Thursday, December 1, 2011: Fish for Christmas
Some foreigners, especially turkey-oriented aliens, may find it rather strange, but the modern Czech Christmas is closely associated with fish. First they have the venerable carp, who appears fried in breadcrumbs on festive Christmas Eve tables in practically every Czech household. Then comes another fish, this time, however, more associated with musical scales. After all, the word for fish in Czech is Ryba, and that was the name of the relatively famous gentleman whose Christmas Mass, Hey Master (Hej Mistře!) is just as much a Christmas tradition in this country as fried carp is.
There is little point repeating the oft-repeated details about the life and personage of Jakub Jan Ryba (1765-1815), as you can find a wealth of materials about him in English on the internet. We should, however, be aware that some of the more intimate details about him belong more to the world of speculation than plain historical truth. This is only natural, as Mr. Ryba was made into a legend by the Czech nation itself.
And a jolly good legend it is, too, as he brings together a number of elements so necessary for convincing legends: great talent and intellect, virtuousness, resistance to mindless authority, national awareness and – what no legend can do without – a rather gruesome end. Indeed, without such a dramatic end his Christmas Mass would probably have been lost to posterity as were most of his other 1,300-1,400 compositions.The details concerning his suicide also tend to differ, presumably according to what the respective authors had for breakfast. Far more interesting though is the very beautiful location he chose for it, below Šterbina Hill near Rožmitál-Voltuš. I would thoroughly recommend a visit to the Ryba Memorial at this site, not only to pay your respects to Mr. Ryba, but also to pick the autumn mushrooms that abound in the surroundings, take in the bracingly fresh air, and enjoy the play of sunbeams penetrating the mysterious depths of the forest.
From there it is only a short drive to Starý Rožmitál, where you can also visit his well-groomed grave in the cemetery by the Church of the Elevation of the Holy Cross. It is in this church that you can also see the original and very ornate organ that Mr. Ryba played when he was living here, although it is in a much better condition than it was in his days.
Today, there is new evidence that it was the refusal of the local clergy to renovate the organ that served as the last straw that broke Mr. Ryba’s sense for self-preservation. I must say, he has my sympathy. Ryba’s Christmas Mass is a real joy for the senses (if only once a year), but I cannot imagine the dire consequences for my sanity if the organ accompaniment happened to be out of tune.
This will certainly not be the case if you turn up at the beautifully maintained Starý Rožmitál church for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. In fact, you will find no better venue for Ryba’s masterful Mass. You might not get a place in the pews, as this is a very popular event in Rožmitál, but you will still have an experience of a lifetime, no matter how low the ambient temperature might be.
– František Havran
Photo Credits: František Havran