Má Vlast: Memories from Prague

Music is powerful. There is absolutely no denying or arguing that. Music can transport us across the world, unite strangers and countrymen, evoke powerful emotions and help us relive special memories. MSO’s (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra) concert of Smetana’s ‘Má Vlast,’ conducted by Maestro Jakub Hrůša did all of this and more. Although the piece is titled ‘My Country/My Fatherland,’ the passion and energy of Jakub Hrůša invited all of us in Hamer Hall to become one with the music. With his sweeping, inclusive gestures he granted us the rare privilege to close our eyes and imagine we too were in the beautiful old streets of Prague. Through the MSO he said, “Czech-Republic is my country but for the next 70 minutes it is yours too.”

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And many of us accepted this invitation without hesitation. One patron chatted to me for 20 minutes post show, telling me although her husband of 66 years was no longer with us, for those 70 minutes he was right back beside her. They were back at the castle, back by the banks of the river and back in the small church where they stumbled across a string quartet mid afternoon.

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For me, Smetana’s music so adequately captured my experience in Prague with my Granma. My favourite line from Dante’s ‘Commedia’ is “Siena me fa,” or “Siena made me.” I believe that not only our home city, but every city we visit ‘makes’ us in some way.

‘Vyšehrad’ starts with the harps, soft and sweet and full of promise. My Granma and I were so excited about going to Prague; this place we imagined to be a city lifted from the pages of a fairytale. It certainly was. The castle on the hill, the cobblestone streets and horses and carts at every corner made me feel like I had travelled back in time. The introduction of the strings in ‘Vyšehrad’ creates a melodic harmony that captures the feeling we were in that fairytale. The crescendo that builds up to the first cymbal is like the anticipation we felt after we dropped our bags at the hotel and headed to explore.

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Our excitement grew and grew and suddenly BANG! Just like the cymbal there we were! Everywhere we turned there was another surprise. Cymbal! Astronomical Clock. Cymbal! Old Town Hall! Cymbal! Old Town Square. The rumbling drums echoed our footsteps as we headed towards Charles Bridge. Bang! The bridge! Bang! The church! Bang! The river! Prague is a proud city and I felt it proclaiming its glory, beauty and vibrant history at every turn. If at any moment you forget where you are, all you need to do is look up at the castle, which has no qualms shouting loud and clear, “I am here and I am glorious!” I felt this pride and glory in the trumpets. There is no solo and they are not a constant presence throughout the piece, but they are there every now and then to remind you the city is as strong and steadfast as this poem’s namesake: Vyšehrad.

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The second poem ‘Vltava’ or ‘Moldau’ starts with flutes and clarinets portraying the two sources of the river respectively. I felt they also represent my Granma and I. We come from different backgrounds and are two different people but in Prague, just like the two streams, we came together to become a team, ready to encounter challenges and delights together. As these streams come together Smetana himself says they “journey through the woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmers wedding is celebrated,” and the see “the round dance of the mermaids in the nights moonshine.” As I listened to the strains of the polka I vividly recalled the live folklore music that was played as we ate at a traditional Czech restaurant. We both ate fresh fish that could have so easily been caught by fisherman at the Vltava’s edge. After the first mouthful I turned to Granma and said, “It’s just like how mum cooks fish. I’ve been away four weeks and this is the closest thing to a home cooked dinner I’ve had. It’s just like being at home.” We could have been at Smetana’s farmers house with such a homely meal and friendly Evzen, our hospitable waiter, who kept pouring us beer could have been the farmer. Or maybe the farmer’s son as he was very young, tall, dark and handsome. On second thought maybe he was neither as at the end we were given a hefty bill, as we had no idea that unlike in Australia, the salt, pepper, oil, butter, pretzels and water on our table were not free but carried an additional charge if you indulged. I would like to think Smetana’s farmer would have been kind enough to give us a few free granules of pepper with our meal.

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We had a good dance after dinner and then let our high spirits carry us to Charles Bridge. We admired the bridge in moonlight (ok, admittedly it was streetlight but a girl can dream) and were greeted by more music. This time it was a busking violinist. Charles Bridge has a different atmosphere at night. It’s like the river has washed away the crowds and chaos from the day, leaving it calm, peaceful and magical. I skipped over the bridge and twirled round and round the ornate streetlights. All of Granma’s pictures are fuzzy and if you squint you could pretend my blurry outline was one of Smetana’s water nymphs, who has risen from the Vltava onto the bridge.

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Smetana’s next poem is Šárka. The steady tempo that symbolizes her lover Ctriad and his men approaching the fiery maiden reminded me of the constant clip-clop of horse’s hooves echoing on the cobblestones. We treated ourselves to a horse and carriage ride around the city one sunny afternoon. Ctriad is smitten by Šárka’s beauty and falls hopelessly in love with her and the same could be said for the horses and I. I felt like royalty as I sat in my carriage and trotted past all the peasants on foot.

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Of course, so many love stories end in tragedy. That same day Granma and I had a fight. The morning sun started to recede and dark clouds rolled into replace them. And they rolled in quickly. Suddenly we were in the middle of a violent summer storm and we were drenched.

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Just like Šárka blows her horn to signal her maidens to come out and attack Ctriad’s men, the clash of thunder seemed to release harsh words from both of us. I think it was the remnants of tension from the day before when we ended up on a slow 8-hour regional train from Berlin. Granma had a fantastic time as people took pity on her and so she ended up with a comfortable seat and got drunk with Irish backpackers. Meanwhile I was jammed between the door of the smelly toilet cubicle, a pile of luggage and the door of the train where the sun shone through and burnt me. Our cruel words to each other and our fiery tempers matched Šárka’s maidens. Our words cut, just like their swords cut the poor men to pieces. Luckily we didn’t murder each other!

‘Z českých luhů a hájů’ brings peace back to ‘Ma Vlast‘ and the Czech countryside definitely brought peace back to Granma and I. All the instruments in this poem combine to give smooth melodies and the feeling of a hymn. Gazing and admiring the Czech countryside certainly makes you want to sing in praise for such breathtaking scenery. I closed my eyes during this poem and remembered the peace I felt as after exploring St Vitus and Prague Castle. Afterwards, Granma and found a bench overlooking the river and the fields and just sat and enjoyed the warm sun.

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7 minutes into this movement, the tempo becomes lively again, and as I listened my face lit up with a cheeky grin. This part would have to correspond to when I, being too cowardly, made Granma go into a shop and buy me Absinthe ice-cream so I could pretend to be a suave Bohemian artist.

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The percussion starts again and the music suddenly has a dynamic quality to it. By now we are back in the old town square and it is buzzing. Maybe everyone had absinthe for lunch. There are people laughing and talking and children squealing in delight. There are so many foreign languages and I like to think each instrument is representative of a language. When they all come together they create a vibrant, sometimes chaotic but mostly cohesive refrain.

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Tábor and Blaník complete Má Vlast. These two poems emphasize the struggles and triumphs of the Hussites and of the country. My words cannot do this history justice. All I can say is by visiting buildings and reading books I perhaps cannot fully understand the turmoil endured by these people but I certainly am empathetic. What I can say is this message is empowering. I love the message that despite adversity there is hope and there can be triumph. A bit like travel I guess. There are days you will want to give up. In Prague there were many moments like this for me. I was about to end my trip with my Granma and embark on my 6-week backpacking expedition with my friend. I was terrified. Surely there would be no way two 19 year old girls could get themselves around Europe in one piece? And I was devastated this incredible experience with my Granma was coming to an end. I don’t many people that can say they travelled and had an absolute blast with their Granma. But perhaps the most emotive part of this section for me is the call and echo of a shepherd’s boy’s pipe. The boy, who I like to think of as Prague, called out to me and I responded. This city called to me to come and visit, no, not just visit, embrace and immerse myself in its history and culture and I did. It called me to make special memories with my Granma and I did. I like to think that just as a city ‘makes’ us as Dante says, we too can make our mark on a city. Or in light of this incredible piece of music, I like to think somehow I left a sound, one note in Prague. And Prague, in the music of my life, you definitely left a note in my heart.

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Smetana didn’t compose Ma Vlast for a young girl and her Granma and I bet Maestro Hrůša had no idea what vivid memories and emotions he was conjuring in the mind of an usher in the circle as he stood in front of the MSO. But I would like to thank him and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for letting me relive my magical week in Prague. Thank you Smetana and Hrůša for allowing me to experience in person and in music Your Home.

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