This week we took a trip to the Golden City. Browse the playlist below from our show on the musical heritage of Prague.
Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904) Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88 Dvorak’s 8th Symphony is often overshadowed by the monumental popularity of his 9th or “New World” Symphony, but the work was a favorite of the composer, and a creative achievement in its own right. Dvorak hoped to contrast light, original, and cheery themes with the dark, melancholy tones that he cultivated in his earlier works. The finale, which we just listened to, invokes Dvorak’s use of Bohemian folk music: a stately fanfare that develops into a raucous dance tune of unmistakable Czech flavor. The general jollility of the symphony reflects the celebratory occasion of it’s premier. Dvorak had just been elected to the Bohemian Academy of Science, Literature and Arts, and premiered the symphony in Prague at the National Theatre in 1890. He conducted the work a second time for another academic distinction, receiving an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University.
Carl Stamitz (1745-1801) Cello Concerto No.1 - I. Allegro con spirito Bohemian composer Carl Stamitz was a leading member of the second generation of so-called Mannheim School composers, which established itself in the 1740’s under Carl’s father Johann. The development of the Mannheim style was centered around the prestigious orchestra created there, whose strong discipline brought orchestral music to a new level of drama and magnificence never seen or heard before. Carl played violin in the orchestra, however as a composer he is best known for his contributions to viola and cello repertoire, which were especially popular in Paris, London and Prague. The Prague Chamber Orchestra performs Stamitz’s first cello concerto on this recording. As one of the oldest continuing chamber orchestras in Europe, the Prague Chamber Orchestra carries on a tradition established in Mozartian times of performing without the leadership of a conductor.
Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) Prague Carnival, Introduction and Polonaise for orchestra T.135 In the 1860s, Smetana returned to Prague, just as Czech (formerly Bohemian) nationalistic fervor had re-awakened. Smetana composed his folk opera, “The Bartered Bride,” in this spirit of nationalism, and continued working on operas until the onset of his deafness in 1874. In spite of completely losing his hearing, he was able to finish his masterwork Ma Vlast, a symphonic cycle, by 1882, which immortalized him as one of the Czech Republic’s greatest composers. Prague Carnival is one of Smetana’s final works, composed a year after the completion of Ma Vlast when he was in very ill health. He conceptualized a giant symphonic cycle based on Czech folk dances, but only managed to finish the Introduction and Polonaise before his death in 1884. The work was not initially very popular in concert, however it was re-discovered and revised in the 1890s by Karel Kovařovic, a conductor of great fame in Prague.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Symphony No. 38 in D, K. 504 'Prague' In 1786, Mozart had made plans to go to London with his 38th symphony in tow. But, thanks to his father Leopold, Wolfgang was unable to go when Leopold refused to look after his son’s children. In December of 1786, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro was performed in Prague and was a huge success. Riding on this success, Mozart was invited to Prague to concertize. While there, his newly composed 38th symphony was performed. The symphony would have sounded particularly good in the hands of Prague musicians. Mozart tended to favor woodwind parts in compositions from this period, and Prague had gained a reputation for producing excellent woodwind players.
Josef Suk (1874-1935) Praga, symphonic poem, Op. 26 Josef Suk was one of Antonin Dvorak’s favorite pupils and eventually became his son-in-law, after marrying Dvorak’s daughter in 1898. His epic national symphonic poem Praga was composed nearly a decade later. Praga celebrates the “past, present, and future” of the city, and incorporates several lines of a Hussite chorale which would’ve been recognizable to Czech audiences. However Suk’s fame was not based on his compositions alone. Shortly after graduating from the Prague Conservatory he was appointed second violinist for the Czech Quartet, also known as the Bohemian String Quartet, which became an internationally renowned chamber ensemble. Suk gave over 4,000 performances with the quartet, starting from its Viennese debut in 1893 to his retirement in 1933.
Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) Five Czech Madrigals Though he eventually moved to Paris and lived there for most of his life, Martinu’s most formative years of musical study and development were spent in Prague. His studies at the Prague Conservatory ended in failure, however he thrived in the culture of the city and made many influential friends, who would be key in getting many of his compositions to premiere in Prague. The late French Romantic music of Debussy and Roussel were early influences on Martinu, though later he made a concerted effort to write in a more neo-classical style inspired by jazz and early music. In the 1920’s he was studying Renaissance polyphony and English madrigals, which led to many collections of vocal pieces and even instrumental music inspired by the form.
Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) Trio Sonata No. 2 in g for Two Oboes, Bassoon, and Continuo There’s hardly any account of the life of Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka. He was born and educated near Prague, but there is no record that he married or raised a family, and his employer the Elector of Saxony didn’t seem to care for him much. Zelenka’s music was nearly lost to history. His work was rediscovered by fellow Czech composer Bedrich Smetana over a century later, and this rediscovery revealed an 18th-century composer at the cutting edge. For instance this trio sonata, a genre popular with Zelenka’s contemporary and friend J.S. Bach, at times resembles something from the following generation. Zelenka employed the rondo form for example, meaning a form which returns to the original melody after various harmonic and melodic excursions. Although the rondo was popular in France in the early 18th century, it wasn’t popular in Central Europe as a common form until 30 years after Zelenka’s death.
Jan Tomášek (1774-1850) Eclogue, Op. 47 - in A flat major, No. 2 [Allegretto] V.J.K. Tomasek was one of the most influential musical figures in Prague in the early 19th century, mainly due to his reputation as a teacher and the wide distribution of his piano music. Deeply affected by a performance of Don Giovanni, he is responsible for the cult of Mozart that continued in Prague well into the early Romantic era. Of his many piano compositions, he is now best remembered for a large body of miniatures which he developed in response to his perceived mediocrity of the sonata and the overture. The compositions are musically analogous to poetic forms from Antiquity, such as the rhapsody, the dithyramb, and the eclogue. The musical eclogue is Tomasek’s unique invention, which he treated as a further development of the pastorale genre. In the eclogue, the romanticized and idyllic life of shepherds in the countryside is evoked, however, while the pastorale focuses on the sweetness of this setting, the eclogue focuses on humanity’s changing moods in a simple and comfortable flow.
Lou Reed (1942-2013) Sunday Morning In 1990, Lou Reed, the lead guitarist and songwriter of the American rock band, The Velvet Underground, traveled to Prague to meet one of his heroes: Václav Havel, Earlier that year, The Czech Republic had held its first free election in 44 years, and elected Havel as its president. The victory was not unwarranted; In the late 60s, Havel began making a name for himself as a political dissident while Czechoslovakia was a satellite state of the Soviet Union. Havel believed that the arts were key to gaining independence (He was himself a poet and playwright). He founded the “Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted” in response to the arrest of The Plastic People of the Universe, a Prague based psychedelic rock band, before he himself was jailed. Upon meeting Lou Reed, President Havel presented him with a small black journal which contained transcriptions of Velvet Underground songs, one many that were passed around in secret by Havel and his musical revolutionary friends. Reed’s music (which had been banned by the Soviets) had been an inspiration to them as they sought independence.