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The Sound of the Czechs

The Sound of the Czechs


686 words
program notes by Chris Myers

What makes music sound "Czech"? This overview of features common to Czech music can be used on its own or in tandem with other notes.

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Originally written for a concert featuring Smetana's The Bartered Bride Overture, Martinů's Sinfonietta La Jolla and Oboe Concerto, and Dvořák's Symphony No. 8.

Copyright © 2016 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

The Sound of the Czechs

In music is the life of the Czechs.
— Bedřich Smetana, laying the cornerstone of the Prague National Theatre

Few societies are prouder of their music than the Czechs. This small population – there are only 10 million native speakers in the world – has had an outsized influence on the history of classical music. Composers ranging from Bach and Beethoven to Wagner and Mahler have expressed their admiration for Czech musicians. This is even more impressive when you realize that the Czechs were subject to foreign rulers who suppressed their national identity for all but 50 of the last 400 years.

After 1620, Bohemia and Moravia (the homelands of the Czech people) were incorporated into the Hapsburg Empire, which promptly instituted a policy of Germanization. Within a few generations, Czech was spoken only by peasants. The language disappeared from the cities and educated classes for nearly two centuries. By 1800, rural migration to cities helped lead to an awakening of national identity and a renewed interest in Czech culture and language. German-speaking Czech artists eagerly sought to develop a culture distinct from that of their imperial rulers, so they consciously and deliberately created a world of Czech art, Czech literature, and Czech music inspired by folk traditions.

But how does music “sound Czech”? Any answer to such a broad question runs the risk of over-generalization, but let’s give it a try. Our concept of music begins with the songs we hear in childhood, most often in our native tongue. Naturally, these take on the rhythms and cadences of the language, and we end up with the clipped rhythmic precision of so much English music or the smooth unaccented flow characteristic of French music. So what about Czech?

The next time you’re eavesdropping in a Prague coffeehouse, you’ll notice that Czech words are always stressed on the first syllable, with secondary stress on alternating syllables. The result is a rhythmic speech pattern in which pairs of sounds with alternating accents (DA-da-DA-da…) are strung together in irregular groups, much like a piece of music with shifting meters. Czechs are well aware of this aspect of their language. “My music is rhythmic because I am Czech,” Bohuslav Martinů once explained. “The national music of the Czechs is rhythm— strong and agile rhythm.”

Rhythmic music, of course, leads to dance. The Czechs claim two dances in particular as their own: the polka and the furiant. The polka needs no introduction; the oom-pah accompaniment is familiar to us all. Though the first references to this dance date to the 1830s, it originated years earlier in Bohemian villages.

The furiant is a quick, energetic dance with strong rhythmic accents. This dance was a particular favorite of Smetana, who wrote one for Act II of The Bartered Bride, and Dvořák, who used it in place of the traditional scherzo as the third movement of his Sixth Symphony. The furiant juxtaposes two- and three-beat gestures within a triple meter (“ONE–two– THREE–one– TWO–three – ONE–two–three”… remember what we said about “shifting meters”?). This rhythmic freedom is typical of Czech music and can be heard in such places as the opening bars of The Bartered Bride Overture or the first movement of Martinů’s Oboe Concerto.

Less quantifiable than these rhythmic elements, but perhaps most apparent to the casual listener, are the hope and love for life that pervade Czech music. This is not to say that sorrow never finds a place, but sadness is typically seen through a worldview suggesting that joy will come in the morning.

Harold Schonberg, the longtime senior music critic for the New York Times, observed that the Czech musical language “is, on the whole, a happy language. When Bohemian composers express melancholy, it is in a delicately engaging way, without the crushing world-weariness and pessimism of the Russians. More often, Bohemian music expresses joy, happiness, dancing, festivals.”

Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik put it more succinctly in a rehearsal of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony: “In Bohemia, the trumpets never call to battle. They always call to the dance.”

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