Composers in the Czech Republic

A brief intro to the country´s musical history

Erin Naillon

Written by Erin Naillon Published on 24.11.2009 09:43:56 (updated on 24.11.2009) Reading time: 6 minutes

Prague has every right to be proud of its musical history. Many of the top composers of Europe called it home at one time or another, leaving an indelible mark on the city´s cultural background. Even those who haven´t spent much time in Prague have been influenced sufficiently enough to include its magic in their compositions.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who once stated that “my Praguers understand me,” lived in what is now the Czech Republic for a total of approximately six months. The Marriage of Figaro was performed in Prague´s Nostic Theatre to an enthusiastic response in December of 1786. Mozart arrived the following month to conduct his own works in the city; on that visit, he stayed in Thunovský Palace in Malá Strana. (On his next two visits, he would stay in the well-known Villa Bertramka in Smichov, which was then pleasant countryside.) On January 19, 1787, he conducted his Symphony in D major, which is now known as the “Prague Symphony.” It was while staying in Prague that Mozart was commissioned to write an opera (Don Giovanni), which he began upon his return to Vienna. Mozart died in 1791, and was thrown into a common grave in a cemetery then outside the city of Vienna. By contrast, the citizens of Prague held a memorial service for him on December 14, 1791, in St. Nicholas´ Cathedral in Malá Strana. Four-thousand mourners attended the event.

Ludwig van Beethoven, now perhaps as famous for his “Immortal Beloved” letters to an unknown woman as for his music, gave two public piano concerts in Prague. The famous letters were written in Teplice, at that time a popular spa town.

Antonio Vivaldi´s opera Argippo premiered in Count Spork´s palace in Prague in the year 1730. For centuries, the music (though not the libretto) was thought to have been lost, until musician Ondřej Macek discovered more than two-thirds of it in Regensburg, Germany, in 2006. Macek completed the music using other arias written by Vivaldi, and on May 3, 2008, Argippo was performed at Prague Castle, the first time it had been performed since 1730.

Franz Liszt often gave concerts in Prague, living in the city from 1840 to 1846. He was a good friend and mentor of Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. In 1847, Smetana asked for, and received, a loan from Liszt that enabled him to open a music school.

Johann Strauss, Sr., on a visit to Prague, was asked by law students to compose a waltz for a ball they were planning. Upon his return to Vienna, he did just that, as reported by the Viennese newspaper Illustrierte Theaterzeitung on December 31, 1845. Another newspaper, Der Wanderer, stated that a waltz titled “Sounds of Moldavia” had premiered in Vienna on January 11, 1846.

Richard Wagner lived in Prague in the 1830s, at the beginning of his career as a composer; his Symphony in C major was performed here.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky made three visits to Prague, two of them in 1888. From January 31 to February 12 of that year, he conducted two concerts of his works, as well as meeting with prominent Czech musicians, including Antonín Dvořák. From November 15 – 25, he oversaw the Czech premiere of his opera Evgenii Onegin, the first time the opera had been performed outside Russia. His only further visit, from September 30 to October 12, 1892, was to attend the premiere of the opera The Queen of Spades.

Polish composer Frederic Chopin had a special affinity for the Czechs. Not only did he have relatives in the country, but his first music teacher was Czech. The country has amply repaid him by launching the Year of Chopin in October 2009, including a performance at Prague Castle of Mozart´s Requiem (performed at Chopin´s funeral, by his own request). The composer´s first visit to Bohemia came in 1829, when he visited Prague and Teplice, giving a command performance at the famous spa town. Chopin was to visit Teplice three more times, the last time in 1836.

And, of course, there are Czech composers:

Bedřich Smetana. Unable to earn much money from his music (or from his school of music), Smetana´s life was overshadowed by the deaths of three of his four daughters within the space of two years, then the death of his wife three years later. It was not until 1866 when fortune smiled upon 42-year-old Smetana with the enthusiastic response to his opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia. His next work, The Bartered Bride, was also successful. Smetana is also famous, of course, as the composer of Má Vlast. Like Beethoven, he suffered from deafness later in life, but continued to compose music. He died of syphilis-related complications in 1884, and was buried in the cemetery at Vyšehrad.

Antonín Dvořák moved to Prague at the age of 16, where he studied music. He became a member of the National Theatre´s orchestra in 1861, remaining there for ten years (under the occasional leadership of Smetana). His work was admired by none other than Johannes Brahms, leading to a close friendship between the two musicians. Dvořák went from strength to strength, becoming a professor of composition at the Prague Conservatory, traveling to London to conduct his music, receiving an honorary degree from Cambridge University and serving as the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. It was here that he wrote his most famous work, From the New World. After his return to Prague and the Conservatory, he composed the beloved Rusalka. He is also buried in the cemetery at Vyšehrad.

Leoš Janáček studied not only in Prague, but in Vienna and Leipzig. He was a native of Moravia, and spent most of his life in Brno, founding a college for organists there in 1881; he ran this college until 1920. Like Smetana, Janáček experienced more than one tragedy. His son Vladimír died at the age of two, and his daughter Olga died shortly after her father completed the score to his opera Jenůfa (which he played for her just four days before her death). His operas premiered in Brno before being performed in Prague; Jenůfa didn´t win wide acclaim until it was shown in Prague in 1915, eleven years after its Brno premiere. Janáček himself – now in his 50s – became famous as a result. He died in 1928.

Bohuslav Martinů studied music in his hometown of Policka as a child; when he was sixteen, his mother took him to Prague to meet with music experts. Later that year, he entered the Prague Conservatoire. However, Martinů began failing his exams by the end of his second year and eventually dropped out. He maintained an intense schedule of attending concerts, studying, and composing, with his works being performed in Prague. After World War I, Martinů joined the Czech Philharmonic as second violinist, composing a piece titled Czech Rhapsody that was performed by the orchestra in 1919. Martinů then took the opportunity to study with composer Albert Roussel in Paris; during this period (1935) he was awarded a Czechoslovak State Prize for his opera Hry o Marií. When World War II exploded, Martinů went first to Switzerland, then the United States, arriving in 1941. Eventually returning to Switzerland, he died there in 1959.

Jan Jakub Ryba was born in Přeštice, near Pilsen, the son of an organist and composer. In 1780, he came to Prague to study music; an admirer of Mozart´s, he conducted a performance of The Marriage of Figaro here. In 1784, he took a job as a teacher in Nepomuk. He was soon fired from this position, and spent some time wandering from place to place, eventually taking another teaching job in Rožmitál pod Třenšínem. It was here that he met his wife, Anna; the couple had nine children. Though the school flourished under his guidance, he was frequently in conflict with the town pastor and council. 1796 was the year in which he wrote his most famous work, Hej, mistr, still often played at Christmas. In 1815, Ryba´s body was found in the woods; he had cut his throat with a razor. He was buried in a plague cemetery near Rožmitál pod Třenšínem.

Pictured up top: Left – Bedřich Smetana; center – Bohuslav Martinů; right – Antonín Dvořák

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