In this week's Mailbox: the winning entry to Radio Prague's annual competition!

27-06-2004

This week's Mailbox is special because the time has come to announce the winner of the 2004 Radio Prague competition, the question to which was "What does Czech music mean to you and why?"

The lucky winner is:

Helmut Matt from Herbolzheim, Germany.

Congratulations, from all of us here at Radio Prague. And here's the winning entry:

What piece of Czech music has made the greatest impression on me?

What musical piece of work of a Czech artist impressed me? I really can't answer this question without compiling an entire list of works: there would be Antonin Dvorak's symphonies, his Slavonic Dances, or his beautiful Cello Concerto. Janacek's Jenufa or his fascinating Glagolitic Mass also belong to the highlights of Czech music. But I do not want to bore readers with a tiring litany. I should take a closer look at this question. So, what work of a Czech composer has impressed me the most? This question cannot be answered without long reflection. But, since I have to make a decision, it will be Smetana's Vltava from the My Homeland cycle. But let me note that the works of the great Antonin Dvorak are equally deserving, and I have to apologise to Dvorak for not choosing his Symphony No. 9, another favourite of mine, or the wonderfully melodic Cello Concerto or the fiery Slavonic Dances.

VltavaVltava Many of you who are reading these lines must be wondering whether I'm serious: how can one raise such a relatively "minor" and "simple" piece of music to the level of the Czech "musical-Olympus" and at the same time simply ignore more sophisticated works by Smetana and other composers? A good question to ask and it's probably true. However, the decision has been made and I will stand by it: Smetana's Vltava was the first piece by a Czech composer I ever heard. I remember the experience to this day, when - at a very young age - I heard the magical melody spellbound and quite beside myself. Although I probably did not understand the whole dimension of the work at the time I was moved and full of respect for the deep impression its musical beauty leaves. Only Mozart's Magic Flute, Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, and Wagner's Parsifal had a similar effect on me, the latter not until many years later. I think it's no coincidence that there are only few pieces of music around the world that have made it to such a high degree of fame and to such popularity as this brilliant work by Smetana.

Today, three decades after this unusual encounter, I still love this extremely melodic, warm and folk-inspired piece. There are surely only a few people who are not familiar with Vltava. Nevertheless, I should say a few more words about it: it describes in fine, sensitive, softly intertwining musical pictures the course of the Vltava, the great river of Bohemia - the composer's homeland. From the softly trickling source, the river takes its course, accompanied by strings and woodwind players, feeling the movements of the roaring waves. The Vltava theme swells up with might until rejoicing violins and woodwind accompany the great river through the marvellous Bohemian land. On its way to the beautiful city of Prague, the Vltava passes many scenes and witnesses events that mirror themselves in wonderful pastoral melodies. One hears sounds of hunting horns or a cheerful farm wedding. Especially enchanting is the musical description of a clear night as background for the sounds of diving nymphs. After a partially dramatic course over wild rapids, the river finally reaches its destination - the city of Prague. In its unique way, the Vltava tune bursts into song in a bright major tone as it reaches the "Golden City" and the Castle, which the Vltava passes as a peaceful, wide, and proud river. The Visegrad theme that emerges from another of the tone-poems in the same cycle, emphasising the deep feeling of Czech national pride that characterises the piece.

Vltava is an expression of a musical movement that can also be labelled as "national music". It embodies the waking national consciousness of the Czech people after centuries of Habsburg rule. I am fascinated by the beauty of the melody and the way that the piece is rooted in Czech consciousness. Like the other compositions in the My Homeland cycle, Vltava portrays the pride and deep identity of the artist with his Bohemian homeland. It is especially evident from the radiating and festive arrival of the Vltava River in Prague.

In my view, Smetana's Vltava epitomises Bohemian music while it is also a musical example of the Czech musical genius. Now I hope it is clear why, despite initial hesitation and uncertainty, I chose this work and no other. It was the only choice I could have made.

 

Don't forget that we've also got a monthly competition that's still underway. You can win a free CD if you send us the correct answer to the following question: "There will be nine anniversaries in June. Of the musicians commemorated, who was born exactly one hundred years ago?"

Please get your answers to us by June 30th. Send them to the Radio Prague English Section, 120 99 Prague 2, the Czech Republic or by e-mail to english@radio.cz

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