Geoffrey Chew: fond memories of Brno in the 1960s

Geoffrey Chew has spent many years studying Czech music. He was born in South Africa, but has lived in Britain for most of his life, lecturing in music at the University of London. As a student in the early 1960s, just as the political thaw was beginning in Czechoslovakia, he spent a year in the old city of Brno on a British Council scholarship. It was there that he fell in love with the work of the great Czech composer, Leos Janacek, who spent most of his life in the city. A couple of weeks ago Geoffrey Chew was back there again, for an international Janacek conference. I took the opportunity to catch up with him, and ask him about his memories of Brno then, and impressions of the city today.

Geoffrey ChewGeoffrey Chew "I originally intended to do most of my research in Prague, and arrived in Prague in the midst of the preparations for the 'Spartakiada' [a huge gymnastics event that was held every five years], which was going on that year. Therefore there was no accommodation to be had anywhere in Prague. So one of the other exchange students, whom I knew, had just arrived from Brno and said he was sure that his landlady would be very happy to accommodate me. As I arrived on her doorstep without warning, this didn't please her too much, but she gave me accommodation just the same for the best part of a year. And I had this amazing part of an apartment, which had been beautifully furnished in the '30s and more or less left ever since. So it was a bit like living in a film set, with a piano and a stove, burning the terrible grey coal which you used to have to buy then, which meant that you had the choice when it was cold weather of either asphyxiating or freezing. There I lived for the best part of that year, and used to go every day to the archive. I walked every day up to the Janacek Museum."

"I was on a South African passport, and in fact I've got a press cutting from the newspaper Lidova demokracie from those years, which has all the details about me. I had a landlady in any case, who told me quite soon after I arrived, that - of course - I did realize that she had to submit reports on me to the police at regular intervals, and would I please feed her with juicy things to say and keep anything that was dangerous out of her sight? Most of the foreign students used to pass through her hands one way or another because she spoke about four languages. She was constantly being harassed by the police on that account."

So basically, she was a police informer, but a nice police informer.

"A nice cop rather than a nasty cop... yes, I'd say so."

Was there still a post-war atmosphere - especially given that Brno, like many other parts of Moravia, was a part of the country where ethnic Germans had been thrown out after the war?

BrnoBrno "I never noticed it in Brno. I had noticed it in other parts of the country, where later I went to visit places that had been depopulated through the Sudeten Germans being thrown out, but in fact left pretty much depopulated. I remember going into some church, up towards the Polish border - I can't remember exactly where it was now - Jesenik probably. It had been turned into a furniture repository, or something like that, but there were still all the German-language things lying around in some disarray, with huge amounts of dust on them."

Have you kept in touch with people from that time?

"A lot of people of my age from that time left in 1968 or later. I've certainly kept up with some of those, and kept up also with some of the English and American students who were here then. There was an older generation of people, whom I met, people who had been adults in the '30s and who had been traumatized by the Stalinist years and suddenly realized that it was possible for westerners to come in again, because these were the years of the thaw. People were delighted to see foreigners coming, even stupid, raw, inexperienced foreigners like me. I remember talking to people who had been leftists in the '30s and had thought that everything was going to be great, but were very eager to say in the mid '60s that they were thoroughly disillusioned by what had happened in the early '50s."

And what about your relationship to Czech music?

"I love it. I've got the sort of sentimental attachment to this country and its culture that a surprising number of people do seem to have. It's probably far too uncritical."

Also there seems to be a British love-affair with Janacek.

"People love it, but again I remember coming to London as an 18-year-old in the late '50s and finding Janacek on concert programmes very much as a novelty, very much as somebody who nobody had heard or come to terms with, and it was a very limited number of pieces as well. I think Janacek had some difficulty getting accepted in Britain. The reception in the '30s was pretty uncomprehending."

And what about other Czech composers?

"Well, I don't think anybody in the West knows much outside, Smetana, Dvorak, Martinu and Janacek. Suk is just about heard of, but there isn't much else that is known. To be honest I think that there is a whole area of Czech music, particularly from the beginning of the 20th century, which Czechs too don't listen to or know much about - quite unjustifiably, because I think there's some wonderful stuff there."

You're in Brno now for an international conference on Leos Janacek. What are your impressions, being back more or less exactly forty years after you first came here? Is it still the same Brno you knew?

"Brno stays the same, and I have to say that having McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken in the city doesn't really alter the general way in which the city is still - unlike almost any other city I can think of - a compact unit, where people know each other and essentially the musical life - the people that I know are not a representative cross-section of Brno in any way - but still they know each other. A lot of the people who were active in the '60s are still there, there is a proud sense of continuity, which Brno has. It reminds me a bit of Manchester, except that Brno is smaller and therefore more friendly and more cozy - although cozy isn't quite the word that I'd choose. And somehow or other, the dumbing-down of Prague that's happened, the overrunning of the place with tourists, hasn't affected Brno in the same way at all. It's true, of course, that there are more cars around, and nearly all prices have gone up, but on the whole it's very recognizably what it was then. There are some peculiar idiosyncrasies which it had then and doesn't have now - it's nice to have traffic lights that work automatically, without having to have someone to turn them on and off all the time - but the railway station is the same - the trains used to run well then and they still run well now. It's very recognizably the same, I'd say."