When I was 15 years old, I bought a $3 CD of Antonín Dvorák. I was fascinated with the “From the New World” Symphony (Symphony No. 9 in E-minor), especially movements II and IV – the second movement may be far more famous, but the opening notes of the fourth movement sounds like the beginning of the Jaws theme. I was completely enthralled with rich harmonies and coloration of the “Slavonic Dances” and his “Serenade for Strings in E-major.” Whenever I listen to the “Serenade for Strings in E-major,” I always wonder if Leonard Bernstein didn’t use parts of this as inspiration when he was writing Candide. I spent many a moody teenage brooding sessions with this Dvorak CD. Even now as I’m listening to the fourth movement of the “New World” on Spotify, I feel like I went back in time twenty years – like I should be lying on my bed with my Sony Discman, shaking my fist at the world, and escaping into the music.
The lands that became the Czech Republic produced some very influential classical composers and music teachers. I’ve already mentioned my favorite Dvorak, but two other composers are Bedrich Smetana and Leos Janácek. Bedrich Smetana is most famous for his opera The Bartered Bride and for his symphonic cycle Má vlast. One of the most famous pieces out of Má vlast often goes by the German name of “Die Moldau” (which is the German name for the River Vltava – the longest river running through the Czech Republic). The kids' show The Little Einsteins have an episode where they used the main theme from this song (it comes in about 1:30 in).
Leos Janácek is another famous composer who I’m afraid I’m not as familiar with, although some of his pieces are fairly familiar, such as his Sinfonietta. There are times in listening to this that I wonder if Stephen Sondheim drew inspiration from this. A few motifs remind me of Sondheim’s musical Merrily We Roll Along. He’s also pretty famous for The Glaolitic Mass, Taras Bulba, and his first opera Jenufa.
And I’ll go ahead and give a mention to Carl Czerny: the guy who drove me nuts when I was in college. Czerny was born and raised in Bohemia but later moved to Austria when he was 10. He was a composer and a pianist and was quite accomplished at a young age, but he generally didn’t think he was all that. He turned more to writing and pedagogy (a fancy word meaning he developed piano techniques and teaching methods). I have one of his etude study books, and I suppose if I were to have taken it more seriously, I would probably be a far better pianist than I am. (To reprieve myself, I did go back a few years ago and start again. I made it to etude #20 out of a hundred and something.)
Outside of classical music, polka is a very common style of traditional music. Even though most people associate polka with Poland, but it originated in Bohemia. And actually one traditional piece became known as the famous Beer Barrel Polka (interestingly enough, it’s played during the 7th Inning Stretch of the Milwaukee Brewers games and during halftime of Milkwaukee Bucks games). Most of the large polka areas are in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Cleveland. Its influences spread far outside of the borders of the Czech Republic, reaching and influencing the music of Mexico. There were many Czechs who immigrated to Texas and brought their music with them. Their style of polka is part of the basis of Mexican musical styles known as Norteño and Tejano. This video is of Canada's polka king Walter Ostanek. I'm pretty sure this wasn't recorded yesterday.
Of course with polka comes polka dancing. Of course they also had their folk songs and folk dances, mostly about the coming of spring or the harvest season. There were also dances for the conscription of young boys (sending them off to war). Some of the instruments used in this type of traditional music and dance were the violin and double bass, the bagpipes, the dulcimer, and the trumpet. Ballet has also long had an important status in the dance world of the Czech Republic since the early 1700s. Several different dance schools popped up around Prague and other cities across the lands. Because of their location in Europe, they were closely attentive to the arts movements in both Germany and France.
The Czech Republic is a hodge-podge of various styles of modern music. Some of the ones I came across that I like include punk, rock, and hip-hop. I found this band called Pipes and Pints, a Celtic punk band singing in English. Irish and Celtic music has a moderately large following for some reason. I love Irish punk, so naturally I enjoyed their music. A few other punk and ska bands I found include Visaci Zamek and Prague Ska Company.
There was even a reggae group I found called Svihadlo. I thought the sound was more reminiscent to African reggae as opposed to Caribbean reggae, but I really don’t have much to support it other than a “feeling.” But I did like what I heard.
One hip-hop group I found that I really liked was Prago Union. At first, I was 50/50 on my feelings toward them, but the more I listened to it, it grew on me. The styles vary a bit, some songs almost have a 1990s hip-hop feel, and some almost have a jazz-hip-hop feel to it (which I’m a huge fan of). However, just as soon as I formed the opinion that I do like it, I realized that it’s not available from my library or on iTunes. Lovely. I wanted the album just for this one song. At least there’s Spotify.
Up next: the food