Classical music fans are gearing up for one of the most prestigious events in the cultural calendar – the Prague Spring International Music Festival, which gets underway on Thursday evening. Founded in 1946, as a newly-liberated Czechoslovakia was emerging from six years of war and Nazi occupation, the festival has survived communist dictatorship and the commercial pressures of capitalism to remain the country’s preeminent classical music festival.
Bedřich Smetana’s Má Vlast, or My Country, the famous cycle of symphonic poems that kicks off the Prague Spring each year. This particular performance is rather special – it was conducted in 1990 by Rafael Kubelík, one of the two musicians who founded the festival way back in 1946, shortly after the liberation from Nazi Germany. Kubelík left Czechoslovakia when the Communists came to power shortly afterwards, saying he’d lived through one form of tyranny and had no desire to live through another.
Rafael Kubelík had to wait four decades to return to his homeland. Arthritis had forced him to retire from conducting in the 1980s, but he came out of retirement for the 1990 festival – the first after the fall of communism – to conduct this triumphant performance of Má Vlast. The Prague Spring, in other words, is a festival with a lot of history. Alena Svobodová is the head of public relations:
“The festival was always a top festival in the Czech Republic, and the main task for it was that it was a connection between east and west, also after war and the communist time.”
“The festival is conservative, and I think it’s really good that it stayed conservative, because it’s something that is already well-known, people know it as a conservative festival, and I think the festival should keep this tradition. It is always a festival mostly of classical music, even if there are some jazz and pop concerts, but otherwise most of the concerts are classical.”
There will also be a gala performance of Gustav Mahler’s monumental 8th symphony, to mark the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death. Mahler is often described as a ‘German’ composer, and indeed German was his mother tongue. But he was actually born here in the Czech Republic, the son of a Jewish coachman, in a little village in Bohemia. So what was Mahler? Czech, German or Jewish? Petr Brod is a journalist with a keen interest in Czech-German history:
“Many people in this country could not really declare themselves unilaterally, so to speak, or specifically to be either Czechs or Germans or Jews. For many, these identities intermingled. They were immersed both in German and in Czech culture and they just couldn’t decide for themselves whether they were Germans or Czechs.”
That’s not entirely out of step with the ethos of the Prague Spring itself. While the festival was certainly conceived as a way of showcasing Czech composers, it was also the culmination of the efforts of countless Prague musicians – regardless of whether they spoke Czech or German – united in their love of classical music, from Martinů to Mozart to Mahler.