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Feature: A postcard from Prague

02/12/2018

Stuart Reed writes:

Most amateur classical musicians in Solent area have played works by Dvorak, Smetana, Mozart and Beethoven. So what a treat it is to be where some of these great composers’ most treasured possessions reside.

The temperature is minus five in Prague during the late morning. The queue outside the newly opened Czech National Museum stretches right around the huge building which dominates Wenceslas Square. It’s free admission because the museum is not quite finished. Hundreds of people are shuffling along like Antarctic penguins for two hours before they reach the warmth of the main door and the lavish interior.

The Museum was built in 1818 but suffered bombing and looting by the Nazis in World War Two. In 1968 the neo-classical façade was sprayed with Soviet heavy machine gun fire. Almost fully restored to its former glory, the Museum is now resplendent both inside and out.

Among the Museum’s fourteen million exhibits are original scores of works by Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak and Smetana. Armoured glass prevents visitors from touching them but they are almost within arms’ length. The composer’s handwritten margin remarks and minor changes are there for all to see. It’s a fanciful idea but it’s almost like being in the presence of greatness.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart loved Prague. The audiences loved him too. He wrote the Prague Symphony (Number 38) on his first visit in 1787. He also played the piano around the city and the Bohemians feted him like a superstar.

Ludwig van Beethoven lived for a while in the House of Three Violins, down by the River Vltava just below Prague Castle. He loved the city too. From the keyboard, in 1787 he premiered his Piano Concerto Number 1 in C major. Among the bits and bobs found among his possessions in Prague is a rather incriminating letter which reads like he’s dumping someone he was in love with. It was never delivered.

Antonin Dvorak was born near Prague in 1841. He studied at the city’s organ school and played the viola in the Bohemian Provisional Theatre Orchestra. But his most famous work, the Symphony from the New World, was written in America.

The River Vltava flows through the centre of Prague. A chilly cruise on this waterway prompts the visitor to think of Bedrich Smetana. He wrote a tone poem about it in his major work Ma Vlast (My Homeland). By 1874 Smetana was completely deaf but he just kept on writing music full of Czech national fervour.

Since time began warring tribes have had their go at suppressing the Czechs. The Austrians, Hungarians, Germans and Russians have all tried and failed. The Czechs, like their National Museum, are born survivors.

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