Professor Graham Melville-Mason - a passion for Czech music

Our guest in this week's One on One is Professor Graham Melville-Mason, an expert in Czech classical music. Professor Melville-Mason is the only non-Czech member of the artistic board of the Prague Spring International Music Festival, and is also head of Britain's Dvorak Society for Czech and Slovak music. A fluent Czech speaker, he's spent decades researching and promoting the work of Czech classical composers. When I interviewed Professor Melville-Mason recently, I began by asking him when his fascination with Czech music began.

"That goes back I suppose originally to my student days in the early 50s, in Edinburgh. Then when I went back to Edinburgh on the staff in 1960, it developed as a research subject. And not many years after that we were joined on the staff at Edinburgh by John Clapham, who was the leading non-Czech authority particularly on Dvorak, so that increased my interest and also helped me in that. And then in 1975 I had a sabbatical year and had a Winston Churchill travelling fellowship, and spent a lot of that time here working in the Czech music archives, and to a certain extent in Bratislava and the Slovak archives as well, and from that time my general musical interests, and certainly my academic and research activities, became almost totally focused on Czech and Slovak music."

I've heard you speak Czech, and you speak Czech fairly fluently. How did you learn?

"I started rather late. When I first came here, in the mid 1970s, the research I was doing was pre-Smetana, most of the material was in German and I had German so that was fine. So the amount of Czech I needed was just to ask for a beer and so on. But after that I started to be greatly interested in Smetana and post-Smetana, and of course from then on nearly everything was in Czech so I needed it, I was coming here more often. So then I started formal study. But of course it wasn't very helpful for conversation. And about that time, my near neighbour in London, Karel Jaromicky, who was head of the BBC World Service Czechoslovak Section, he was also retired and he had a dog he walked every day. So Karel would telephone and say 'Graham, mas cas na prochazku s psem?" and we would set off and talk only Czech. And that was my biggest help and biggest teacher in getting a reasonable degree of fluency in the language."

What would you say sets Czech music apart from other classical music? What makes Dvorak, Smetana, Martinu so special?

"I think all of them, Janacek as well, although he's even more individual, have a certain quality about their music which is identifiable as from this region. We often discuss in conference what is Czechness in Czech music. It's indefinable. But it's there, and one can identify certain things in the use of certain tonalities, certain interval relationships if one wants to be technical. But more generally, there's a broader to feeling to it - you don't have to be a trained musician to identify this. And I think this is what attracts so many people to our Dvorak Society in Britain, which is not just for Dvorak, it's for all Czech and Slovak music. It has about 700 members, and although those of us you might call professionals in Czech music - whether they're musicologists or performers such as Sir Charles Mackerras - are members, we are a very small part of that membership, perhaps 30 or 40 of us. The rest are just ordinary people who love Czech and Slovak music, and particularly Czech music."

So you can hear the Czechness of Czech music. Is that also true of other classical music? Can you hear Russia in Tchaikovsky for example?

"Yes, I think there are elements in Russian music that you can identify, certainly not just with Tchaikovsky but with all the leading Russian composers. Certainly from the 19th century; earlier of course the European music was much more broadly based, so you don't have such fingerprints. With 18th century Czech and Slovak music, it sounds generally like most of what was being written in Europe and certainly Central Europe. But once you come to the middle of the 19th century onwards, when the national feeling was beginning to grow, this translated itself into the music."

I'm speaking to you now in a church next to the offices of the Prague Spring International Music Festival. Tell me about your involvement with the festival.

"The involvement there started immediately after the Velvet Revolution, when obviously the old Communist officials were dismissed, and a new generation of experienced people came in, at the invitation mainly of President Havel to take over these posts. And among them were a number of people who I had developed great friendships with over the previous years, who were then at that time persona non grata with the Communist authorities, and it coincided with the time when I retired from the BBC. Prior to my BBC years, I'd had more than 20 years as a music advisor with the Edinburgh Festival. So Petr Eben - who was the first chairman here, and Oleg Podgorny - who was the first director after 1989 - asked me if I would come and give them help as an advisor. They felt that after 40 years of Communism they were rather out of touch with how things worked in the West, in terms of musicians, the type of contracts they needed, and how the Prague Spring, although it was a well-established festival, should fit in after 1989. So that's how I became involved. I thought it would just be something for a year or two, and here we are 15 years on, and I'm still involved, at their request. Which is very nice for me of course."

So you're the only non-Czech on the board of the Prague Spring.

"Yes, the artistic board, which is chaired by Josef Suk. I'm the only non-Czech on that."

Do you think Czech composers receive the appreciate they deserve outside this country?

"Around the world, that's a broader question. Certainly with certain individual countries, yes. We're fortunate that Britain is one of the countries that has appreciated the leading Czech musicians, without exception, certainly from the latter part of the 19th century. There is something about Czech music generally which seems to appeal to British audiences. I think it's something in our two characters. Certainly there's much greater closeness between British humour and Czech humour, than for example with German humour. And certainly I think our two peoples, whether they're involved in music or not, seem to get on very well together, in spite of the pre-war statements of Neville Chamberlain about this strange land we know nothing about. I think we know an awful lot about it now."