness of that music, the fact that he is able without any effort it seems to touch people’s emotions in the most direct possible way. His achievement in 20th century music was just amazing.”

Would you say it’s primarily an intellectual interest or more of an emotional one?

“Oh no, it’s an emotional thing.”

From the heart.

“Yes. I mean, Czech should be a language of love.”

You think?

“Oh yes, I think so.”

And are you still involved with Czech music now – you’re retired, but are you still publishing?

“Oh yes, I’m still writing. Perhaps less so than 10 years ago, but still.”

And do you still find new things in it?

“There are always new things to be found. New things to be said, even about old things.”

Janáček: Sinfonietta / Rattle · Berliner Philharmoniker