Of Music, Madness and Fame – one week in Prague (Czech Republic)

By Ian Cochrane, April 8, 2013

`One Hundred Spires' - Prague

`One Hundred Spires’ – Prague

On my last night here, I’m dining with Bohdan at the Jindrisska belltower; a rustic restaurant occupying the top three floors. Panoramic views span the famous `one hundred spires’. Just above us hangs the c1518 St Mary’s Bell, our tiny table and chairs tucked between great Gothic beams. A flickering candle catches empty pilsner bottles and throws shadows on dark wooden walls. We’re eating rare venison in red wine, wild boar, potatoes and asparagus spears.

Bohdan is a busker and a bear of a man; close cropped hair, a still boyish face and an incongruous grey bush of a beard. Most days he drags his cello from near here to Charles Bridge to supplement his modest waiter’s income. The faint background music is Dvorak’s No8 and I comment on the internationally renowned Czech. Bohdan’s right eye flashes. The other – oddly askew and unfocussed – is a childhood reminder of a Soviet baton and the killings that followed the Prague Spring of 1968.

He shuffles in his seat as the passing waitress smiles. “To be honest”, he begins, “I’ve not much time for the man.” He taps the table. “Mmm…yes, I know there are some that disagree.”

I press Bohdan for details. “Well, there is no doubt Dvorak was the more…how you say…colourful?” He laughs. “Yes, yes: I know Neil Armstrong took a Dvorak symphony to the Moon! But for me, I am afraid Dvorak rode on the shoulders of Smetana.” I’m puzzled, having never heard that name. Bohdan obliges. “A quiet man, his kindness was rewarded by vicious attacks from conservatives.” I order a second red, a fine bottle of St. Laurent.

Before leaving, Bohdan signals to the waitress. “Dvorak? I shall show you the difference,” he growls. And before long there’s a change in the ambience. An opening wavelet of flute is followed by a second, then a pluck of strings. The music swells louder, until bursting into a flood of strings and melancholy. Bohdan talks of history, puffing out his ample chest. “This beautiful piece, it is from the 1870s, but Bedrich Smetana was writing when we rose against the Austrians back in 1848. So…he may not be known to the World, but with we Czechs, it is what is here at home that counts.”

The next morning I wake early to a fog within and without; Smetana’s life flowing through my scrambled head. The first city bells have already chimed and my split level pension is quiet as I throw open the bedroom French doors. Outside in the cold morning air, I gulp down a tall orange juice and munch on a piece of dark rye. Thick mist sits in the valley below – a receding river of fluffy powder snow – the monastery bells chiming from beneath onion spires on the green knoll across the way.

With a flight later today, I shuffle down slippery steps and descend the grassy valley amid ghostly black skeletons of trees laden with pregnant blossom buds. At the bottom I enter a walled gateway and emerge to a residential maze of red roofs, rough whitewashed walls, zig-zag streets and lanes. Trams rattle by. I smell pancakes and bacon as commuters and backpackers search out coffee. Across the river Vltava I follow its snaking loops to the last destination marked on my battered map.

A rocky outcrop overhangs the bank. At the top, high spires soar; the past home of ancient kings, and Vysehrad’s Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. I’m here to see the graveyard, officially founded in 1869; although some burials are from two centuries before.

Stopping by the pantheon I enter and read from a list of names. There’s `Antonin Leopold Dvorak’; and I’m surprised to see the now familiar name of Smetana.

Vysehrad Cemetery, Prague

Vysehrad Cemetery, Prague

The cemetery surrounds are classic art-nouveau. Tall shrubs shade low brick walls among a mosaic of angels and ornate headstones that rise from waves of ivy. The graves of Czech composers commingle with writers, artists and sculptors: there’s Kubelik, Capek and Neruda. Here too, are Cech and Myslbek. At Dvorak’s grave I peer up at the composer’s bust, sitting high on a grand podium ablaze with the great man’s name in ornate gold letters of runic form.

When it’s time to go, I drop by the grave of Smetana. It’s a simple oblong of grey granite with an upright squarish spire for a headstone. There’s a plaque with a small star atop the plain printing: `B. SMETANA 1824-1884.’ There are fresh flowers; a simple yellow posy and a bunch of jonquils. I look at my watch, but pause a moment to recall Bohdan’s story.

Although Smetana was a talented child pianist from a well-off Czech family, he struggled and moved to Sweden to make a living as a teacher, choirmaster and composer. His first wife died from tuberculosis after giving birth to four children, with three of those dying in early childhood; his second wife bore him two daughters.

Smetana returned to Prague in the 1860s, immersing himself in the city’s opera scene. However – at 38yrs old – he heard voices and the sound of an organ in the everyday rumble of a train. From here he was beset with increasing tinnitus and a deterioration in his hearing. By 1875 Smetana was completely deaf, but somehow embarked on a prolonged period of productivity.

In 1882 he began to suffer imaginary visitors, a distortion of speech and loss of memory. He became more confused and distracted, writing letters to the already dead Mozart and Beethoven. Smetana then became uncharacteristically aggressive, destroying furniture and even his own work. The composer died in the Prague Mental Asylum after weeks of personal degradation and starvation.

My footsteps echo as I wend my way down to the river. I listen to the ripple of white-water and gaze at masses of creepers that hang on river walls. Raising a lukewarm coffee to my lips, bells peel out from the Basilica far above. Could it be? There’s no mistaking that melody. It’s Bohdan’s favourite: Bedrich Smetana’s romantic anthem to the Czech nation. I’m embarrassed at my previous ignorance.

20 Comments

  1. A beautiful article, Ian! I could almost hear the music. Shared this one on Facebook, too, as I have many friends who love music and love travel. Thank you!

  2. kat822 says:

    You write like I could only wish I could, bravo

  3. Janene says:

    You had me at “Prague” — one of my all-time favorite cities. I stayed for the imagery. Beautifully written.

  4. Mike Wiesner says:

    I enjoyed your blog. I spent five months living in Prague and have so many wonderful memories there. I look forward to reading more of your travels.

  5. Big D says:

    Dammit, I wish I could write like this.
    Smetana sounds like he deserves to be better known.

    • IanC says:

      So glad you liked it BigD. Thanks.
      With your far-reaching musical knowledge, I suspect most `new’ music will tweak your curiosity.
      Cheers, ic

  6. JerseyLil says:

    Wonderful post, Ian. Thank you for transporting me with your strikingly rich descriptions to marvelous cities I’ve never been to but hope to visit one day. As I often do when reading your posts, I click-on your photos first. Lovely, and they perfectly complement the beautiful imagery in your writing. I could look out over the spires and sense the pulse of Prague. “The monastery bells chiming from beneath onion spires on the green knoll across the way,” I could see it so splendidly. I am moved by the cemetery, the art nouveau architecture, and the contrast between the graves of Dvorak and Smetana. I also love the way you describe the people you meet on your journeys. If I traveled there, I’d hope to meet Bohdan and hear him play.

    How fascinating to learn about Smetana and the comparison to Dvorak over “a fine bottle of St. Laurent.” I enjoyed learning about him, thank you. I googled Smetana’s name and listened to “Vltava” on YouTube, such a soul-stirring piece of music. Now I understand, and although I like Dvorak, how tragic that Smetana is not better known as well; I am adding him to my classical collection.

    • IanC says:

      Wow JL. Thanks so much.
      Isn’t it interesting – that comparison between Dvorak & Smetana? & the question of why one’s music becomes more famous worldwide than the other? I know that Dvorak was in love with America, & did travel to your country. Could it be that he was a better `social networker'(?).

      I’m so happy that this small piece may open the gate for others to hear Smetana’s music.
      Cheers, ic

  7. Jasmine says:

    What beautiful imagery you use. The characters and atmosphere are rich; I feel like I’ve visited Prague and witnessed your adventure with you. Thanks for sharing. I’m going to have to listen to some Smetana now to cure my ignorance!
    Jasmine

    • IanC says:

      Thank you Jasmine.
      You are so close to that great city, & you are a writer with time on your side. I’m guessing you’ll some day be there for The Prague Writers’ Festival.
      Cheers, ic

  8. “Cherish the divine detail,” said Nabokov. And Ian, you do. Seamlessly written, such a beautiful flow of sentences and words. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about Prague, what a marvelous city it is, the new cultural center of Europe. How magnanimous of you to share with us all these treasures of your travels. Your reflections are always vivid and bittersweet, like the simple yellow posy atop Smetana’s grave.

  9. umashankar says:

    Ian, I knew it was going to be vivid and intense, I wasn’t disappointed. Although I have never been to those places and never heard either Dvorak or Smetana,it was as if I was sitting at your side and then moved along to the cemetery. It is piece rich in aural sensations and perspectives. Thanks for introducing the troubled genius.

  10. I am guessing that Smetana is to Czechs what Chopin is to Poles. I’ve never been to Prague, but your postcard captured what I’ve always imagined it to be like. Your attention to detail is really marvelous.

    • IanC says:

      Yes Kris,
      Maybe so. Even with the wealth of information we have access to these days, it takes time to grasp the real heart of another people.
      Cheers, ic

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