Special The magic of Czech Christmas music

26-12-2008 | David Vaughan

If any country in the world is home to the Christmas carol, it has to be the Czech Republic. The tradition of carolling goes back centuries, and Czech Christmas music is a wonderfully rich mixture of spiritual, secular, classical and folk traditions. So for this special programme, we take you on a journey into the world of Czech Christmas music. In order to enjoy this programme fully, you need to hear the music. Just click on the “listen” icon. But even if you are not able to listen, you can read a transcript of part of my interview with a person who is a walking encyclopedia on the history of Czech Christmas music. Daniel Špička has been interested in Czech “early music” for many years, yet by profession he is an architect…

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“Yes, I’m an architect, and from the 70s I was very much interested in building early instruments. That took me to the early music sources and to playing it.”

So literally the architecture of music…

“Yes, exactly.”

In what ways has Christmas changed here over the last four decades?

“Well, I still remember my very early Christmases at the end of the war – and then, of course, when the communists came to power they wanted to wipe off the Christian character of Christmas. In those days churches sometimes had to be closed because of drunken hooligans who came to the Midnight Masses. People started to react against this by going back to the roots, reading about 17th, 18th and 19th century ways Christmas was celebrated in a simple way.”

“The symbol of the so-called communist Christmas was “Děda Mraz” – Grandfather Frost – from Russia. In fact he looked very similar to Santa Claus. No offence to Santa Claus, but he is the same sort of figure, while the Little Jesus [Ježíšek] who traditionally brings the presents to Czech children is above them, because you can’t see him. He is magic, mythical, and that I think is a great thing and great difference.”

Of course that makes it harder to secularize or to materialize the Czech tradition of the Infant Jesus, doesn’t it?

“Absolutely.”

You’ve spoken about returning to earlier traditions, and this applies to Czech Christmas music too. One of the very interesting figures from the Czech musical tradition, from whose work people have drawn considerably, is the 17th century composer, Karel Václav Holan Rovenský. He collected Christmas music, didn’t he?

“Yes, he collected in his big ‘cantional’, which is a book full of music and tunes and texts, called Capella Regia Musicalis from 1693. In it he collected all sorts of things – not just Christmas music but Easter music, music for Advent and other tunes even from neighbouring countries.”

And so subsequent generations have been able to draw from the music that he collected.

“Yes, it’s quite easy even to read the manuscript and use it for playing.”

One thing that fascinates me is that the Czech Christmas musical tradition goes back so much further even than the 17th century. There is plenty of evidence of Czech Christmas carols being sung way back in the 14th century.

“Yes, a Benedictine monk from Prague’s Břevnov Monastery, Jan z Holešova, in the 14th century described seven things about celebrating Christmas, which in fact are extremely interesting, because when you read them, not many things have changed since then – which is incredible. Six hundred years ago people are celebrating Christmas in a similar way as we do now.”

“He tells us that on Christmas Eve people are fasting all day, but what is more interesting is that he says that some people ‘under the reign of the Devil’ do not fast. They over-eat, they get drunk and gamble. So not much has changed! And then he says that it is a time of generosity, and even cattle and trees get something from the Christmas table. Even the poorest farmer tries to give the best things to his family. At the time people would eat more fruit, which symbolizes the fact that God gave us his most noble fruit, Jesus Christ. People would make white bread – to this day we have ‘vánočka’, a special Christmas baked bread. At Christmas people would give each other nice presents, sometimes special scents or herbs. So even a poor person would give presents to others. And then, of course, he mentions carols. He names them in Latin, but says that they are sung in the ‘home language’, which means in Czech or Moravian Czech.”

Another thing that I find fascinating in the Czech Christmas musical tradition is the way that traditions of church music and secular music, of folk music and classical music, overlap a lot. There does not seem to be a strict divide. You see this a great deal in the 18th century Moravian tradition of nativity plays known as ‘pastorelles’.

“You are right. The Christmas pastorelles that you mention are a description of the shepherds going to Bethlehem with their carols, with their bagpipes, with their wooden trumpets or instruments which shepherds usually played outside, and they are incorporated into artistic music. The pastorelles were played in the church and the folk musicians all took part - everybody who knew how to play an instrument or sang, and you can often hear bagpipes or other pastoral instruments.”

Probably the most celebrated carol in the Czech Republic to this day is Narodil se Kristus Pán – Christ the Lord is Born. It’s a very old carol, isn’t it?

“They say it is from the 13th century. It was a Latin tune. The tune may be related to some other Central European tunes, but it is very distinctive. There are several versions in various ‘cantionals’ from the 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries, and it is interesting how it is still the same carol, though the tune may differ a bit.”

How do you traditionally celebrate Christmas?

“Well, we try not to get drunk before midnight! No, I’m joking! We have fish soup. We have carp - or another fish because we are not mad about carp – with potato salad and then we have masses of Christmas cookies. There are family recipes for the cookies. In our family they go back to the early 19th century. Sometimes they are very difficult to make, but people love this and exchange recipes and so on.”

And this, of course, is all on the evening of Christmas Eve. It’s not like in most of the English-speaking world where Christmas is celebrated on the 25th.

“Yes. And then we go sometimes to the Midnight Mass, trying to find the best performance of the Ryba Christmas Mass…”

… which again is a very famous Czech Christmas Mass by Jakub Jan Ryba (1765-1815), which we have not had time to talk about today.

Daniel Špička, architect, early music specialist and musician, thank you very much for joining us today.

“Thank you for having me.”

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