A Pilgrimage In Time

Kismet, according to dictionary.com, a noun meaning fate or destiny.

Recently, I had a run in with kismet while visiting in Prague. Please allow me to fill you in on my adventure.

But first, lets go back in time to the mid 1960’s. The communist system in Czechoslovakia faced a deep systemic crisis. In January, 1968, Alexander Dubcek became the new Communist Party of Czechoslovakia leader. This was the beginning of the era of economic, political and social reforms that came to be known as the Prague Spring.

During the night and early morning of 20th – 21st of August 1968, over a quarter of a million Warsaw Pact soldiers (including over 25,000 from the Polish Armed Forces) invaded the Czechoslovakia territory and seized the entirety of it. The Prague Spring leaders were kidnapped and taken to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). The military ops of the Warsaw Pact armies resulted in over 100 deaths.

This intervention was met by spontaneous resistance all over Czechoslovakia. There were, among other things, strikes, graffiti and underground leaflets which used as their weapon, both humour and satire. The media, both press and radio as well as the Communist Party also participated in the resistance. It was due to this that Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (and therefore political leader of the USSR), opted to release the leaders of the Prague Spring and sign an agreement with them that gave rules for the gradual withdrawal from the process of reforms.

Upon his release and return to Prague, a mere 8 days after his abduction, Dubcek started the process of reform withdrawals. This was in accordance with the “Moscow Agreement”. Bit by bit, the people became more apathetic. Civic resistance grew for a short time after 21 year old Jan Palach doused himself with gas and set himself alight in protest in January 1969. This happened not far from the statue of King Wenceslas in the central square named after him. In April, 1969, Dubcek was impeached and replaced by Gustav Husak. Husak continued what would end up being 20 years of political and cultural gloom.

Still with me after your history lesson? Good, lets come back to the present then and I’ll continue with my escapades in Prague.

I arrived in Prague on the night of September 1st, 2008. I was excited for a few reasons. One of which (though not the primary reason) was that while a sophomore at King High School in Tampa, FL, I had the privilege of playing a composition by Karel Husa entitled Music For Prague 1968. I’ll tell you a bit more about the composer and his piece later. Now, where was I … oh yes, I remember. I fell in love with this piece and to this day still hum parts of it to myself at times. We were told why the piece was written, what the various movements signified etc. I dreamed of visiting the city about which the piece had been written.

Several days after my arrival, I was out in the kitchen reading the Prague Post, a local, weekly newspaper that is published in English. Imagine my surprise when I got to the supplement which listed the various events for the week along with a few relevant articles and saw on the front cover, the title of Husa’s composition. I eagerly opened it and began to read and nearly ran into the room where my hostess was sitting. I was probably bouncing on the balls of my feet as I told her about the concert which was to be held in a few days time.

The National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of 31 year old (OMG so young!), Lukasz Borowicz, were giving a concert. All I could think of was that this was meant to be and I HAD to be there. It was being held in the Stare Mesto district of Prague at the Rudolfinum.

The Rudolfinum was built at the end of the 19th century and has two halls. One for Orchestral works and major recitals and the second for chamber, instrumental and solo vocal music. It is the home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and was named in honour of Crown Prince Rudolph of Habsburg. It is also known as the House of Artists and for a brief period after WW II, was the seat of the Czechoslovak parliament.

I was there early due to having to purchase a ticket on the night. I took the time available to roam around inside admiring the artwork. During my wanders, I came across a set of doors that were ajar. Being inquisitive, I walked in only to find the orchestra warming up. A flood of memories of concert nights during my school life rushed like a tsunami, without the destruction, through my head. I know I must have been smiling like a fool, too. This young man came over and spoke to me, I recognized him from the newspaper as the conductor. I asked if he would honour me with his autograph in the concert program and his smile widened. Taking a pen from his pocket, he obliged and then asked if I knew the pieces being played. I replied that I knew the Eroica, by Beethoven which was to be the finale, but was not familiar with the second piece, Concerto Lugubre, by Baird. I then explained my main reason for attending. He laughed and said that I may know the piece better than him. The announcement was made for us to take our seats so I excused myself.

I walked into the hall for the first time and was amazed by its grandeur. A high domed ceiling in which was centered a huge chandelier and a stage of the likes I had never seen before. There were actually seats above yet behind the orchestra. The orchestra came out and took their seats, tuned up and then the conductor came out and mounted the podium. From the first note to the last, I was mesmerized. It was a dream come true for me.

Now I’d like to tell you a little bit about the composer and his work, if I may.

Karel Husa, a native of Prague was born in 1921. In 1954, after a year with the Canti Soli orchestra in Paris, he became a teacher at Cornell University in New York state. He went on to become a full-time professor of composition, conducting and orchestration, also at Cornell.

Music For Prague 1968 is without a doubt his best known composition and ranks among the most frequently performed compositions of the 20th century. Its conception is connected with the tragic events which took place in Prague in 1968. It has a classical symphony layout of four movements based on three thematically developed musical symbols. These are, the tolling of the bells as the sonic image of Prague which bears the nickname of, the ‘city of one hundred spires’; the Hussite war song from the 15th century Ye Warriors of God and His Law and lastly, a birdsong, a symbol of freedom and free life. The Czech premiere of the composition was in February 1990 by the Prague Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Karel Husa himself. This was his first visit to Prague after the Velvet Revolution.

Music For Prague 1968 is filled with sounds of alarm – church bells, trombones that imitate air-raid sirens and oboes tapping out Morse code. It is capped by a theme of resistance and hope, originally from the above mentioned Hussite war song. A poignant, beautiful yet sometimes volatile composition that I feel so fortunate to have been able to hear played in the city that gave it its title.

For those of you that have never hear the composition, you can find and excerpt on youtube. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed reading about my pilgrimage in time. Thank you for visiting my blog. Good day.

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  1. Pingback: A Life without music … | Chris’s Space

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