BEginning with the earliest historical events in Bohemia we discover a thread running without interruption through the ages, up to our times; it is a red thread of continuous struggle with the German race, which endeavored to crush and conquer a liberty-loving people. The first clash between Czechs and Germans occurred during the reign of King Wenceslas (921–935 A.D.), ending with the assassination of that ruler. Wenceslas, proclaimed a saint, soon after his tragic death became a symbol of patriotism; and was, and still is, an adored protector of the Czech Catholic Church. There exists a spiritual folk-song composed in the thirteenth century in honor of this national saint, one of the oldest recorded musical and literary relics in Europe, exclusive of Latin and Hebrew compositions. This song still lives and is sung in the churches in Bohemia.
ST. WENCESLAS' CHORALE
The fifteenth century saw the great reformation in Bohemia under the Czech reformer, John Huss, who in Bethlehem Chapel, Prague, mercilessly criticized the abuses in the Church. His flaming sermons fired with enthusiasm the souls of the truth-seeking Czechs. It is hard to describe the anger of the people when John Huss was burned at the stake, in the year 1415, after he had been condemned by the Great Council of Constance, before which he had been summoned to renounce his heresies. The righteous indignation of his loyal followers was voiced in a solemn protest to those in power: "We hold it to be a perpetual infamy and disgrace to our most Christian Kingdom of Bohemia and the most renowned Margravate of Moravia, as well as of us all." A great army of "God's Warriors" was raised, which, under the leadership of John Žižka the One-Eyed, harassed the military forces of so-called Christian Europe for sixteen years, never losing a battle. The great battle hymn of the Czechs was a spiritual folk-song, beginning "Ye Warriors who for God are Fighting." Whenever this was sung in a charge it sowed terror and confusion broadcast among their enemies. The chorale contains two motifs: The first, assaulting, with its characteristic hammering rhythm, like repeated blows of weapons; the second, deeply religious, expressing in its restrained but sweet melodic form absolute faith in the final victory of truth.
HUSSITE WAR SONG
FIRST HALF OF XV CENTURY
The blood of God's Warriors was not shed in vain; the scarlet seed shot up and flowered into peaceful reformation, wisdom, and brotherhood, reaching its climax in the Church of "Bohemian (Moravian) Brethren;" they were no more "warriors," but "brethren" in this Unitas Fratrum. Amos Comenius, the great educator, and John Blahoslav, a remarkable musical theorist, represent the height of the spiritual quality of this church. Comenius himself composed songs for educational purposes, and Blahoslav wrote Musica, in the year 1558, the first theoretic work in music published in Bohemia in the Czech language.
Singing was an important part in the service of the Bohemian Brethren, as the great number of their original chorals proves. One of these songs should be mentioned here because of its beauty; it is the Evening Hymn of the Moravian Brethren.
After the glorious time of the Bohemian reformation, and during the Catholic reaction in the seventeenth century, the promising growth of Czech culture was suddenly stopped. In the year 1620 Bohemia lost her independence. About thirty thousand Czech families left their fatherland rather than live under laws inimical to the high ideals for which their forefathers had so bravely died. Among the emigrants was Amos Comenius.
The new tyrannical government under Ferdinand II tried to destroy all records of the art and life of the glorious days of the reformation by burning all the choral and hymn-books, especially those related to that period. The people in Bohemia had to be supplied with new songs. This aim the Jesuits accomplished by manufacturing new tunes and texts and by taking over for church use many of the secular Czech folk-songs. We find in the Catholic songbooks in Bohemia, songs in which a folk-tune with the folk-poetry were fitted for use in the church by changing a lover's name to that of a saint.
The so-called counter-reformation under the Jesuits was too unpopular among the Czechs to lead to the production of original spontaneous songs among the people; but at the same time there began the development of Bohemian classical music as a part of the European classical period. The Bohemian masters of this time whose art was appreciated in foreign countries were: Bohuslav M. Černohorský (1684–1740), the teacher of Giuseppe Tartini and Christoph W. Gluck; Anton Reicha (1770–1836), who was the successor of Méhul at the Conservatory of Paris; and Georg Benda (1722–1795), a significant name in the history of melodrama or recitation with music.
The enlightened eighteenth century touched profoundly the spiritual life of the whole of Europe. To the Czechs this meant a great Renaissance, a time of national awakening. For two hundred years the people of Bohemia had been held in the grip of systematic Germanization.Now,in the age of "Liberté—Egalité—Fraternité," the natural outcome of Bohemian reformation, founded on the same principles, was to lift up the torch of freedom and reason.
Particular attention was paid during this period to everything that had originality and the essence of Czech culture. Music and literature had only one source—the folk-song. It was the "common" people who in the period of darkness under the feudal system had preserved their mother tongue in the unwritten folk-poetry with its unwritten tunes. It is not necessary for one to be educated in music or in literature, if his mind is emotional enough and his mouth and throat able to produce a musical sound; then his natural desire for self-expression finds its outlet in the most natural musical form—in song. Thus the Czech people expressed in their uncensored songs whatever in their souls was uprising,—their love, their passions,— paralyzing the misrule of their oppressors. What an astonishing richness of folkart came to life, when the first collections were published! It was a living encyclopedia of the people; for there are among the Czech folksongs—
- Religious and Patriotic Songs,
- Historical Songs,
- Songs about Nature and Animals,
- Seasonal Songs,
- Songs of Home: Parental love, Filial love, Cradle Songs,
- Love Songs,
- Peasant Songs,
- Workman Songs,
- Motion Songs : National Dances—Play Songs,
- Humorous and Nonsense Songs,
- Popular Philosophical Songs.
The Czech folk-songs are of a lively, rhythmical, dance-like character; often they are real dances.1 An interesting analysis of folk-poetry may be found in the magazineAsia, for December, 1918, by L. Llewellyn: "The Singing Czechoslovaks."
BOHEMIAN LOVE SONG
ENGLISH VERSION BY L. FOXLEE
The Slovak folk-songs contrast with the Czech tunes by a more poetic form, a freer rhythm, and a tendency to introduce church modes.The story of the world-known dance, the
SLOVAK LOVE SONG
ENGLISH VERSION BY A. J. LATHAM
Polka, which is of Czech origin, seems to be of peculiar interest. "The Polka was invented about the year 1830, by a country lass in Bohemia, who was in service with a citizen in a small Bohemian place. The schoolmaster of that little town, happening to witness the performance by the girl of the dance, which she had contrived merely for her own amusement, wrote down the tune as she sang it while dancing. The new dance soon found admirers, and in the year 1835 it made its way into Prague, the Bohemian metropolis, where it received the name Polka, probably on account of the half step occurring in the dance, for the word—půlka—designates 'the half.' Four years later, in 1839, this tune, which had now become a great favorite in Prague, was carried to Vienna. The Polka now became rapidly known throughout Austria. In 1840 it was danced for the first time at the Odeon in Paris, by Raab, a dancing-master from Prague. Here it found so much favor that it was introduced with astonishing rapidity into the most elegant and fashionable dancing salons and private balls of Paris. From France it spread over all Europe, and even through North America. Celebrated composers wrote new tunes to it."
Besides the Polka, there is another Czech folk-dance with characteristic wild rhythm: The Furiant, which means a boasting farmer. Dvořák in his First Symphony introduced this dance, its rhythm only, instead of the usual Scherzo. The most brilliant examples of the Polka and Furiant are those in Smetana's opera The Bartered Bride.
THE ORIGINAL FOLK-TUNE
It is no wonder that the richness of folk-art was overestimated in Bohemia at the beginning of the last century, and led to an error. Folk-art was confused with nationality in art. A false principle was constructed that "national art" must be based upon folk-music. Thus the imitation of folk-poetry and folk-melodies was approved as the real national art. It is astonishing how long this principle, violating the natural law of progress, could endure. All works of this feverish would-be-national period belong to history. They live no more, being but imitations. There is no room in this brief article for mention of their names or works.
Into the artificial edifice, without solid foundations, erected by this group of artists, struck a thunderbolt of genius, who tore down their flimsy structure and exposed their false theories. This genius was—Bedřich Smetana, the founder of modern Czech musical art.
- The poetry of the chorale contains this famous prayer: "St. Wenceslas, do not let thy nation perish!" referring to the peril coming from Germany. See the Meditation, page 37.
- Dickinson: Excursions in Musical History. 1917.
- This chorale was used by Bedřich Smetana as the main theme in two symphonic poems, Tábor and Blaník.
- "When Peaceful Night," the Evening Hymn of the Moravian Brethren. Published by Schirmer, New York. Organ variations on this chorale were made by Johannes Barrend Litzau, a Dutch organist.
- "Singing is the chief passion of the Slovaks. Nothing will find its way so surely to the heart of the Slovak people as a well-sung song. An old peasant woman once complained to a friend of mine that her son was a useless disappointing fellow. 'What was the matter?' inquired my friend; 'did he drink or would he not work?' 'Oh, no,' said the old woman, 'but nothing will make him sing. It's a great misfortune.'" Scotus Viator (Seton Watson): Racial Problems in Hungary.
- This matter was also discussed in America, where some people saw national American music under the guise of Indian music. Nothing is easier for a composer than to imitate the melodies of different nations, preserving their rhythmical or melodic mannerisms. Following this method, the American or Czechoslovak national music would be accessible to the composer of any nation; notice the great number of so called "oriental" compositions of our day. Are they national music of Egypt, East India, or China?
- One of the composers belonging to this class was Jan Škroup, whose song Where is my home? was adopted by the Czechs as the national anthem, more for the words appealing to their sentiment than for the tune.