Music Post: Prague rocks the classics

dvorak

Classical music was a more or less unified concept through the Baroque and Classical periods. The idea that your music would be distinctive if you came from a particular country did not really take hold until halfway through the 1800s.

Some cities did have reputations long before that as sources of musical expertise: it was hip in London and Paris to have been trained in Italy, and Handel’s brief Italian sojourn conferred more cachet than his being German did. One of Bach’s sons, “the London Bach,” was also the Catholic Bach, having converted in Italy. The great French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully was actually Italian. Salieri’s Italian roots gave him credibility in the Vienna of Mozart’s day.

It was in Mozart’s day, the late 1700s, that the epicenter of classical music shifted to Vienna, in no small measure because of his switching from Italian to German libretti in his operas, but much more because of the amazing popularity of Joseph Haydn’s symphonies and quartets. After that the epicenter shifted from Italian to German cities – Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was commissioned by the London Philharmonic. Beethoven secured the position, and Schubert after him, and Schumann and Brahms. By Wagner’s time there was a backlash that shifted the center of gravity to Paris, but that’s another story for another day.

The late 1800s saw a new interest in music tinged with the folk music of more exotic locales. Russians went about composing Russian classical music. Edvard Grieg wrote Norwegian classical music. There was Neils Gade the Danish composer and, most popular of the bunch, Antonin Dvorak the Czech composer. But, and this is the topic of this weekend’s program, composers in countries close to Germany and Austria wrote music that was only a little different, was more readily accepted in the core repertory, and is less often showcased as “nationalist” classical music, making it harder to appreciate their impact on Germanic music than might be the case if we made more of an effort to regard them as outside the mainstream.

 

The Czechiness of Dvorak’s music is undeniable, and in fact is easy to hear even in his so-called American works, like the Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” The slow movement may be redolent of a Negro spiritual (Dvorak, teaching in New York, urged his mostly white students to be inspired by American folk music, which to him was the music of plantation workers and Native Americans.) But before Dvorak there was Bedrich Smetana, whose “Moldau” is part of a giant multi-movement symphony suite inspired by Czech landmarks and stories. Zdenek Fibich, a generation younger, actually wrote a Czech tone poem before Smetana did but got less credit because he was half-German.

It is hard, though, to think of these works as lying outside the German mainstream because German orchestras embraced them so, even if Brahms’ publisher insisted on changing Antonin Dvorak’s name to the more German Anton. The same goes for Josef Suk, who married Dvorak’s daughter, while playing in the Vienna Philharmonic. Gustav Mahler was born and raised in Bohemia near the Moravian border but made Vienna his base for so many years that it is invigorating to occasionally listen to his symphonies mindful of his Czech roots, if only geographically.

At the turn of the century the same Prague-and-points-east area gave us Bartok, Kodaly and Janacek, who so influenced 20th century music that we have to make an effort to think of them as nationalists no matter how much their music is spiced by the folk music where they grew up.

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