Some enter the life of a country through its architectural monuments, some through its natural beauty, some through its history. I appreciate all three, but also like to look at its list of famous artists, writers, scientists and such. And the Czech list is impressive.
Take music. The Czech were well-known as “natural musicians” and in Mozart’s time, there was extensive formal music education for children. Mozart loved Prague because they loved him, giving The Marriage of Figaro a much more enthusiastic reception than stuffy old Vienna did and paying him well to compose Don Giovanni which premiered in Prague. He also wrote The Prague Symphony in homage to a place that adored him so openly.
The list of composers of Czech lineage (some lived elsewhere) includes Gluck, Hummel, Czerny, Smetana, Dvorak, Janacek and Mahler, a German Jew born in Bohemia. Smetena, Dvorak and Janacek probably best captured a unique national style drawing from the rhythms and melodies of the folk music of Bohemia and Moravia, the two cultural regions of the Czech Republic. Walking around the touristed Charles Bridge area, there are daily concerts featuring both these Czech composers, Mozart and Vivaldi.
Walking across the Charles Bridge, you’re likely to hear some snappy jazz being played and indeed, jazz is quite popular, with 9 jazz clubs in Prague alone. Our first night, we went to the Reduta Club and heard a college band play some impressive modern jazz mixed with Earth, Wind and Fire songs. This was the club where Bill Clinton once sat in on sax! Louis Armstrong came to Prague in 1965 and sold out 9 days of big concerts. Internationally, the bassists Miraslav Vitous and George Mraz are well known while locally there is a high level of jazz interest and virtuosity.
Politically, the Czech Republic has had many incarnations, sometimes part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then connected with Slovakia as Czechoslovakia, then separated again. Throughout though is the clear sense of two distinct regions—Bohemia and Moravia. Intrigued by the association of Bohemians with Greenwich Village counter-culture types, I turned to trusty Wikipedia to discover that the use of that word to describe starving artists came about in France in the mid-1800’s. It borrowed from the notion of the gypsies in Bohemia:
“Both groups are known for their vagabond lifestyle, for their merry poverty, for their disregard of money for the pursuit of music, color, and relationships. A Bohemian is one who lives a vagabond, unregimented life without assured resources, who does not worry about tomorrow. "
Balzac wrote "This word 'boheme' is self-explanatory. Bohemia possesses nothing, yet contrives to exist on that nothing. Its religion is hope; its code, faith in itself; its income, in so far that it appears to have one, charity."
Moravia was (and is) a different place culturally and produced such luminaries as the radical educator Comenius, the genetic scientist Mendel, the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, the author Milan Kundera and the immigrant model who should have been registered or deported or walled out, Ivana Trump.
Finally, there’s Franz Kafka and then the remarkable Vaclev Havel, first president after the fall of Communism. Along with W.B. Yeats and Pablo Neruda, one of the few poets to also serve in political office.
That’s today’s lesson. There will be a test. But for now, this California Bohemian more interested in “music, color and relationships then money,” whose “religion is hope and code, faith in oneself,” who after 21 days of teaching is enjoying an “unregimented life” is ready to wander aimlessly around Prague, praying it doesn’t rain today.