Thursday, September 22, 2011:Up Close, Personal

Antonín and Anna Dvořák arrange their luggage after arriving at the Kralupy nad Vltavou train station Sept 11

Dvořáks Up Close and Personal

It’s so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk. And Anna has only a heavy sun parasol and a folding fan to help her keep cool.

She’s wearing long cotton stockings, a couple of short petticoats, and knee-length shorts under a floor-length hoop that’s covered by a heavy cotton skirt with train. The long-sleeved, heavy cotton jacket is buttoned up to her throat, and her flowered hat ties under her chin with a wide, blue ribbon. She’s carrying a thick-twigged wicker picnic basket; her hands are captured in white fishnet gloves.

Her husband is attired in top hat and walking stick, necktie closed at the throat, black morning coat with tails, a vest, heavy black trousers, thick white gloves, and black boots; he’s carrying a square, black leather case. It’s nearly 30 degrees (86 degrees F) in the shade today.

But for Anna and Antonín Dvořák, it’s just a Sunday walk in the park. Even if the folks walking alongside them are wearing shorts, tank tops, and sunglasses.

The occasion for the walk is the 170th anniversary of the great Czech composer’s birth. About 30 people are celebrating by walking the path with the “Dvořák’s” from the railroad station at Kralupy nad Vltavou to his home in Nelahozeves. And the young couple portraying the Dvořáks have gotten the last, sizzling summer-like day of the season, Sept 11, for their performance.

They pose for photos and answers a few questions. Drivers coming to the train station gawk out their car windows at the 19th century couple surrounded by smiling admirers snapping photos on digital cameras and mobile phones.

The procession begins.

Hikers’ Takes of All Types, from All Over

Amnon is a civil engineer from Israel, who’s worked in the Czech Republic for the past five years. “Dvořák was so creative and original; his music speaks to me,” he tells Opus Osm as we begin the hike along the Vltava, leaving the small, leafy town.“Yet he was humble. I told my friends in Israel this is like a festival day for me.”

Amnon

Petra, like Amnon, is taking the walk for the first time. “My friend is visiting here from England, and we were looking for something to do today. We found out about the walk on the internet,” she explains, as the easy trail meanders past towering rocks.

Her English friend Donald says he likes Dvořák’s last four symphonies the best, with the Seventh being “the strongest. He slipped a little with the New World Symphony, though.” He thinks with that one, Dvořák appealed a little too much to the popular taste.

David, on the other hand, is no novice on the 3 km walk; the American music historian and Dvořák specialist has followed this trail several times. As we pass Anna Dvořák, the train of her white dress collecting a little mud and a few leaves from the dirt trail, David explains “Dvořák didn’t have a sense of finery, but when they went to London or France his wife was expected to appear in the current fashion. He, though, was more down to earth.”

Antonín pauses in the walk to answer questions

Unlike David, Tony, visiting from England, is “not experienced in music,” he admits. But he says he likes Dvořák’s Slovanic Dances and the Ninth Symphony, From the New World, the best.

Coming on a walk like this “makes you want to scratch below the surface” of the music you listen to, he says. “When you visit the cities where the composers lived, it changes you forevermore. Now, Dvořák won’t sound the same to me again; it will be very personal.”

At noon the walkers gather in front of Dvořák’s towering memorial statue in Nelahozeves for short speeches and the laying of a wreath at the master’s feet. Taking part in the traditional honor are Dr Eva Velická, curator of the Antonín Dvořák Museum in Prague, the music historian David Beveridge, and his honor Jaroslav Otásek, former mayor of Nelahozeves.

Dvořáks Up Close and Personal

In between concerts offered as part of the festivities, we ask Mr and Mrs Dvořák a few questions – not about their musical works, but about their historical work. Jan and Jana Nešněra (in Czech, the Nešněrovi) have been doing historical re-enactments for about 10 years, characters who lived from the Napoleon era, up to World War I. Mrs Nešněrová, a doctoral candidate, says her work-hobby is not the same as the typical “living history” museum. Rather, she calls it “a living book.”

“Historians like books, but people aren’t very keen on books today,” she says. “They prefer tv, the internet … but this is the best way to show the importance of history. This makes it possible for people to see something, to come closer to ‘how does it work?’”

Curious hikers learn just what gives Mrs Dvořák's skirt its perfect bell shape.

She appears with her (also real life) husband, who is actually an electronic engineer specializing in solar energy. They believe their methods of presenting history are better than the living history museums in which workers role-play characters, but that don’t answer questions from viewers who know only modern life.

On the other hand, Mrs Nešněrová says, “We can answer ‘Why?’ and give details to their questions – ‘Isn’t your dress heavy? Isn’t it uncomfortable? How do you sit down?’”

“’Isn’t it hard to clean?’” chimes in Mr Nešněra.

“Yeah, ‘Isn’t it hard to clean?’” agrees his wife, laughing.

“History is not a role-play,” she emphasizes. “We can make history and culture be alive.”

For the walkers following Dvořák’s trail, understanding a detail like how the composer and his wife dressed on a hot day can help folks relate on a more human level to the thoroughly-researched and universally-lauded musician.

It makes the journey, as Tony says, “very personal.” – oo

– Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Miroslav Setnička

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