Prague Spring Festival

pragspringfestival

Prague Spring Festival

Introduction

The modern music festival has its roots in eighteenth-century England in connection with the rich English tradition of performing oratorios and cantatas. From the end of the eighteenth century onwards these then spread to the Continent, organized by opera companies and theatre orchestras and, later, choirs. In the Bohemian Lands from the 1860s festivals of choral societies took place almost every year. Theatre festivals throughout Europe were given a major impetus by Richard Wagner, when, in 1876, he began at the Bayreuth summer theatre to introduce cycles of his own operatic work. The idea of festivals focusing on the works of one composer was adopted by the head of the Leipzig opera, Angelo Neumann, and he organized cycles of works by Mozart in 1880, then Gluck and Wagner in 1882. In August 1885, Neumann took charge of the New German Theatre (Deutsches Landestheater) in Prague, and brought the idea
of series of works by one composer with him. Up to the year 1898 he offered audiences at various times of the year a total of nine festivals, seven of which comprised dramatic works and two comprised musical compositions. In 1899 Neumann decided to establish a fixed date in May for annual festival performances. Between 7 and 28 May 1899 he presented eleven operas by Wagner in the New German Theatre. At the end of the series, on 4 June, selected parts from Wagner’s Parsifal and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony were heard in a performance conducted by Gustav Mahler. They were still performed under the name of the “Wagner-Festspiele.” Not till the next series, in 1900, was it called the “Mai-Festspiele.” The festivals became a showcase of Italian seasonal opera, of outstanding interpreters and whole guest ensembles. They continued to be held until 1913. The Czech National Theatre also adopted first the idea of series of opera by a single composer (the first of which was a Smetana series in the 1893–94 season). The large-scale Czech music festival first appeared with the Czecho-Slav Ethnographical Exhibition: 132 pieces by 42 Czech composers were performed by the Exhibition Orchestra conducted by Karel Kovařovic at the Prague Exhibition Grounds from 15 May to 20 October. The first “Czech Music Festival” of that name was held in April 1904. The principal orchestra was the Czech Philharmonic, but chamber ensembles and huge choruses were also heard. (The Opening Concert was a performance of Dvořák’s Saint Ludmila oratorio with 1,600 singers.) After the First World War, the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), founded in Donaueschingen in 1922, left its mark on the history of Prague festivals. After the isolation of the war years, musicians from twenty countries sought to join forces, and, on an international scale, promoted the inclusion of contemporary compositions in the standard repertoires. The Czechoslovak section offered to organize a festival of contemporary orchestral music in 1924, not only as a platform for new music but also as a visiting-card of the new European state. May was chosen as the month in which to hold it, so that the Festival could follow on from the celebrations marking the Smetana anniversaries on 12 May. The seventeen official concerts and theatre performances took place between 27 May and 7 June 1924. The key role was again played by the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Václav Talich, presenting several orchestral premières. An important part was also played by the New German Theatre in Prague with the world première of Schoenberg’s “monodrama” Erwartung, the German première of Ravel’s L’heure espagnole, described as a “comédie-musicale,” and the first performance of Alexander Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony. The third ISCM Festival was held in the tense atmosphere of Prague in September 1935, with a bellicose Hitler already in power for his second year in neighbouring Germany. By that point the Festival bore the hallmark of a political event, and was seen as such by Czechoslovak politicians who sought to maintain its prestige. Thanks to the self-sacrificing organizers and the ever-ready Czech Philharmonic, the Festival did indeed take place in Prague.

In subsequent years musical festivals took place in an increasingly tense political atmosphere owing to the looming possibility of a German invasion. In 1939, the Prague Musical May Festival (Pražský hudební máj) offered a series of nine concerts and opera performances in the National Theatre. Slovakia soon broke away from the country, becoming a puppet state of Nazi Germany, and after the German invasion in mid-March 1939, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was set up. The Czech Philharmonic and the opera of the National Theatre, together with Václav Talich, performed Dvořák’s Rusalka and Slavonic Dances, Mozart’s Magic Flute, compositions by Suk, Smetana’s My Country, The Bartered Bride, The Secret, and Libuše, and closed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The Prague Musical May Festival inspired the Czech Musical May Festival (Český hudební máj) and in 1940 acted as the umbrella organization for more than 2,300 events throughout the Protectorate. The Smetana anniversaries in 1944 were marked by several hundred concerts and performances throughout the country. The mission of the Prague festivals gradually changed from the original intention of presenting great works of music by superb interpreters into a political statement. In the post-war period they would long play both roles.

 

Jitka Ludvová
Translated from the Czech by Derek Paton

The Czech Philharmonic and the Prague Spring

The Czech Philharmonic has been a key component of the Prague Spring from the very beginning. In 1946 it celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its founding, and decided to mark the occasion by organizing an international festival. The man who initiated the project was Rafael Kubelík, Principal Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic at the time. The first Prague Spring Festival took place from 11 May to 4 June 1946, organized by the Czech Philharmonic alone. Edvard Beneš, President of the Czechoslovak Republic, was Patron of the Festival.

For the Opening Concert, which, unlike later, began on 11 May, Kubelík chose a purely Czech repertoire: Foerster’s Festive Overture, op. 70, Ostrčil’s Calvary, op. 24, and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in d minor, op. 70. Not till the next day, on 12 May, was Smetana’s My Country performed, again with Kubelík. Beginning in 1953, My Country became the fixed opening fanfare of the Festival every year. At the opening of the first Prague Spring Festival the Czech Philharmonic was also put in charge of running the Rudolfinum. The building was renamed the Arts Centre (Dům umělců), as its architects Zítek and Schulz had called it in their plans. Back then, the Czech Philharmonic gave sixteen concerts in which, apart from Kubelík and Jaroslav Krombholc, six foreign conductors also appeared. In subsequent years the Czech Philharmonic began to lose its monopoly. In 1948 the organization of the Festival was taken over by the Czechoslovak Government. The Czech Philharmonic thus became an ordinary ensemble, hired to give a certain number of concerts. After Kubelík emigrated, he became a non-person in the eyes of the régime following the 1948 Prague Spring Festival, which began just weeks after the Communist takeover. Not until the collapse of the Iron Curtain in late 1989 could Kubelík return to his native country. The 1990 Prague Spring became a superb opportunity to pay homage to this legend of conducting. For two unforgettable evenings, in the Smetana Hall on 12 and 13 May 1990, the Czech Philharmonic performed under Kubelík’s direction, and of course on both evenings Smetana’s My Country was heard.

At the Prague Spring the Czech Philharmonic has over the years been conducted by its own Principal Conductors and also by other Czech conductors of repute. These include Alois Klíma, Karel Šejna, Václav Neumann (first in 1949, when he conducted My Country at the Opening Concert, and then regularly from 1969 onwards as Principal Conductor), and Karel Ančerl (Principal Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic from 1950 onwards; by 1969 he had conducted this orchestra in 29 Festival concerts). The fundamental period in the development of the Czech Philharmonic’s art of interpretation is embodied in the person of Václav Talich. He was Principal Conductor in 1919–41 (with the exception of 1931–33, when he was engaged in Sweden), and thus his only two Prague Spring concerts, in 1954, can reasonably be called the swan-song of his work with this orchestra. The next Czech conductors who led the Czech Philharmonic at Prague Spring concerts were Zdeněk Košler, Bohumír Liška, Václav Smetáček, Zdeněk Mácal (first in 1966, but then not until 1996, since he had left the country many years before), Vladimír Válek (first in 1977), František Jílek, František Vajnar, Libor Pešek, and Jiří Bělohlávek. Beginning immediately in the first years of the Prague Spring it became standard practice for the Czech Philharmonic to be led mostly by conductors from abroad. In the 1950s the orientation was predominantly to Soviet artists. Consequently, apart from renowned musicians like Charles Munch, Leonard Bernstein, Ernest Ansermet, and Erich Kleiber, it was mainly conductors from the USSR, who were, however, among the best in the world at that time, thus ensuring that the high-quality of the Festival would be maintained. The famed Evgeny Mravinsky led the Czech Philharmonic in the first two years of the Prague Spring with a twentieth-century Russian repertoire. Among other Soviet artists were Sasha Popov, Konstantin Ivanov, and Kiril Kondrashin. It became, almost automatically, an unwritten rule that the guest conductor or soloist would bring compositions from his or her own country. Audiences thus experienced a number of evenings focused on the music of one country, including English evenings (in 1946, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult), Polish evenings (in 1948, conducted by Zdzisław Górzyński), and French evenings (in 1947, conducted by Charles Munch). At the Prague Spring Festival the Czech Philharmonic tended to go with a traditional repertoire. The main reason was that the programme was dictated by the guest conductors and instrumentalists. It was oriented to music of the nineteenth century or the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Contemporary music was not performed much by the Czech Philharmonic at the Festival, since the orchestra always sought as large an audience as possible and contemporary music was never much of a draw. If something new managed to get on to the Festival programme, it was always, at least until the changes of 1989/90, a work by some senior functionary in the Union of Composers. Later, apart from works by Václav Dobiáš, Jiří Pauer, Lubomír Železný, and Jan Seidl, compositions by, among others, Petr Eben, Vladimír Sommer, Pavel Bořkovec, Ilja Hurník, Viktor Kalabis, Jindřich Feld, Jan Hanuš, Zdeněk Lukáš, and Karel Husa were also heard here. An impressive list!
The Czech Philharmonic, which has given more than 360 concerts at the Festival, far more than any other orchestra, is quite obviously an integral part of the Prague Spring.

Robert Škarda
Translated from the Czech by Derek Paton

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