Friday, November 06, 2009

Sunday Classics preview: Before "Prague Spring" was a political reawakening, it was a music festival


KUBELIK COMES HOME: In 1990 Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996), already in retirement for five years because of debilitating physical ailments, set foot on Czechoslovak soil for the first time since 1948, and was reunited with the Czech Philharmonic, of which he had been principal conductor at the time of his exile. Honoring tradition, they opened the Prague Spring festival, of which Kubelik had been one of the founders, with Smetana's epic cycle of symphonic poems, Má Vlast (My Country). Here they play the first 7:07 of the beloved second movement, Vltava (The Moldau); you can find the concluding 4:26 here.

by Ken

To most people "Prague Spring" now probably suggests first the remarkable political liberalization wrought by reformist Czechoslovak Prime Minister Alexander Dubček from January to August 1968, when the Soviet overlords called a halt to it. But the political movement borrowed its name from the music festival founded In 1946 as part of the rebirth of the Czechoslovak republic, which had been overthrown by the Nazis in 1938-39. The country's leading orchestra, the Czech Phiharmonic, was celebrating its 50th anniversary, and one of the founders of Prague Spring, which had the patronage of President Edvard Beneš, was the orchestra's then-32-year-old principal conductor, Rafael Kubelik, who naturally enough conducted the festival's opening concert.

In February 1948, Beneš's Communist partners in the Czechoslovak coalition government staged a coup and took sole power. When Kubelik left the country to conduct for the first time at England's Glyndebourne Festival, he made the painful decision not to return -- until his homeland was liberated. As Wikipedia tells the story, he told an interviewer: "I had lived through one form of bestial tyranny, Nazism. As a matter of principle, I was not going to live through another." In 1953 he and his wife were stripped of their citizenship, and for the next 32 years he crammed about as much as can be crammed into a conductor's career.

Wherever he went, the uncommonly mild-mannered -- and accordingly increasingly loved -- conductor played the music of his homeland, above all his great compatriots Bedřich Smetana and Antonin Dvořák. As early as 1952 he recorded the national epic of Czech music, Smetana's Má Vlast (My Country or Fatherland), the 75-minute-or-so cycle of six symphonic poems depicting places and moments in national history, in (of all places) Chicago, where he spent three productive but not terribly happy seasons, 1950-53, as music director of the Chicago Symphony.

Here's how Kubelik's Moldau sounded back in 1952, as recorded by Mercury's ahead-of-its-time recording crew:

Kubelik went on playing Má Vlast all over the Western world, and recording it: in Vienna, in Boston, in what became his longest home base (with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra), Munich. (It was from his recording of Dvořák's complete Slavonic Dances with the BRSO that we heard him, as our mystery conductor, conduct the E minor, Op. 46, No. 2, while the mystery violinist who played the Kreisler arrangement of Dvořák's "Humoresque" was his father, the legendary celebrity violinist Jan Kubelik.)

By the time Kubelik's seriously compromised health forced him to retire from conducting, in 1985, he probably imagined that the long-hoped-for return to his homeland would never happen. Then came the wave of political change that convulsed the Soviet empire, and in 1989 the Czechoslovak Communist government fell. Not even another health crisis could prevent his return home for -- what else? -- Prague Spring 1990.

For both Kubelik and his countrymen, the emotional impact of that return is almost impossible to overstate. I remember video highlights of an almost unbearably emotional outdoor concert that featured at least Vltava -- The Moldau (the river that runs through the Czech capital, Prague, as known by its respective Czech and German names), the second of the six symphonic poems that make up Má Vlast, and one of the best-known pieces ever written for orchestra.

For the opening of the Prague Spring festival, there wasn't much question what Kubelik would conduct. It was a now well-established tradition that the opening concert featured Má Vlast. An audio recording of that concert has been released,but as far as I know, not the video recording that presumably exists -- it looks as if you can piece it together on YouTube. (A CD was also releasedcoupling Dvořák's New World and Mozart's Prague Symphonies.)

I mentioned last week that we were going to be coming back to Smetana. Sunday is the day.


Here is the complete 1952 Kubelik-Chicago Symphony-Mercury Má Vlast.

i. Vyšehrad
ii. Vltava (The Moldau)
iii. Šárka
iv. From Bohemia's Meadows and Forests
v. Tábor
vi. Blaník

[You can move from movement to movement by hitting the fast forward or rewind button.]


Here is the current list.

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At 10:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have touched my musical heart several time and this was what I was waiting for. Thank you.

At 9:27 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, Anon. That means a lot to me.


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