Czech Music

From Dvořák to Plastic People, a brief history of music in the Czech Republic

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Published on 27.06.2007 13:17 (updated on 27.06.2007)

Written by Elizabeth A. Haas

What do the American National Football League (NFL), Neil Armstrong, and Britain´s Hovis Bakery have in common? That would be Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. The NFL uses Symphony Number 9 as a ‘comeback´ theme song in a number of its television specials; Neil Armstrong walked on the moon to New World Symphony; the British breadmaker used the same piece for one of its TV ad campaigns. If these facts still don´t clue you into the Czech Republic´s international musical importance, maybe Prague´s Mozart connection will: the great Austrian composer debuted his opera Don Giovanni here in Prague. Music has also played a crucial role in the Czech Republic´s more recent history, with the jailing of 1970´s protest band the Plastic People of the Universe sparking a chain of events that would eventually topple the communist regime.

Songs for Church
Like most other art forms, early music in the Czech Republic was largely ecclesiastical. Missionaries brought the Christian church service to the Czech lands, introducing choirs at daily liturgies. Liturgical singing evolved in the 11th and 12th centuries as the cult of St. Wenceslas gained popularity – partly thanks to the spiritual song Svatý Václave (Saint Wenceslas). By the reign of Charles IV (13th century) the first songwriters appeared; they were archbishop Jan of Jenštejn and the Dominican Domaslav. Schools became important cultural centers, particularly where music was concerned. During this period the polyphonic technique (music for several voices) was lauded throughout Central Europe. Fast forward to the Reformation and you´ll find a stall in the development of the country´s musicianship until the 15th century when court orchestras became commonplace. The most important genre of the era was the spiritual song, often sung in both Czech and Latin. The stormy Hussite movement launched an abundance of religious songs that preached conversion. The religious war song also became a hit: Povstaň, povstaň, veliké město Pražské (Arise, Arise, Great City of Prague!).

The personal orchestra of Emperor Rudolph was one of the biggest and most important in Europe. The orchestra was a part of church services as St. Vitus´ Cathedral in Prague Castle´s All Saints Church. The Rudolphine court ensemble was considered a speciman of musical perfection throughout the continent. The most memorable name of this period was probably the polyphonic composer Kryštof Harant of Polžice (1564-1621) who met a tragic end in the Bohemian Estates Revolt of the Thirty Years War. This war would prove detrimental to the development of new music, but some of the most innovative and exciting times in the history of the artform lay just on the horizon.

The Big M
As the country spent the decades after1648 recovering from the war, a number of new trends in music came to the forefront. Seats of country nobility became important bastions for music as did monastic seminaries. Toward the end of the 17th century, lute playing came into vogue. Jan Dismas Zelenka (1678-1745) was considered a Baroque virtuoso on par with Johann Sebastian Bach. As the 18th century drew to a close, Neopolitan operas, performed by visiting Italian opera societies had a potent influence, as did the music of the working class. Slowly, as the wealth and power of the nobility shifted into decline, the aristocratic orchestras began to disappear and music was returned to the people with public concerts and municipal operas popping up all over Prague. The greatest classical composer of all time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, conducted the world premiere of his Don Giovanni on October 29, 1787 at Stavovské Divadlo. Miloš Forman even shot his acclaimed film Amadeus here in the early 1980´s.

Stars are Born
Perhaps the Czechs were a little too crazy about Mozart as the enthusiasm for his music reached well into the 19th century, arguably slowing any new musical developments. But the 1860´s introduced two very powerful musical forces to the world: Bedřich Smetana (1824-84) and Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), who would go down in history as not only uncomparable maestros in their own country, but as geniuses on an international scale. These composers undoubtedly contributed to the quality of and popular interest in Czech music. As a result, the Czech Philharmonic was established in 1896.

Music flourished in 1918 upon the solidification of the Czechoslovak state. In 1920, the Prague Conservatory´s Meisterschule (an early carnation of the Academy of Performing Arts) came into being. Recording studios sprung up and people started to buy gramophones. The first radio broadcast was in 1923; new concert halls and opera houses opened frequently. As for the sound of the day, modernism was creeping its way into the musical aethestic, with artists Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) and Alois Hába (1893-1973), composing works that examined the plight of modern man.

Troubled Times
The Nazi occupation set the scene for bleak times but, for some, music was a beacon of hope. The works of Smetana, Dvořák, and Mozart, were of great symbolic significance to the people of the country – until 1944 when war was officially declared and music making all but criminalized. Works written in secret during this time debuted to overwhelming praise after the war had ended. Kabeláč´s cantata Neustupujme (Do Not Retreat) was met with a wildly enthusiastic response. The Academy of Performing Arts was established in Prague in 1945; a year after that the Syndicate of Czech Composers was organized. 1946 also heralded the first Prague Spring Music Festival, still a popular event today. Unfortunately, the numerous bouts with totalitarianism throughout Czech history would snuff out the creative light of many composers: conformity was the only way to legally create and perform music. Though the 1960´s brought a brief relaxation of the rules, the other Prague Spring, the communist takeover of 1968, squelched civic freedoms until 1989.

Clashing with Communism
And so what was the fate of the modern musician? For a handful, business could continue as usual. During the 1950´s and 1960´s jazz musicians were safe – they were some of the few melody makers tolerated by the regime. Karel Gott, one of the Czech Republic´s most beloved singers (he´s considered the ‘Sinatra of the East´), continued on with his non-threatening pop ditties, as did his female colleague Helena Vondráčková. Despite this fact, both remain top-selling acts today. The early days of Czech rock-and-roll were characterized by a sound called ‘bigbít´ which was mildly tolerated – those bands who threw in the occasional ode to socialism could still get work. But by the 1970´s and 1980´s tolerance for the outspoken musician was at an all-time low and formerly respected, successful artists (mainly songwriters), were forced to emigrate. Among them: folksinger Jaroslav Hutka and celebrated rocker Ivan Král who went on to perform with Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. The Plastic People of the Universe (a Frank Zappa/Velvet Underground hybrid) stuck around, refusing to compromise their music, and wound up in jail in 1976. The outcry over their imprisonment manifested itself in the famed Charter 77 petition that would initiate the end of the communist rule in 1989.

Post-Revolt Rock
The Velvet Revolution unleashed an intense interest in previously forbidden music. Almost 20 years later, the Czech Republic, Prague in particular, is home to some of the most unique and innovative sounds in the business. Where to begin? Folkies will appreciate the knowing accordion of young singer Radůza or the Moravian-influenced band Čechomor. Hip-hop lovers should get on board with, Oreon, or Supercroo; Monkey Business are the country´s best-know purveyors of pop – with a dash of funk and disco tossed in – as is their sometime collaborator Dan Bárta. Chinaski are the CR´s resident rockstars. Support Lesbians (most of their songs are performed in English) get the indie rock vote. For something harder, Divokej Bill has punk leanings. The Ecstasy of St. Teresa are an electronic act who´ve gained critical acclaim abroad. If you love shows tunes, adult contemporary, and/or favor a 10 pm bedtime, you´ll love Lucie Bílá.