Wed., Aug 3, 2011: A Nation of Musicians

Guest Editorial

The Czech Republic, “A Nation of Musicians”?

The Berg Orchestra regularly presents the classic Peter and the Wolf to school children

Whenever you stumble upon promotion materials about the Czech Republic, you can bet your bottom dollar there will be a section devoted to Czech music. You will be told how the Czechs are a “nation of musicians.” And inevitably you will find the hackneyed Czech saying claiming that all Czechs are musicians: “Co Čech, ten muzikant!” Nobody would argue that the Czechs haven’t made quite a name for themselves in the world of music. On the other hand, we should beware of falling into the pitfalls prepared for proponents of Czech music by the Czechs themselves.

There are few nations in this world that are not proud of their music. Indeed, the Czechs are not the only ones to claim they have exceptional musical skills. The same goes for the Welsh, Irish, Scots, French, Spanish, Portuguese… So what is so special about the Czech nation? How come this nation, which still today only numbers about 10 million, has so many musical giants in its history?

The list of Czech composers is far greater than just Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček, and Bohuslav Martinů. Indeed, Wikipedia has a list of 135 composers born or trained in the Czech Lands, 37 of which were active in the 20th century and 26 of them in the 20th and early 21st century.

So where should we start grubbing to reveal the secret behind the phenomenon of Czech music? Maybe it has something to do with the great beauty of the Czech countryside as claimed in Czech promotion materials. The only problem is that all the countries surrounding the Czech Republic have equally or even more impressive countryside. It’s just another fallacy thought up by propagandists, many of whom are tainted by the small-nation inferiority complex.

Folk roots and empires

Maybe we will get a little closer to the truth if we take a look at the strong Czech folk tradition (Bohemian and Moravian), which certainly greatly influenced the works of all the great Czech composers. Such folk traditions survived despite centuries of Germanic domination, or maybe because of it, as it was certainly one way of maintaining at least some expression of ethnic identity. And so here we do have something that is Czech in its nature, despite the fact that Czech folklore not only has Slavonic roots, but also contains significant Germanic elements, which Czechs are often loath to admit.

Gustav Mahler, Czech

Fuelling the endeavour to develop and assert music with a distinct Czech flavour was the increasing Czech national consciousness in the 19th century. It could be said that the first to use music as a weapon in the Czech national revival was Bedřich Smetana. Dvořák followed bravely on in Smetana’s footsteps, but in a far more sophisticated and mature form. His music proved far more inspiring if only because it broke out from the rather parochial limits set by Smetana. And from there the banner was taken over by Janáček and then by Martinů. Here we should add that many people are surprised when they discover that Gustav Mahler was also born in the Czech Lands where he spent his early years conducting and composing.

However, another, and probably far more potent, factor was the location of the Czech Lands in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which facilitated access to Vienna, itself a major European centre of music and the arts. Neither could Prague be described as a cultural wasteland, as it had been one of the main bastions of the misnamed Holy Roman Empire right up until its dissolution in 1806. In stark contrast to many other small nations, the Czechs had access, if only for the privileged few, to musical institutions of world renown. We should admit that this also meant at least some access also to often generous financial backing provided for music and the arts, and not only in these two cities.

Educational Access
It is said that Empress Marie Therese required all school children to learn to play a musical instrument, and most Czech children chose the violin. So in addition to the composers, even today we also have hundreds, if not thousands, of first-rate musicians trained in prestigious music colleges and academies in this country. They, too, are an integral part of the Czech music tradition, which also goes way beyond the confines of Czech music itself.

Decisive in the “production” of professional musicians and composers is not only the influence of nationality, culture, and identity; but also the fact that talented musicians have had access to the musical education they required to become professional musicians.

– František Havran

Photo Credits: Top, Miroslav Setnička; Mahler, photographer Moritz Nahr

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