Monday, February 26, 2018

ET: Almanac

Mrs. Kirsha, the café owner's wife, was extremely worried. Kirsha had abandoned a much-loved habit and could only have done so for a serious reason: he was enjoying his nightly pleasures outside his own house. Having invited his usual associates to come to his room on the roof at midnight, he remained with them until dawn.

The woman tossed her unhappy memories over in her mind, and the pain which so embittered her life returned. What could attract him to spend the night outside his own house? Was it the same old reason? That filthy disease? The dissolute fellow would probably say that it was just a change to relieve his boredom or else that he had only moved off to a better spot for the winter season. These lying excuses, however, would not satisfy her. She knew that everyone else knew. For these reasons then, she was extremely worried, and was firmly resolved to take a decisive action, whatever its consequences.

Mrs. Kirsha was a strong woman, although approaching fifty, and she had lost none of her courage, as often happens. She was one of those alley women renowned for their tempers - like Husniya the baker's wife and Umm Hamida - and she was particularly famous for the furious ros she had with her husband concerning his dirty habits. She was also well known for her large, broad, snub nose.

She had been a fertile wife and had produced six daughters and one son, Husain Kirsha. All her daughters were married and experiencing lives filled with troubles, even though they had refrained from divorce. A tragedy occurred o their youngest daughter which was the talk of the alley for a while. In the first year of her marriage, she had disappeared and gone to live with a man in Boulaq. The matter ended by her being sent off to prison with him. This disgrace was a heavy burden on the family, but not the only one to afflict them. Kirsha himself had a problem, both old and new, and it seemed endless.

Mrs. Kirsha questioned Uncle Kamil and Sankir, the café waiter, until she learned of the boy who had begun to frequent the coffee-house being served most graciously by Kirsha himself. Secretly she watched the coffee-house visitors until she saw the boy and watched him sit at the café owner's right after receiving a warm welcome. It made her furious and she felt all the old wounds opening again. Mrs. Kirsha spent a tortured, sleepless night and was even worse when she awoke in the morning. She could not make up her mind on a definite course of action. In the past she had often had to battle over this matter, although without success, so she did not hesitate to try again. She wavered, however, not from fear of his anger, but because she did not want to cause a scandal for the gossips.

Husain Kirsha was getting ready for work and she approached him, breathless with anger. with extreme emotion she exclaimed:

"My boy, do you know that your father is preparing a new scandal for us?"

Husain knew at once what she meant, for her words could only mean one well-known thing. He was filled with scorn and his small eyes flashed in anger. What sort of life was this, never a single day free from hardship and scandals. Perhaps this was the reason he threw himself into the arms of the British Army. His new life had only doubled his dissatisfaction with his home, rather than reconciling and calming him. He disliked his family, his house, and the entire alley. Now what his mother said was only fuel to the flames that already raged. He asked her, in a fury:

"What do you want from me? What have I to do with all that? I interfered before and tried to reform him and we nearly came to blows about it. Do you want me to try physical force on my own father?"

His father's misconduct did not concern him in the least. All he objected to were the scandals and disgrace his father caused and the fiery quarrels and scenes at home. The "sin" itself did not bother him in the slightest. Indeed, when the news of it first reached him, he merely shrugged his shoulders in indifference and said unconcernedly: "He is a man and men don't care about anything!" Then he had come with the others to feel irritating and indignation towards his father when he learned his family was the subject of gossip and cruel jokes. Originally, even, his relations with his father had been strained, as always happens when two people of similar characters clash head-on. They were both rude, ill-natured and bad tempered. When this trouble had first arisen, it had doubled their natural friction until they had become like enemies, sometimes fighting, sometimes declaring a truce; but their animosity towards each other never died out.

Mrs. Kirsha did not know what to say, but she had no intention of causing a new enmity to flare up between father and son. She permitted him to leave the flat, livid with anger, and spent a most unhappy morning herself. She was not one to submit to defeat, despite the great and frequent misery the years had brought her. Her mind was made up to reform the sinful man, even though in doing so she might expose herself to the gossips.

Mrs. Kirsha thought it best to convey her warning while her blood was still up. She waited until midnight when the café customers left and her husband was ready to lock up; then she called down to him from her window. The man raised his head, obviously annoyed, and shouted up inquiringly:

"What do you want, woman?"

Her voice came down to him:

"Come up, please, I have something important to tell you."

The café owner made a sign to his "boy" to wait for him where he was and slowly and heavily made his way up the stairs. He stood panting at the threshold of his flat and asked her harshly:

"What do you want? Couldn't you have waited until morning?"

The woman noticed his feet had come to a firm stop at the threshold and that he did not wish to cross it. It was as though he was reluctant to violate the privacy of someone else's home. Anger seethed within her and she stared hard at him, her eyes red from sleeplessness and rage. However, she did not want to show her anger too soon and said, stifling her anger:

"Do please come in!"

Kirsha wondered why she did not speak up if she really wanted to tell him something. At last he asked her roughly:

"What do you want? Speak up now!"

What an impatient fellow he was! He spent the long nights outside their home without being bored and yet he could not bear conversation with her for a couple of minutes. Nevertheless he was her husband in the sight of God, and of men, and the father of all her children. It was amazing that she could not, despite his bad treatment of her, hate him or despise him. He was her husband and her master, and she would spare no efforts to hold him and bring him ack whenever the "sin" threatened to overtake him.

In fact, she was really proud of him, proud of his masculinity, of his position in the alley of the influence he had over his associates. If it were not for this one abominable shortcoming of his, she would not have a single complaint against him. Yet here he was answering the call of the devil and wishing she would finish what she had to say so that he could go off at once to him. Her anger increased and she said sharply:

"Come inside first . . . What are you doing standing there on the threshold like a stranger?"

Kirsha blew into the air with annoyance and disgust and crossed the threshold into the hall and asked in his husky voice:

"What do you want?"

His wife, closing the door behind them, said:

"Sit down for a little . . . What I have to say won't take long."

He looked at her suspiciously. What did the woman want to tell him? Was she going to try and stand in his way once again? He shouted at her:

"Speak up then! What are you wasting my time for?"

She asked sarcastically:

"Are you in a hurry then?"

"Don't you know that I am?"

"What is it that makes you so impatient?"

His suspicions increased and his heart filled with anger as he asked himself why he put up with this woman. His feelings towards her were disturbed and conflicting. Sometimes he disliked her and sometimes he loved her. Dislike, however, was always uppermost when the "sin" appealed to his senses and always increased when the woman attempted to come down on him. Deep inside he wished his wife were just "sensible" and would leave him to his own affairs.

The strange thing was that he always considered himself in the right and was astonished at her attempts to stand in his way without justification. Was it not his right to do as he wished? And was it not her duty to obey and be satisfied as long as her needs were satisfied and she was adequately provided for? She had become one of the necessities of his life, like sleep, hashish and his home, for good or bad and he never really considered dispensing with her. If he had wanted to, there would have been nothing to prevent him, but the fact was that she filled a need and looked after him well. In any case, he wanted her to be his wife. In spite of this and in the midst of his anger, he could not help asking himself why he put up with this woman. He shouted at her:

"Don't be stupid and speak up or else let me go . . ."

"Can't you think of a better way to address me than that?"

Kirsha flew into a rage:

"Now I know you have nothing really to say to me. You had better go off to sleep like sensible women do . . ."

"if only you would go off to sleep like senisble men do!"

Kirsha slapped his hands together and shouted:

"How can I go to sleep at this hour?"

"Why did God create night then?"

Her husband, astonished and furious, exclaimed:

"Since when have I gone to sleep at night? Am I ill, woman?"

She replied in a special tone of voice which she knew he would at once recognize and understand:

"Turn in repentance to God, and pray that He accepts your repentance even though it comes so late!"

He realized what she meant and his doubts gave way before certainty. However, he pretended not to understand and, bursting with anger said:

"What sin is there in staying up talking for which a man should repent?"

His deliberate failure to understand merely increased her fury and she shouted:

"Repent about the night-time and what goes on in it!"

Kirsha replied spitefully:

"Do you want me to give up my whole life?"

She shouted back, now completely overcome with anger:

"Your whole life?"

"That's right. Hashish is my life."

Her eyes flashed:

"And the other hashish?"

He answered sarcastically:

"I only burn one kind."

"It's me you burn! Why don't you have your parties in your usual place on the roof any more?"

"Why shouldn't I have my parties where I please? On the roof, in the government buildings, in Gamaliyya police station? What's it to do with you?"

"Why have you changed the place where you hold your parties?"

Her husband threw up his head and shouted:

"May God bear witness! I have managed to stay out of government courts so far and I am lucky enough to find my own home a permanent court-house! He lowered his head and continued, "It's as though our house were under suspicion and there were investigators prowling around it all the time."

She added bitterly:

"Do you think that shameless youth is one of the investigators who have made you leave your home?"

Oh, so the insinuations were becoming declarations? His near-black face became even darker and he asked her, his voice showing his annoyance:

"What youth is that?"

"The immoral one. The one you yourself serve with tea as if you were a waiter, like Sankir!"

"There's nothing wrong in that. A coffee-house owner serves his customers just as the waiter does."

She asked scornfully, her voice trembling with anger:

"Why don't you serve Uncle Kamil, then? Why do you only serve the immoral one?"

"Wisdom says that one should take care of new customers!"

"Anyone can talk glibly, but your conduct is disgraceful and immoral."

He gestured towards her warningly with his hand and said:

"Hold your tongue, you imbelice!"

"Everyone around here is grown up and acts intelligently . . ."

He ground his teeth, swore and cursed but she took no notice of him and continued:

"Everyone around is grown up and acts intelligently, but your brain seems to have got smaller the bigger you got!"

"You are raving, woman, raving by the life of the Prophet's grandson Husain! May God recompense him for his cruel murder!"

Quivering with emotion, she shouted hoarsely:

"men like you really deserve to be punished. You have brought disgrace on us again! Now we will have another nice scandal!"

"May God recompense him for his cruel murder! May God recompense him!"

Despair na danger got the better of her and shouted out warningly:

"Today only four walls can hear us. Do you want the whole world to hear, tomorrow?"

Kirsha raised his heavy eyebrows and demanded:

"Are you threatening me?"

"I am and I am threatening your whole family! You know me!"

"It seems I'll have to smash that silly head of yours!"

"Ha-ha . . . The hashish and your immoral living haven't let an ounce of strength in your arms. You couldn't even raise your hand! It's come to an end, to an end Kirsha!"

"It's your fault things are where they are. Isn't it always women who put men off women!"

"How sorry I am for a man who is past women altogether!"

"Why? I have fathered six daughters and one son . . . apart from abortions and miscarriages."

Umm Husain, quite beside herself with rage, shouted:

"Aren't you ashamed to mention your children? Doesn't even thinking of them keep you from your filthy behavior?"

Kirsha struck the wall hard with his fist, turned around and made for the door, saying:

"You're completely crazy."

She shouted after him:

"Has your patience run out? Are you longing for him becacuse you had to wait? You'll see the results of your filthy behavior, you pig!"

Kirsha slammed the door hard behind him and the noise shattered the silence of the night. His wife stood wringing her hands in anger and desperation. Her heart overflowed with a desire for revenge.

ET: Almanac

The bakery is next to Kirsha's café, near Mrs. Saniya Afifi's house. It is an almost square building, its sides built unevenly. An oven occupies the left side and the wall is lined with shelves. Between the oven and the entrance is a bench on which the owners of the bakery, Husniya and her husband, Jaada, sleep. Darkness would envelop the spot day and night, were it not for the light issuing from the door of the oven.

In the wall facing the entrance, there is a small, wooden door which opens to a grimy little outhouse, smelling of dirt and filth, for it has only one tiny window in the opposite wall overlooking the courtyard of an old house. About an arm's length from the window there is a lighted lamp, placed on a shelf, throwing a dim light on the place, with its dirt floor covered with various and indeterminate rubbish; the room looks like a garbage heap. The shelf supporting the lantern is long and stretches the entire wall; on it are bottles, both large and small, various instruments and a great number of bandages, making it look just like a pharmacist's shelf, were it not so extraordinarily dirty.

On the ground, almost directly beneath the little window, something is piled, no different from the floor of the room in color, filthiness or smell, but possessed of limbs, flesh, and blood, and which therefore, despite everything, deserves to be called a human being. It was Zaita, the man who rented this hole from Husniya the baker.

If you once saw Zaita you would never again forget him, so starkly simple is his appearance. He consists of a thin, black body, and a black gown. Black upon black, were it not for the slits shining with a terrifying whiteness which are his eyes. Zaita is not a Negro; he is an Egyptian, brown-skinned in color. Dirt mixed with the sweat of a lifetime has caked a thick layer of black over his body and over his gown, whcih also was not originally black. Black was the fate of everything within this hole.

He had scarcely anything to do with the alley in which he dwelt. Zaita visited none of its people nor did they visit him. He had no need for anyone nor anyone for him. Except, that is, for Dr. Bushi and the fathers who resorted to scaring their children with his image. His trade was known to all, atrade which gave him the right to the title of "Doctor," although he did not use it out of respect for Bush. It was his profession to create cripples, not the usual, natural cripples, but artificial cripples of a new type.

People came to him who wanted to become beggars and, with his extraordinary craft, the tools of which were piled on the shelf, he would cripple each customer in a manner appropriate to his body. They came to him whole and left blind, rickety, hunchbacked, pigeon-breasted or with arms or legs cut off short. He gained his skill by working for a long time with a travelling circus. Zaita had, moreover, been connected with beggar circles since his boyhood, when he lived with his parents, who were beggars. He began by learning "make-up" an art taught in the circus, first as a pastime, then as a profession when his personal situation became worse.

One disadvantage of his work was that it began at night, or at midnight to be exact. It was, however, a trivial disadvantage to which he had become completely accustomed. During the day, he scarcely left his den and would sit cross-legged, eating or smoking or amusing himself by spying on the baker and his wife. He delighted in listening to their talk, or peeping through a hole int he door and watching the woman beating her husband, morning and night. When night fell he saw them overcome with friendliness towards each other and he would see the bakeress approach her ape-like husband and tease him and talk to him coyly. Zaita detested Jaada, despised him and considered him ugly. Apart from this, he envied him for the full-bodied woman God had given him as a wife, a really bovine woman, as he said. He often said of her that she was among women what Uncle Kamil was among men.

One reason why the people in the alley avoided him was his offensive odor, for water never found its way to either his face or body. He happily reciprocated the dislike people showed for him and he juped with joy when he heard that someone had died. He would say, as though speaking to the dead person: "Now your time has come to taste the dirt, whose color and smell so much offend you on my body." No doubt he spent much time imagining tortures he could inflict on people and found a most satisfying pleasure in doing just this. He would imagine Jaada the baker as a target for tens of hatchets striking at him and leaving him a smashed heap. Or he would imagine Salim Alwan stretched on the ground while a steamroller ran over him again and again his blood running down towards Sanadiqiyya. He would also imagine Radwan Husaini being pulled along by his reddish beard towards the flaming oven and being eventually pulled out as a bag of ashes. Or he might see Kirsha stretched beneath the wheels of a train crushing his limbs, later to be stuffed into a dirty basket and sold to dog-owners for food! There were similar punishments he considered the very least people deserved.

When he set about his work of making cripples at their request, he was as cruel and deliberately vicious as he could be, cunningly employing all the secrets of his trade. When his victims cried out at his torture, his terrifying eyes gleamed with an insane light. Despite all this, beggars were the people dearest to him and he often wished that beggars formed the majority of mankind.

-----

Zaita sat thus engrossed int he wanderings of his imagination, waiting for the time for work to arrive. About midnight he got up, blew out the lamp and a deep darkness took over. He then felt his way to the door and, opening it quietly, he made his way through the bakery into the alley. On his way he met Sheikh Darwish without leaving the coffee-house. They often met in the middle of the night without exchanging a single word. For this reason Sheikh Darwish had a particularly rich reawrd awaiting him in the Court of Investigation to try mankind which Zaita had set up in his imagination!

The cripple-maker crossed over to the Husain Mosque walking with short, deliberate steps.

As he walked, Zaita kept close to the walls of the houses. In spite of the blackness of the shadows, some lights still gleamed, thus someone approaching would almost collide with him before seeing his flashing eyes glinting in the dark like the metal clasp of a policeman's belt.

Walking in the street he felt revived, lively and happy. He only ever walked out here when no one but the beggars, who acknowledged his absolute sovereignty, were about. He crossed to Husain Square, turned towards the Green Gate and reached the ancient arch. As he swept his eyes over the heaps of beggars on both sides of him he was filled with delight. is joy was that of a powerful lord mixed with the delight of a merchant who sees profitable merchandise.

He approached the beggar nearest him who sat cross-legged, his head bent on his shoulders and snoring loudly. He stood for a moment before him, gazing intently as though to probe his sleep and determine whether it was genuine or feigned. Then he kicked the dishevelled head and the man stirred, but not in a startled manner, merely as though gentle ants had wakened him. He raised his head slowly, scratching his sides, back and head. His gaze fell on the figure looking down on him; he stared up for a moment and, despite his blindness, recognized him at once. The beggar sighed and a noise like a groan rose from his depths. He thrust his hand into his breast pocket and withdrew a small coin and placed it in Zaita's palm.

Zaita now turned ot the next beggar, then the next and so on until he had completely encircled one wing of the arch. Then he turned to the other wing and, when he finished there, he went roud the niches and alleys surrounding the mosque, so that not a single beggar escaped him. His enthusiasm at receiving his dues did not make him forget his duty to care for the cripples he created and he frequently asked this or that beggar: "How is your blindness, so and so?" Or perhaps: "How is your lameness?" They would answer him: "Praise be to God . . . praise be to God!"

Zaita now went around the mosque from the other direction and on his way bought a loaf of bread, some sweets and tobacco and returned to Midaq Alley. The silence was complete, only broken from time to time by a laugh or cough from the roof of Radwan Husaini's house, where one of Kirsha's hashish parties was in progress. Zaita made his way past the threshold of the bakery as quietly as he could, taking not to waken the sleeping couple. He carefully pushed open his wooden door and closed it quietly behind him. The den was neither dark nor empty as he had left it; the lamp burned and on the ground beneath it sat three men.

Zaita made his way unconcernedly towards them; their presence neither surprised nor troubled him. He stared at them with piercing eyes and recognized Dr. Bushi. They all stood and Dr. Bushi, after a polite greeting, said:

"These are two poor men who asked me to seek your help for them."

Zaita, feigning boredom and complete disinterest, replied:

"At a time like this, Doctor?"

The "doctor" placed his hand on Zaita's shoulder and said:

"The night is a veil, and our Lord ordained the veil."

Zaita protested, belching out air:

"But I am tired now!"

Dr. Bushi replied hopefully:

"You have never let me down."

The two men begged and pleaded. Zaita yielded, as if unwillingly, and placed his food and tobacco on the shelf. He stood facing them, staring hard and long in silence. Then he fixed his eyes on the taller of the two. He was a giant of a man and Zaita, amazed to see him there, asked:

"You are an ox of a man! Why do you want to become a beggar?"

The man answered falteringly:

"I am never successful at a job. I have tried all kinds of work, even being a beggar. My luck is bad and my mind is worse. I can never understand or remember anything."

Zaita commented spitefully:

"Then you should have been born rich!"

The man did not understand what he meant and attempted to win Zaita's pity by pretending to weep, saying spiritlessly:

"I have failed in everything. I even had no luck as a beggar. Everyone said I was strong and should work, that is when they didn't curse or shout at me. I don't know why."

Zaita nodded:

"Even that you can't grasp!"

"May God inspire you with some way to help me," the big man pleaded.

Zaita continued to examine him thoughtfully and, feeling his limbs, said decisively:

"You are really strong. Your limbs are all healthy. What do you eat?"

"Bread if I can get it, otherwise nothing."

"Yours is really a giant's body, there's no doubt about it. Do you realize what you would be like if you ate as God's animals eat, on whom He lavishes good things?"

The man replied simply:

"I don't know."

"Of course, of course. You don't know anything, we understand that. If you had any sense you would be one of us. Listen, you oaf, there's nothing to be gained by me trying to twist your limbs."

A look of great melancholy came into the man's bullish face and he would have burst out weeping again if Zaita had not spoken:

"It would be very difficult for me to break an arm or a leg for you, no matter how hard I tried. Even then, you wouldn't gain anyone's sympathy. Mules like you only arouse indignation. but don't despair"--Dr. Bushi had been patiently waiting for this expression - "there are other ways. i'll teach you the art of imbelility, for example. You don't seem to lack any talent for that, so idiocy it will be. I'll teach you some ballads in praise of the Prophet."

The huge man's face beamed with delight and he thanked Zaita profusely. Zaita interrupted him:

"Why didn't you work as a highwayman?"

He replied indignantly:

"I am a poor fellow, but I am good and I don't want to harm anyone. I like everyone."

Zaita commented contemptuously:

"Do you wish to convert me to that philosophy?"

He turned to the other man, who was short and frail, and said delightedly:

"Good material, anyway."

The man smiled and said:

"Much praise to God."

"You were created to be a blind, squatting beggar."

The man seemed pleased:

"Taht is because of the bounty of our Lord."

Zaita shook his head and replied slowly:

"The operation is difficult and dangerous. Let me ask what you would do if the worst happened. Supposing you were really to lose your sight because of an accident or carelessness?"

The man hesitated, then replied unconcernedly:

"It would be a blessing from God! Have I ever gained anything by my sight that I should be sorry to lose it?"

Zaita was pleased and commented:

"With a heart like yours you can really face up to the world."

"With God's permission, sir. I will be eternally grateful to you. I will give you half of what the good people give me."

Zaita shot a penetrating look at him and then said harshly:

"I am not interested in talk like that. I want only to millièmes a day, besides the fee for the operation. I know, by the way, how to get my rights if you are thinking of getting away without paying."

At this point Bushi reminded him:

"You didn't remember your share of the bread."

Zaita went on talking:

"Of course . . . of course. Now, let's get down to planning the work. The operation ill be difficult and will test your powers of endurance. Hide the pain as best you can . . ."

Can you imagine what this thin and meager body would suffer under the pounding of Zaita's hands?

A satantical smile played about Zaita's faded lips . . .





Midaq Alley - Naguib Mahfouz



Friday, February 23, 2018

It's Not Even Past #11 - Ma Vlast - 94%

https://youtu.be/PEHlj2qwF3I?t=1h15m34s (up to 1:19:25)
Logically, a foreigner who did not see those days at first hand would probably imagine that at a time when an egg cost as much... as the price of a luxury car in the past... women would be rushing through the streets tearing their hair, shops would be empty because no one could afford to buy anything, and the theaters and other places of entertainment would have no audiences at all. Astonishingly, however, it was just the opposite. The will for life to go on proved stronger than the instability of the currency. In the midst of financial chaos, daily life continued almost unchanged. Individuals, of course, felt a great deal of change--the rich were impoverished when their money in banks and government securities melted away, spectators grew rich. But regardless of individual fates, the flywheel of the mechanism kept on turning in the same old rhythm. Nothing stood still. The baker made bread, the cobbler made boots, the writer wrote books, the farmer cultivated the land, trains ran regularly, the newspaper ly outside your door every morning at the usual time, and the places of entertainment in particular, the bars and theaters, were full to overflowing. For with the daily loss in value of money, once the most stable aspect of life, people came to appreciate true values such as work, love, friendship, art and nature all the more, and in the midst of disaster the nation as a whole lived more intensely than ever before, strung to a higher pitch. Young men and girls went walking in the mountains and came home tanned brown by the sun, music played in the dance halls until late at night, new factories and businesses were founded everywhere. I myself do not think I ever lived and worked with more intensity and concentration than I did in those years. What had been important to us before mattered even more now. Art was never more popular in Austria than at the time of chaos. Money had let us down; we sensed that what was eternal in us was all that would last.
I will never forget what operatic performances were like in those days of our greatest need. You groped your way through dimly lit streets, for street lighting was feeling the effects of the fuel shortage, you paid for your seat in the gallery with a bundle of banknotes that would once have allowed you to hire a luxurious box for a year. You sat in your overcoat, because the auditorium was unheated, and pressed close to your neighbors for warmth--and the theater itself, once brilliant with uniforms and expensive gowns, was so dismal and grey! No one knew whether it would still be possible for the opera to keep going next week if money went on falling in value and there were no coal deliveries. Everything seemed doubly desperate in this scene of former luxury and imperial extravagance. The musicians of the Philharmonic sat in the pit, also grey shadows of themselves, emaciated and exhausted by deprivation, and we in the audience looked like ghosts in this now ghostly theatre. But then the conductor raised his baton, the curtains parted, and it was more wonderful than ever before. The singers and musicians gave of their best, for they all felt that this might be the last time they performed in the theatre they loved. And we listened with bated breath, more receptvie than ever, knowing that for us, too, this might be the last time. Thousands of us, hundreds of thousands, lived like this. We all strained ourselves to the limit in these weeks and months and years on the brink of downfall. I never felt the will to live in a nation and in myself as strongly as I did then, when the end of everything, life and survival itself, was at stake. 
The quote is describing Vienna, not Prague, and I've taken its references to any German speaking territory out, because the conditions could describe anywhere in Europe during the wars. It's from The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, his memoir of what it meant to be an exile from a fragile kingdom of culture that ceased to exist with Hitler because Hitler wanted to make a version of it permanent. Like so many rich German Jews, Zweig found himself a bit chased by Hitler, first to London, but when the Blitz came to England, Zweig wrongly sensed that a free England's days were numbered, so he crossed the Atlantic Ocean to New York, where he found something arguably worse than Nazis - vulgarity, and left for Brazil. Zweig, a Jew and lifelong socialist and pacifist, thought himself as much a citizen of the world as an Austrian, but whatever world to which he belonged had revoked his citizenship. He was, in his own words: “miles and miles away from all that was formerly my life, books, concerts, friends and conversation.” And in the Brazillian town of Petropolis, he and his wife took an overdose of barbituates; when they were found, they were holding hands.

This concert on the fifth of June, 1939. The Germans, double crossing Hitler's promise to Neville Chamberlain, captured Czechoslovakia on March 15th of that same year. Every movement of Ma Vlast's six was followed by a thunderous ovation that can be heard over the radio aircheck. What we cannot hear is the spontaneous eruption of the Czech national anthem which followed the performance - a real life equivalent to the Marseillaise scene in Casablanca. This was music making so powerful that the Nazis banned the piece from performance in occupied Czechoslovakia until the Czech Philharmonic, with their nearly-forgotten founding music director, Vaclav Talich, forced the issue by playing the work in Berlin and creating a sensation there. Afterwards, Smetana's Ma Vlast was allowed to be performed again in the occupied Czechoslovakia, but just the next year, the Nazis dismissed Vaclav Talich from his post and closed most of Prague's important cultural institutions.

In orchestral music, as in every kind of music, there are some concerts that go into legend. Many of these concerts have been recorded, and legend is sometimes more important than the performance itself. At this point in history, the most legendary conductor is of all is probably Wilhelm Furtwangler. His most famous performance is Beethoven's 9th in 1942. Some music lovers, not me, think it's an unparalleled event in musical performance and a large part of the aura around that recording is a disproven rumor that Hitler was in the audience. His performance of the same piece in 1951 is similarly legendary for a lot of people because it commemorated the postwar resurrection of the Bayreuth Festival which Wagner founded to promote his own music - and Hitler used for all manner of propaganda, when Bayreuth came back, it was as though German culture itself came back. Furtwangler's Beethoven 9 from 1954 is legendary because he apparently decided during that performance that he no longer wanted to live, and died three months later. A certain kind of classical music lover will always say that they hear Furtwangler's agony in the '42 performance, or a kind of awed solemnity in '51, or his serenity in the '54 performance. Classical music obsessives were always a strange breed of people, but given how against the current you have to swim to love this music in 2018, you have to be still weirder to love this music now.

A few perhaps will say the same about Bernstein's excruciatingly slow Beethoven's 9th in 89' Berlin after the fall of the Wall, or his Shostakovich 5 from '59 - the height of the Cold War when he took the New York Philharmonic to play it in Moscow, where Shostakovich loved the performance so much that he hugged Bernstein onstage. Such legends have grown around Bruno Walter's performance of Beethoven's Fidelio at the Metropolitan Opera after braving the u-boats to come to America in 1941 and his Mahler 9 in '38 -  two weeks before the Anchluß, or Willem Mengelberg's performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in the year before the Nazi invasion of Holland, or Carl Schuricht conducting Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde in '39 Amsterdam when, at a quiet moment some lady shouts out 'Deutschland über Alles, Herr Schuricht", or Furtwangler's Bruckner 5 in 1942 Berlin when you can supposedly hear bombs going off in the distance - that recording is one of my favorite recordings of anything, but I've never heard even a dull thud. Whether or not these performances are worthy of their reputations, there's an aura that seems to have grown around them because at crucial moments of life and death, music simply seems to mean more, and whether the performances are objectively better, many of them certainly are riskier - more extreme tempos, rawer sounds - or at least that's what it seems like through the compressed sonics. Whether or not these performances deserve their reputations, they're larger than life statements of music making from an era when life was so large because it was suffused with death. Except for Beethoven 9, Smetana's Ma Vlast is almost unique in that it has at least three such legendary performances, and they're all fully worthy of their reputation, and we'll talk a lot more about that third, more famous performance, later.

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So now, a few minutes on Wagner from a very perceptive though eccentric music writer: David P. Goldman. (whole thing)

Siegfried, the opera from which this excerpt comes, premiered in in 1876. Ma Vlast was begun in 1874. The score was finished five years earlier, so it's conceivable albeit doubtful that Smetana had played through the score on his own time. But unless Smetana had the score, and more informed musicologists than I would know better, it stands as an uncanny coincidence that both Wagner and Smetana were creating their own forms of musical nationalism at the exact same historical moment, using almost completely reciprocal musical chord progressions from each other.

Here's Wagner:
Entrance to Heil dir, Sonne  (up to 1:14)

And here, now, is Smetana's motif, not exactly the same chords, but very nearly, and but in backwards order.  (up to 1:15:10)

Wagner chords free-float in a river of chromaticism without any solid ground upon which to stand. There's plenty of harmonic chromaticism and dissonance in Ma Vlast, but Smetana's chords fundamentally stand firmly on the solid ground of tonal harmony. But Wagner was the great influence upon every composer of his time, either in imitation or in rebellion. Smetana, like so many composers of his generation, owed Wagner everything. Here is Wagner's evocation of Germany's Rhine river in full flow Das Rheingold, which King Ludwig of Bavaria forced Wagner to premiere in advance of the entire Ring Cycle's completion and which he music world must have known intimately in piano reduction afterward.  (Bohm/Bayreuth '66 up to 3:33) And now, here is Smetana's evocation of Czechoslovakia's Vltava River in full flow in the middle of The Moldau. (up to 19:24)

Personally, I think Smetana must have seen the score to Siegfried, however difficult it might have been to come by. Here are the two violin sections, alone at the top of their register, at the end of Brunhilde's awakening becomes complete and she hails the sun (Kraus/Bayreuth) up to the end of the clip). And now, the moment in The Moldau when The Vltava river goes so far beyond our line of vision that it disappears (Kubelik/Czech Phil up to 27:16). But if Smetana didn't see the score, then the parallels are that much more uncanny - one of those cosmic coincidences history sometimes presents us with in which two creators climb their way through opposite sides of the same mountain and meet at the summit.

It's fruitless to imagine a difference between these two nationalisms by the way their composers use harmony. But there's clearly a difference in the use of their musical materials and their musical aims. Wagner's harmonic use was expansive, trying to create something extra-musical in the midst of the richest musical tradition of his time, and perhaps of all-time - a world populated by gods and dwarves and soulstates and transfigurations. Whether or not Wagner meant it that way, it was music that quickly became catnip to intellectuals in a country who wanted to show the world that they were not only a great nation, but a better nation than others. Smetana merely wanted his music merely to get the Czechs a small space at the table of great music. Smetana was perhaps set on his determined path to be a great Czech composer by overhearing the great Austrian conductor Johann Herbeck, the first great champion of Bruckner, complain that for all the world's great Czech musicians, they produced no great composers.

To show that Smetana's music, and Czech music itself, was ready to be thought as great as any other, Smetana deliberately channeled not only Wagner, but the giant of giants, Beethoven himself. Here is the beginning of the famous theme from Beethoven's 9th (Wand/NDR up to 47:36). And here it is in completely disguised form as a polka-like dance in the first movement of Ma Vlast.  (Talich/CPO up to 0:15)

By the late-19th century Beethoven's music probably became seen as a lot more pompous than Beethoven meant it to be. But it's as though Smetana is presenting a conception of music, a Czech conception of music, completely foreign to Wagner-era Germany. More earthy and physical, more rooted in dance, more deliberately raucous, and far less concerned with the state of the soul. A music for direct application and instant communication, a music by which can not only be loved by the educated connoisseur but elevate peasants to the connoisseur's level. And a music that, at least in that sense, takes up Beethoven's mantle far more than Wagner ever wished to.

And it was Beethoven who provided Smetana with the most important way forward of all in the great crisis of Smetana's life - the crisis that would kill him ten years later. Nobody quite knows why Beethoven went deaf, the cause is sometimes attributed to an auto-immune disorder like lupus, or perhaps to typhus, some quacks even think it was Beethoven's habit of dousing his head in cold water to wake himself up. But in Smetana's case, he woke up at the age of fifty to find himself deaf in one ear, and woke up three weeks later to find himself deaf in the other. The cause was simple and as nineteenth century as causes come: syphilis. Within eight years, Smetana would experience hallucinations and sometimes lose his power of speech, and within nine, he would be a violent threat to those around him. In 1884, one of the greatest and most eminent artists in the world would die in Prague's Katerinky Asylum for Lunatics. The crowd for his funeral was in the thousands, all lined up to pay tribute to the artist who gave them voice.

Harp solo in Vysehrad (Kubelik - up to 0:58)

Beginning a 75 minute orchestral work with a harp solo. Right away, we know that this is a different, kind of orchestra than was ever used before - not even Wagner or Berlioz begin an orchestral work with a harp solo. This particular harp solo is supposed to represent the legendary bard of Czech mythology, Lumir - so already by referencing mythology, we see the same nostalgia about which David Goldman talks. Perhaps Lumir is strumming on a medieval lute. So what tale exactly is Lumir telling us?

Well, Vysehrad is the ancestral seat of Czech memory and its earliest glory, which, like so many small European nations, goes back far into the first millenium. It's the primal longing and nostalgia of the Czech historical narrative. The title of this movement is Vysehrad. Vysehrad is the site of the long since destroyed castle of the earliest Bohemian kings, two of whom also became Holy Roman Emperors. To this day, small churches exist on the site that were built between the eighth and eleventh centuries by the Premyslid Dynasty. Vysehrad was the original settlement of Prague, and to this day, it's customary for many Czechs to celebrate the New Year by going to the site.

But Smetana is also telling us a tale. The first two treble notes of the work are Bb and Eb, or in German notation, B, Es. The initials of Bedrich Smetana. It's an official declaration, a defiance, Smetana will go on.

It was only at fifty years old, when Smetana went deaf, that he began to compose full time. Until he was fifty, he was head of the Prague Provisional Opera and wrote a steady diet of music journalism. It was only when Smetana went deaf, neither able to conduct nor to review performing musicians, forced by the manager of his opera company to sell the royalties to the company in exchange for an extremely meagre annual stipend, that he was forced into composition full time.

Within three months of his deafness, he'd written both Vysehrad and the most famous of all his works, The Moldau. It was a Beethovenian feat, and he'd fully earned the right to appropriate Beethoven's music for his own purposes.

But like so many composers, Beethoven was the giant from whose shadow he could no more free himself than the average Czech could from the Austrian Empire. One Bohemian king, Charles IV, became Holy Roman Emperor, and while his successor, Wenceslaus IV, was never named the Holy Roman Emperor, he was elected to the title many Central European Kings received before they became Holy Roman Emperor: King of the Romans (which actually meant King of the Germans, don't ask...). But after just one Holy Roman Emperor and one King of the Romans, the Bohemian claim to the throne of Central Europe was supplanted by the Hapsburgs of Austria, and thereafter the Bohemains and the Moravians, whom together make the Czechs, became subject to Austrian dominion for five-hundred years. The moment after Smetana quotes Beethoven's 9th, with its message of universal brotherhood, there is a long and noisy chromatic descent into the low notes of the orchestra that's supposed to symbolize the fall of Vysehrad Castle. For Czechs, universal brotherhood was a nice idea until it made them tyrannized for an endless series of generations.

Beethoven's 9th quote/Fall of Vysehrad - Ancerl  (up to 9:25)

Both nationalism and internationalism are based on questions of identity and social justice. Polar opposites, because they're polar opposites and therefore based upon determining answers to the same questions, have more in common than any concept which might seem similar to them. Nationalism may seem like a poisonous disaster to us, but it seemed as much the answer to questions of how to redress social injustice in the 19th century to tens or hundreds of millions as internationalism or transnationalism or intersectionality seem in our day. They are all based on the idea that people should be free to live freely and proudly within their identities. There's no denying the truth of that statement, but will internationalism, in any of its various forms, do any better than nationalism when people come to the realization that they may have to take up the cause of redressing injustice by force? And more importantly, does it matter?

Humans will always dream of better days and better things, it's what keeps us alive from day to day. And their hopes and dreams of a better world are what enable them to build better worlds. Just as the dreams of greater equality through diversity inspire us today, dreams of greater equality through monoculture inspired people a hundred fifty years ago. In either case, is the hope that sustains us and allows us to, ever so slowly, move forward step by halting step into a world where problems can be solved.

When you go to Vysehrad, as I did fifteen years ago, you see the peaceful landscape, and you immediately see how and why it means so much to so many - no less than the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty might to an American, and you might feel some small measure of peace knowing that millions of people have come here for so many hundreds of years to feed their yearnings and hope for better days, and that is the sentiment on which Smetana seems to end Vysehrad.  (Talich - to the end of the clip)

And so we come to The Moldau. One of the most beloved pieces of music ever written, in the Czech Republic and everywhere else in the world. A perfect piece of music in which not a note should ever be changed. And therefore, we are going to go through it note by note and talk about this miracle of composition. Interpolating the program note the composer used with my own description - forgive the purple prose, but The Moldau seems to invite it.

In the beginning was nature, and before there was even water, there was vapor, and the vapor on the rock of mountains turned to ice. The ice melts, and from there forms our bodies of water. (up to 1:04) Stream by stream, thread by thread, drip by drip, Smetana creates a musical river. It begins with the two streams that form the Vltava river, or Moldau in German, the cold Vltava and the warm Vltava, until they make a warm, wet river bed in which both streams unify into a single current. (up to 2:49)

Those of you who know the Israeli national anthem now hear exactly where it comes from. But before the theme was The Moldau, it was a folk song Smetana heard while living in Sweden, which apparently was originally an Italian madrigal, and who knows what before that? I hope you hear the occasional ominous rush of the current which threatens to go from a river that invites people in to a river that dashes those who dare cross it upon the rocks. But then we hear the the thousand year procession of hunters in the woods and meadows Bohemian forest, noblemen and peasants alike, using their hunting horns to signify where they are so the other hunters don't shoot them, communing with the earth in an era before industrial farming when a hunter could still imagine himself part of nature's great chain of being. (up to 3:42)

And then, a wedding dance, a dance like so many Central-to-East European composers. The first and only people whose faces we will see on the course of this river tale. A wedding is life, and in this piece the continuity of life is all. (up to 5:18)

After the wedding the sun sets, and then comes wedding night. But perhaps, this being the 19th century, Smetana can't speak something so graphic out loud, so he calls it the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine. Mermaids have a great romantic pedigree in music: Wagner's Rhine Maidens, Dvorak's Rusalka, Mendelssohn's Fair Melusine, Zemlinsky's Seejungfrau. You hear not only the river flowing onward in the high winds with crossrhythms in the clarinet creating a sheen that sounds like moonlight, but the song of the mermaids in muted violins that in itself creates an aural sheen so luminous that could be moonlight in itself. (up to 7:43)

The sun rises, and The Moldau, as ever, is there for a new day. But rivers, like all nature, is as terribly dangerous as inviting. As we pass the now extinct St. John's Rapids, we see just how lethal this seemingly beautiful life force can be. Nature destroys people, families, cities, whole nation states. But a phenomenon not large enough to kill is also not large enough to give life. After St. John's Rapids, the Moldau reaches its widest point, wide enough to give birth to Prague and the entire story of this ancient and gorgeous city. And then it flows broadly onward, into the distance, in which bodies of water seem to move more slowly until they disappear from view, the mystery of nature, as ever, intact. (up to the end, 11:51)

We're going to skip over Sarka for the moment and go to From Bohemia's Woods and Fields. It tells no story, it merely paints a picture of the Bohemian forest. And some of the writing in the first few minutes is so modern that it could be from Sibelius's 4th Symphony or Tapiola, written forty or fifty years later. Surely, with Smetana's Swedish connections, Sibelius had to know plenty about his music. I don't know if too many musicologists have thought about looking for the roots of Sibelius's bleak and chormatic late style in Smetana's chilling fugue, but I'd imagine a good half-dozen PhD's could be written about it. (to 4:10 Kubelik/Chicago)

And now comes the incredibly underrated movement, Sarka, which tales Czech mythology's tale of the Maiden's War - an uprising of women against men. So we'll forego speculation about why it's underrated and just give us some prep to hear its best passage, one of the great endings in music, in all its magnificence. So in order to tell the tail of Sarka and the Maiden's War, we also have to tell the tale of Libuse.

Libuse is the legendary mother of the Czech people, daughter of the legendary Czech ruler, Krok, who is a bit like King Arthur. Libuse was the youngest and wisest of King Krok's three daughters who could see the future and was chosen by her father to be his successor. She married a ploughman named Premysl, and together they founded the Premyslid dynasty. One day, she spoke from a great cliff high above the Vltava river, and said "I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars.' On the site she built Vysehrad, and the town would be Prague.

After Libuse's death, a band of women staged a rebellion against Premysl, their general was a woman named Vlasta, and her lieutenant was Sarka. Sarka laid a trap for a band of armed men led by Ctirad. She tied herself out to a tree and claimed she was tied there by rebel maidens and put a horn and a jug of mead just out of reach to mock her. When Ctirad unties the tree, she pours the mead for the men as a thank you gift. But the mead has a sleeping potion. When the men fall asleep, Sarka blows a horn, and out come the rebel maidens, who slaughter all the men. Of course, Sarka and Vlasta and all their rebel maidens are defeated soon afterward, but the national mythology remembers her thereafter.

So all we're going to hear is the ending, when the men go to sleep, Sarka blows the horn, and we hear the slaughter. You hear the snoring in a low bassoon note, you hear Sarka blowing the horn in a manner that strangely resembles Götterdämmerung a year before Götterdämmerung's premiere, the suspenseful rustling of the leaves, a mournful clarinet solo with musical material that occurs all through the movement, and then all hell breaks loose. Everything we've heard so far is from Czech orchestras and conductors. But this is the recently deceased Austrian maestro, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. I'm telling which performance this is because so much of the effect of this passage depends on getting those incredibly difficult brass passages exactly right, particularly the trombone, in a manner that seemingly all the Czech orchestras and conductors seem content to keep sloppy, probably because it's just so hard to play correctly, and they do it while Harnoncourt makes an acceleration. Just incredible. Hearing it is the difference between the movement's ending being a musical punctuation mark at a much faster that makes a little bit of excitement before it's all over in a flash, and the musical violence that makes the music sound as it should, like an army of women is getting their long delayed revenge, and butchering all the men to a pulp.   (to the end of the movement)

After these four movements, Smetana put the piece down for a few years during which he wrote his famously angst-ridden String Quartet - From My Life, and three operas that are played all the time in the Czech-speaking lands but rarely ever anywhere else. The first four movements of Ma Vlast can almost be seen as a symphony. It's customary in a lot of performances to take an intermission between the first three movements and the last three. That strikes me as a horrible break in the momentum. The first four movements clearly belong together, and they're meant to belong together. Even if the last two movements technically belong in the same piece with the first four, but they are a very different type of music - the work of a composer who's evolved to become something very different. Quite simply, the difference is down to the DNA level. The aim of the final two movements is extremely different from the first four. The first four movements are hymns to the greatness of the land. The last two are homilies, battle cries, calls to action and defense. The first four movements, even Sarka, have a diversionary, entertainment character to them; the final two are almost grim.

Tabor is a portrait of the Hussite Warriors of the 15th Century. Hussite warriors were proto-Protestants, a relatively rare phenomenon in the modern Czech lands, but for a while, they managed to stave off the combined military forces of the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church.

But the Taborites did not just presage Martin Luther, they were, if anything, proto-Communists. In 1419, they announced the Millenium of Christ, that all property would be commonly held with no taxes, they showed mercy to those whom they defeated, they forgived heresy. The Pope called for five separate Crusades against them, and the armies of the Pope were defeated five separate times. When they were finally defeated,  they were killed to a number between 13,000 and 18,000.

It all began with the priestly intellectual, Jan Hus, who was, until Vaclav Havel, the key figure in Czech history who, like Martin Luther, gained his eminence by denouncing Catholic corruption. When it came time for Luther to do the same a hundred years after Hus, Luther deliberately drew lessons from the mistakes that costed Hus his life and plunged the Kingdom of Bohemia into a series of wars they ultimately could not win. In the beginning, we hear what at least sounds like battle preparation (Neumann/Leipzig, until 1:40). We hear the Hussite's zealot faith portrayed in a hymn tune  (until 6:34). We hear their grim battle and the ultimate defeat they know is inevitable (up to 10:38).

If you were to play the fifth movement, Tabor, on its own, it probably wouldn't work. It only really gets going after more than six minutes of exposition, it has an almost Philip Glass like obsession with the three D's that clearly take their cue from the Allegretto in Beethoven's 7th. So many conductors, great ones, seem completely at a loss to make this music work. Both Karel Ancerl, the great Czech conductor with a particular affinity for difficult music, and Charles Mackerras, the Australian universalist who had a particular weakness for Czech music, seem to 'sort of' get it, but neither can't bring themselves to slow down enough for certain passages not to sound awkward. Lovro von Matacic comes still much closer, with a full measure of weight and raucousness in the orchestral sound; but never a stickler for precision, Matacic creates a very deep, very unprecise, spread out, very Furtwanglerian, German orchestral sound that has no spring of the dance to it, and deep is something this music cannot be accused of being. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is one of the world's most imaginative musicians, and has the imagination to take Smetana's tempo markings at their word - shocking I know; nobody conveys the ominous suspense in the introduction as well as Harnoncourt does, but in different performances Harnoncourt is let down by both the Vienna Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, neither of which give him the requisite heft and raucousness this movement requires. Even Vaclav Talich, the ur-Czech conductor who learned how to conduct Dvorak from the composer, doesn't seem to know what to do with Tabor. Rafael Kubelik, the Czech superstar and my favorite conductor in the world, left five recordings of this piece, and always tried to romanticize it with that huge heart of his - lots of phrase bending and huge pauses and tempo changes, but in doing so he would lose the piece's very fragile through line.  The only others are Czech specialist maestros who went around the world seemingly conducting nothing but Czech music like Jiri Belohlavek with the Czech Philharmonic, and especially Vaclav Neumann with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, these are conductors whom foreigners often write off as dull when we hear them in the most familiar rep, but who've probably conducted every scrap Smetana ever wrote multiple times. Jakub Hrusa, a Czech conductor my age, also gets it, and he's probably well on his way to conducting all the Smetana in the world too. The idiom of Smetana is so foreign to most of us because many things about it are counterintuitive. Smetana left metronome markings only for the last three movements, and any music lover who looks at the score and metronome markings for these final two movements will be shocked by how slow he wants many passages to be played compared to most performances and recordings we hear. There are many sparse passages in Smetana which you would think cannot carry the weight of a slow tempo, but, in fact, they only work at slow tempos. If you try to make Tabor into something speedy, with Lisztian bravura, it will fall flat. But if you turn directly into the inertia, the orchestra can impose an enormous weight of sound, and the perhaps Bruckner-like stoicism of it can be terrifying in a manner like a pagan mask.

It's just another example of how while Smetana is, easily, in the pantheon of musical geniuses, there's so much music by him that hardly anybody knows, and because nobody knows it, the idiom becomes still harder to understand once you finally hear it often enough to have a chnace. But there are two kinds of musical genius, just like there are two kinds of artistic genius. So I'm going to talk about this by quoting and then let the quoter quote a quote. Here is what Isaiah Berlin has to say... about what Friedrich Schiller has to say about it.

In his once celebrated essay, published in 1795, which he called Uber Naive und Sentimentalische Dichtung, Schiller distinguished two types of poets: those who are not conscious of any rift between themselves and their milieu, or within themselves; and those who are so conscious. For the first, art is a natural form of expression, they see what they see directly, and seek to articulate it for its own sake, not for any ulterior purpose, however sublime. 
Homer, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, even Goethe are poets of this kind. They are not, as poets, self-conscious. They do not, like Virgil or Ariosto, stand aside to contemplate their creations and express their own feelings. They are at peace with themselves. Their aim is limited, and they are able, if they have genius, to embody their vision fully. These Schiller calls naive. With them he contrasts those poets who come after the Fall. When man enters the stage of culture, and art has laid its hand on him, the primordial, sensuous unity is gone … The harmony between sense and thinking, which in the earlier stage was real, now exists only as an ideal. It is not in a man, as a fact of his life, but outside him, as an ideal to be realised. 
The unity has been broken. The poet seeks to restore it. He looks for the vanished, harmonious world which some call nature, and builds it from his imagination, and his poetry is his attempt to return to it, to an imagined childhood, and he conveys his sense of the chasm that divides the day-to-day world which is no longer his home from the lost paradise which is conceived only ideally, only in reflection. Hence this ideal realm is bounded by nothing; it is in its very essence indefinable, unattainable, incapable of being embraced by means of any finite medium, no matter how great the poet’s capacity for finding, molding, transforming his material. Let me quote Schiller again: “Visual art reaches its goal in the finite; that of the imagination . . . in infinity.” And again, “The poet … is either himself nature, or he seeks her.” The first of these Schiller calls naiv, the second, sentimentalisch. 
The naive artist is happily married to his muse. He takes rules and conventions for granted, uses them freely and harmoniously, and the effect of his art is, in Schiller’s words, “tranquil, pure, joyous.” The sentimental artist is in a turbulent relationship to his muse: married to her unhappily. Conventions irk him, although he may defend them fanatically. He is Amfortas and seeks peace, salvation, the healing of his own or his society’s secret and patent wounds. He cannot be at rest. 
His observation is forcibly pushed aside by fancy, his sensibility by ideas, he closes his eyes and ears so that nothing may disturb his self-absorption in his own thoughts … His soul suffers no impression without at once turning to contemplate its own play … In this manner we never receive the object itself, only what the reflective understanding of the poet made of the object; and even when the poet is himself this object, when he wants to portray his feelings to us, we do not apprehend his feelings directly, at first hand, but only their reflection in his soul what he thought about them as a spectator of himself.
Smetana was as much the second type, the sentimentalisch - which does not mean sentimental in the sense that we use it today, as there exists in music. So was Wagner, so was Schumann, so was Mahler, so even perhaps was Beethoven. But so many of their rivals and competitors were naive geniuses: Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Verdi, Liszt, Chopin, Strauss, Mozart, Schubert. To these naive geniuses, composing comes easily - and even if the meaning is closer, it does not mean naive in the sense that we mean it today. It's not that these composers are naive people, it's that their genius is naive - the person who has it is completely ignorant of where it comes from. Music for them is like a stream they could never stop if they wanted to turn it off. Whatever qualities their music has, the moment they write the music down, so much of it seems to be perfect, like it comes all too easily to them.

So let me formulate this slightly differently. The first type, the naive type, is musical geniuses. The second type, the sentimental type, is geniuses who chose music and wrote their music with an expressive purpose in mind. Their great musical gifts are hard-won, they take a long time to ferment, and their gifts sometimes dry up before the end of their lives. In some ways, their music can be extremely clumsy, but their great works always manage to do the right thing at the right time.

Smetana was clearly not a musical genius but a genius who chose music. He saw, when no one else did, that Wagner had exhausted tragic opera but that comedy was still a mine worth digging. He saw that his nation had need for an opera which spoke to their experiences, and from those two insights, he created The Bartered Bride - an opera that everybody knows, even if you don't think you know it.  (up to 0:32)

This semi-didactic way of writing was how Smetana got inspiration. He seemed to say, 'What do my people need?' and what they seemed to need, above all else, was music that spoke to their experience. Almost all his mature piano music is dance music. His mature songs can just about all be sung by amateurs. His mature operas are all either from Czech mythology, Czech history, or realistic dramas about Czech people.

I don't know if that is the reason, but except for The Moldau and The Bartered Bride, Smetana doesn't really cross borders. Even Ma Vlast, which has had a number of great conductors champion it, gets much more lip service as a masterpiece than it ever gets performances. The average city with a competent C-List orchestra might play it once every twenty years when some veteran Czech conductor comes into town. Every major musical country has their secret geniuses who don't seem to translate - even Germany has Max Reger and Carl Maria von Weber while Austria has the Franzes Schmidt and Schreker. I have yet to hear a snatch of work by Franz Schmidt and think to myself that this guy has a memorable thought, but that is the nature of so much art - not everything is going to speak to everyone. Abroad from here, people recognize the greatness of Gershwin and Ives all the time, they even play Barber's Adagio ad nauseum even if they don't play any other Barber, but believe it or not, the genius of Aaron Copland still seems to be our little secret. Everybody else seems to find it a kitschy picture-postcard soundtrack.

And yet, like Copland, there is something about the incredible dignity and longing in this music that, at least I, find impossible to stop listening to. But like Copland, it is precisely the power of this music which is dangerous. Just as Copland, the gay Jewish Communist, was co-opted by Reagan's campaign for his Morning in America ads, Smetana, the great Czech nationalists, was co-opted by Czech communists. And this is the moment when we have to tell the story of Zdenek Nejedly - the sinister Czech version of Forrest Gump.

Nejedly was born in Litomysl, which was also the hometown of Smetana. He went to Charles University in Prague, where he studied music and philosophy, the latter with Tomas Masyryk, the first President of a democratic Czechoslovakia. While of student age, Nejedly asked Dvorak for his daughter's hand in marriage, and Dvorak refused him. This may not be the reason for Nejedly's lifelong effort to promote Smetana's importance at the expense of Dvorak's, but I doubt it's unrelated. Nejedly, a university graduate, hated the music of musicians taught at the Prague Conservatory, which he associated with Dvorak, with Germanization, with conservatism, with music being just music rather than a didactic tool for social responsibility.

As a music journalist, Nejedly was so anti-conservatory musicians that he was banned from writing for Czech newspapers. He then began a music journal called 'Smetana' which he ran for sixteen years. It was not without its good causes - which included the music of Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg's great opera - Wozzeck, but the first four years of the journal seemed to be largely devoted to attacking the legacy of Dvorak and every scrap of music Dvorak wrote. When musicians rose in defense of Dvorak with a petition of support, Nejedly took note and sought to end the careers of the musicians who sided with Dvorak in a hail of vitriol, which included a number of great and undervalued Czech composers, one of whom was Dvorak's son-in-law Joseph Suk - of whom Dvorak obviously approved in a manner he didn't of the man who later sought to trash his legacy; another of whom was Leos Janacek, whom in 2018 seems arguably a greater composer than either Smetana or Dvorak.

Like so many ideologues from small nations, Nejedly was both a Nationalist and a Communist. Nejedly, obviously no stranger to controversy, became one of the Communist Party's most effective spokesmen once the party was legalized in the early 20's. For twenty years, he largely devoted himself to political activism. He wanted to write three grand multi-volume biographies about three great men of his era - Smetana, Masyryk, and Lenin. He barely even scratched the surface of the Smetana biography, but during World War II, he fled to the Soviet Union, and so eminent a political figure was he considered by his return after the war's end that Eduard Benes, postwar leader of the democratic Czechoslovakia, appointed him Minister of Education, Arts, and Sciences, and in 1946 he was appointed Minister of Social Security.

When Stalin created the iron curtain in the late 40's, it was time for show trials, and few people could possibly have been in a better place to settle scores than Nejedly. Nejedly's vitriolic public criticisms of Janacek turned many old friends and allies against him. One old friend in particular, Josef Hutter, whose sole crime was in not shunning another friend who'd criticized Nejedly, was given a show trial, at the end of which was sentenced to thirty-nine years in prison.

 Nejedly had still higher ambitions. While at a meeting at which Stalin berated his Czech lapdog, Klement Gottwald, Stalin is reported to have said "I could have anyone do your job." He then gestured to Nejedly, "Even Nejedly could do it!"

From that moment on, Nejedly wanted nothing more than to be the dictator of the country, and until the end of his life apparently did everything in his power to earn the good graces of his party's Russian masters. He was thought of by the Czech party elite as a contemptible old man and a joke. The university students, required to read Nejedly's book: "The Communists - Inheritors of the Grand Progressive Tradition of the Czech Nation" as part of the Marxist curriculum, thought of him as just another faceless Marxist apparatchik, and most probably had no idea he was even a musician.

The musical legacy of Zdenek Nejedly was the requirement that Czech students listen to Smetana ad nauseum. Bussed to sit in concert halls, regularly listen to recordings, learn to play Smetana. Nothing kills love of music like being conscripted to love it, and nothing killed Smetana's reputation faster than his greatest champion. Nothing can kill the reputation of a naive musical genius, their work will always speak for itself. But a sentimental artistic genius needs the right environment for his work to speak properly, and if Smetana could not even speak in the Czech lands, what hope had he elsewhere?

And yet Smetana remains. I have a close musical friend who is Slovak, and rebelled against the diet of Smetana, Dvorak, and Janacek he was fed as a kid to find Sex Pistols, Parliament Funkadelic, Taraf de Haidouks and Fanfare Ciocarlia. And yet, somehow, in spite of this music getting drummed into him as a kid, there is still room for Smetana and Dvorak. It's the music his parents and grandparents tuned into every holiday when it on television and the radio, in many ways, it's still the music of communal life, present for new generations to appreciate if they so choose.






Thursday, February 22, 2018

It's Not Even Past #11 - Ma Vlast - 90%

https://youtu.be/PEHlj2qwF3I?t=1h15m34s (up to 1:19:25)
Logically, a foreigner who did not see those days at first hand would probably imagine that at a time when an egg cost as much... as the price of a luxury car in the past... women would be rushing through the streets tearing their hair, shops would be empty because no one could afford to buy anything, and the theaters and other places of entertainment would have no audiences at all. Astonishingly, however, it was just the opposite. The will for life to go on proved stronger than the instability of the currency. In the midst of financial chaos, daily life continued almost unchanged. Individuals, of course, felt a great deal of change--the rich were impoverished when their money in banks and government securities melted away, spectators grew rich. But regardless of individual fates, the flywheel of the mechanism kept on turning in the same old rhythm. Nothing stood still. The baker made bread, the cobbler made boots, the writer wrote books, the farmer cultivated the land, trains ran regularly, the newspaper ly outside your door every morning at the usual time, and the places of entertainment in particular, the bars and theaters, were full to overflowing. For with the daily loss in value of money, once the most stable aspect of life, people came to appreciate true values such as work, love, friendship, art and nature all the more, and in the midst of disaster the nation as a whole lived more intensely than ever before, strung to a higher pitch. Young men and girls went walking in the mountains and came home tanned brown by the sun, music played in the dance halls until late at night, new factories and businesses were founded everywhere. I myself do not think I ever lived and worked with more intensity and concentration than I did in those years. What had been important to us before mattered even more now. Art was never more popular in Austria than at the time of chaos. Money had let us down; we sensed that what was eternal in us was all that would last.
I will never forget what operatic performances were like in those days of our greatest need. You groped your way through dimly lit streets, for street lighting was feeling the effects of the fuel shortage, you paid for your seat in the gallery with a bundle of banknotes that would once have allowed you to hire a luxurious box for a year. You sat in your overcoat, because the auditorium was unheated, and pressed close to your neighbors for warmth--and the theater itself, once brilliant with uniforms and expensive gowns, was so dismal and grey! No one knew whether it would still be possible for the opera to keep going next week if money went on falling in value and there were no coal deliveries. Everything seemed doubly desperate in this scene of former luxury and imperial extravagance. The musicians of the Philharmonic sat in the pit, also grey shadows of themselves, emaciated and exhausted by deprivation, and we in the audience looked like ghosts in this now ghostly theatre. But then the conductor raised his baton, the curtains parted, and it was more wonderful than ever before. The singers and musicians gave of their best, for they all felt that this might be the last time they performed in the theatre they loved. And we listened with bated breath, more receptvie than ever, knowing that for us, too, this might be the last time. Thousands of us, hundreds of thousands, lived like this. We all strained ourselves to the limit in these weeks and months and years on the brink of downfall. I never felt the will to live in a nation and in myself as strongly as I did then, when the end of everything, life and survival itself, was at stake. 
The quote is describing Vienna, not Prague, and I've taken its references to any German speaking territory out, because the conditions could describe anywhere in Europe during the wars. It's from The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, his memoir of what it meant to be an exile from a fragile kingdom of culture that ceased to exist with Hitler because Hitler wanted to make a version of it permanent. Like so many rich German Jews, Zweig found himself a bit chased by Hitler, first to London, but when the Blitz came to England, Zweig wrongly sensed that a free England's days were numbered, so he crossed the Atlantic Ocean to New York, where he found something arguably worse than Nazis - vulgarity, and left for Brazil. Zweig, a Jew and lifelong socialist and pacifist, thought himself as much a citizen of the world as an Austrian, but whatever world to which he belonged had revoked his citizenship. He was, in his own words: “miles and miles away from all that was formerly my life, books, concerts, friends and conversation.” And in the Brazillian town of Petropolis, he and his wife took an overdose of barbituates; when they were found, they were holding hands.

This concert on the fifth of June, 1939. The Germans, double crossing Hitler's promise to Neville Chamberlain, captured Czechoslovakia on March 15th of that same year. Every movement of Ma Vlast's six was followed by a thunderous ovation that can be heard over the radio aircheck. What we cannot hear is the spontaneous eruption of the Czech national anthem which followed the performance - a real life equivalent to the Marseillaise scene in Casablanca. This was music making so powerful that the Nazis banned the piece from performance in occupied Czechoslovakia until the Czech Philharmonic, with their nearly-forgotten founding music director, Vaclav Talich, forced the issue by playing the work in Berlin and creating a sensation there. Afterwards, Smetana's Ma Vlast was allowed to be performed again in the occupied Czechoslovakia, but just the next year, the Nazis dismissed Vaclav Talich from his post and closed most of Prague's important cultural institutions.

In orchestral music, as in every kind of music, there are some concerts that go into legend. Many of these concerts have been recorded, and legend is sometimes more important than the performance itself. At this point in history, the most legendary conductor is of all is probably Wilhelm Furtwangler. His most famous performance is Beethoven's 9th in 1942. Some music lovers, not me, think it's an unparalleled event in musical performance and a large part of the aura around that recording is a disproven rumor that Hitler was in the audience. His performance of the same piece in 1951 is similarly legendary for a lot of people because it commemorated the postwar resurrection of the Bayreuth Festival which Wagner founded to promote his own music - and Hitler used for all manner of propaganda, when Bayreuth came back, it was as though German culture itself came back. Furtwangler's Beethoven 9 from 1954 is legendary because he apparently decided during that performance that he no longer wanted to live, and died three months later. A certain kind of classical music lover will always say that they hear Furtwangler's agony in the '42 performance, or a kind of awed solemnity in '51, or his serenity in the '54 performance. Classical music obsessives were always a strange breed of people, but given how against the current you have to swim to love this music in 2018, you have to be still weirder to love this music now.

A few perhaps will say the same about Bernstein's excruciatingly slow Beethoven's 9th in 89' Berlin after the fall of the Wall, or his Shostakovich 5 from '59 - the height of the Cold War when he took the New York Philharmonic to play it in Moscow, where Shostakovich loved the performance so much that he hugged Bernstein onstage. Such legends have grown around Bruno Walter's performance of Beethoven's Fidelio at the Metropolitan Opera after braving the u-boats to come to America in 1941 and his Mahler 9 in '38 -  two weeks before the Anchluß, or Willem Mengelberg's performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in the year before the Nazi invasion of Holland, or Carl Schuricht conducting Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde in '39 Amsterdam when, at a quiet moment some lady shouts out 'Deutschland über Alles, Herr Schuricht", or Furtwangler's Bruckner 5 in 1942 Berlin when you can supposedly hear bombs going off in the distance - that recording is one of my favorite recordings of anything, but I've never heard even a dull thud. Whether or not these performances are worthy of their reputations, there's an aura that seems to have grown around them because at crucial moments of life and death, music simply seems to mean more, and whether the performances are objectively better, many of them certainly are riskier - more extreme tempos, rawer sounds - or at least that's what it seems like through the compressed sonics. Whether or not these performances deserve their reputations, they're larger than life statements of music making from an era when life was so large because it was suffused with death. Except for Beethoven 9, Smetana's Ma Vlast is almost unique in that it has at least three such legendary performances, and they're all fully worthy of their reputation, and we'll talk a lot more about that third, more famous performance, later.

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So now, a few minutes on Wagner from a very perceptive though eccentric music writer: David P. Goldman. (whole thing)

Siegfried, the opera from which this excerpt comes, premiered in in 1876. Ma Vlast was begun in 1874. The score was finished five years earlier, so it's conceivable albeit doubtful that Smetana had played through the score on his own time. But unless Smetana had the score, and more informed musicologists than I would know better, it stands as an uncanny coincidence that both Wagner and Smetana were creating their own forms of musical nationalism at the exact same historical moment, using almost completely reciprocal musical chord progressions from each other.

Entrance to Heil dir, Sonne  (up to 1:14)

And here, now, is Smetana's motif, very nearly the same chords, but in backwards order.  (up to 1:15:10)

Wagner chords free-float in a river of chromaticism without any solid ground upon which to stand. There's plenty of harmonic chromaticism and dissonance in Ma Vlast, but Smetana's chords fundamentally stand firmly on the solid ground of tonal harmony. But Wagner was the great influence upon every composer of his time, either in imitation or in rebellion. Smetana, like so many composers of his generation, owed Wagner everything. Here is Wagner's evocation of Germany's Rhine river in full flow Das Rheingold, which King Ludwig of Bavaria forced Wagner to premiere in advance of the entire Ring Cycle's completion and which he music world must have known intimately in piano reduction afterward.  (Bohm/Bayreuth '66 up to 3:33) And now, here is Smetana's evocation of Czechoslovakia's Vltava River in full flow in the middle of The Moldau. (up to 19:24)

Personally, I think Smetana must have seen the score to Siegfried, however difficult it might have been to come by. Here are the two violin sections, alone at the top of their register, at the end of Brunhilde's awakening becomes complete and she hails the sun (Kraus/Bayreuth) up to the end of the clip). And now, the moment in The Moldau when The Vltava river goes so far beyond our line of vision that it disappears (Kubelik/Czech Phil up to 27:16). But if Smetana didn't see the score, then the parallels are that much more uncanny - one of those cosmic coincidences history sometimes presents us with in which two creators climb their way through opposite sides of the same mountain and meet at the summit.

It's fruitless to imagine a difference between these two nationalisms by the way their composers use harmony. But there's clearly a difference in the use of their musical materials and their musical aims. Wagner's harmonic use was expansive, trying to create something extra-musical in the midst of the richest musical tradition of his time, and perhaps of all-time - a world populated by gods and dwarves and soulstates and transfigurations. Whether or not Wagner meant it that way, it was music that quickly became catnip to intellectuals in a country who wanted to show the world that they were not only a great nation, but a better nation than others. Smetana merely wanted his music merely to get the Czechs a small space at the table of great music. One time, Smetana heard the great Austrian conductor Johann Herbeck, the first great champion of Bruckner, complain that for all the world's great Czech musicians, there were no great composers.

To show that Smetana's music, and Czech music itself, was ready to be thought as great as any other, Smetana deliberately channeled not only Wagner, but the giant of giants, Beethoven himself. Here is the beginning of the famous theme from Beethoven's 9th (up to 47:36). And here it is in completely disguised form as a polka-like dance in the first movement of Ma Vlast.  (up to 0:15)

By the late-19th century Beethoven's music probably became seen as a lot more pompous than Beethoven meant it to be. But it's as though Smetana is presenting a conception of music, a Czech conception of music, completely foreign to Wagner-era Germany. More earthy and physical, more rooted in dance, more deliberately raucous, and far less concerned with the state of the soul. A music for direct application and instant communication, a music by which can not only be loved by the educated connoisseur but elevate peasants to the connoisseur's level. And a music that, at least in that sense, takes up Beethoven's mantle far more than Wagner ever wished to.

And it was Beethoven who provided Smetana with the most important way forward of all in the great crisis of Smetana's life - the crisis that would kill him ten years later. Nobody quite knows why Beethoven went deaf, the cause is sometimes attributed to an auto-immune disorder like Lupus, or perhaps to typhus, some quacks even think it was Beethoven's habit of dousing his head in cold water to wake himself up. But in Smetana's case, he woke up at the age of fifty to find himself deaf in one ear, and woke up three weeks later to find himself deaf in the other. The cause was simple and as nineteenth century as causes come: syphilis. Within eight years, Smetana would experience hallucinations and sometimes lose his power of speech, and within nine, he would be a violent threat to those around him. In 1884, one of the greatest and most eminent artists in the world would die in Prague's Katerinky Asylum for Lunatics. The crowd for his funeral was in the thousands, all lined up to pay tribute to the artist who gave them voice.

Harp solo in Vysehrad (Kubelik - up to 0:58)

Beginning a 75 minute orchestral work with a harp solo. Right away, we know that this is a different, kind of orchestra than was ever used before - not even Wagner or Berlioz begin an orchestral work with a harp solo. The harp is supposed to represent the legendary bard of Czech mythology, Lumir - so already by referencing mythology, we see the same nostalgia about which David Goldman talks. Perhaps Lumir strumming on a medieval lute. So what tale exactly is Lumir telling us?

Well, Vysehrad is the ancestral seat of Czech memory and its earliest glory, which, like so many small European nations, goes back far into the first millenium. It's the primal longing and nostalgia of the Czech historical narrative. The title of this movement is Vysehrad. Vysehrad is the site of the long since destroyed castle of the earliest Bohemian kings, two of whom also became Holy Roman Emperors. To this day, small churches exist on the site that were built between the eighth and eleventh centuries by the Premyslid Dynasty. Vysehrad was the original settlement of Prague, and to this day, it's customary for many Czechs to celebrate the New Year by going to the site.

But Smetana is also telling us a tale. The first two treble notes of the work are Bb and Eb, or in German notation, B, Es. The initials of Bedrich Smetana. It's an official declaration, a defiance, Smetana will go on.

It was only at fifty years old, when Smetana went deaf, that he began to compose full time. Until he was fifty, he was head of the Prague Provisional Opera and wrote a steady diet of music journalism. It was only when Smetana went deaf, neither able to conduct or to review performing musicians, forced by the manager of his opera company to sell the royalties to the company in exchange for an extremely meagre annual stipend, that he was forced into composition full time.

Within three months of his deafness, he'd written both Vysehrad and the most famous of all his works, The Moldau. It was a Beethovenian feat, and he'd fully earned the right to appropriate Beethoven's music for his own purposes.

But like so many composers, Beethoven was the giant from whose shadow he could no more free himself than the average Czech could from the Austrian Empire. One Bohemian king, Charles IV, became Holy Roman Emperor, and while his successor, Wenceslaus IV, was never named the Holy Roman Emperor, he was elected to the title many Central European Kings received before they became Holy Roman Emperor: King of the Romans (which actually meant King of the Germans, don't ask...). But after just one Holy Roman Emperor and one King of the Romans, the Bohemian claim to the throne of Central Europe was supplanted by the Hapsburgs of Austria, and thereafter the Bohemains and the Moravians, whom together make the Czechs, became subject to Austrian dominion for five-hundred years. The moment after Smetana quotes Beethoven's 9th, with its message of universal brotherhood, there is a long and noisy chromatic descent into the low notes of the orchestra that's supposed to symbolize the fall of Vysehrad Castle. For Czechs, universal brotherhood was a nice idea until it made them tyrannized for an endless series of generations.

Beethoven's 9th quote/Fall of Vysehrad - Ancerl  (up to 9:25)

Both nationalism and internationalism are based on questions of identity and social justice. Polar opposites, because they're polar opposites and therefore based upon determining answers to the same questions, have more in common than any concept which might seem similar to them. Nationalism may seem like a poisonous disaster to us, but it seemed as much the answer to questions of how to redress social injustice in the 19th century to tens or hundreds of millions as internationalism or transnationalism or intersectionality seem in our day. They are all based on the idea that people should be free to live freely and proudly within their identities. There's no denying the truth of that statement, but will internationalism, in any of its various forms, do any better than nationalism when people come to the realization that they may have to take up the cause of redressing injustice by force? And more importantly, does it matter?

Humans will always dream of better days and better things, it's what keeps us alive from day to day. And their hopes and dreams of a better world are what enable them to build better worlds. Just as the dreams of greater equality through diversity inspire us today, dreams of greater equality through monoculture inspired people a hundred fifty years ago. In either case, is the hope that sustains us and allows us to, ever so slowly, move forward step by halting step into a world where problems can be solved.

When you go to Vysehrad, as I did fifteen years ago, you see the peaceful landscape, and you immediately see how and why it means so much to so many - no less than the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty might to an American, and you might feel some small measure of peace knowing that millions of people have come here for so many hundreds of years to feed their yearnings and hope for better days, and that is the sentiment on which Smetana seems to end Vysehrad.  (Talich - to the end of the clip)

And so we come to The Moldau. One of the most beloved pieces of music ever written, in the Czech Republic and everywhere else in the world. A perfect piece of music in which not a note should ever be changed. And therefore, we are going to go through it note by note and talk about this miracle of composition. Interpolating the program note the composer used with my own description - forgive the purple prose, but The Moldau seems to invite it.

In the beginning was nature, and before there was even water, there was vapor, and the vapor on the rock of mountains turned to ice. The ice melts, and from there forms our bodies of water. (up to 1:04) Stream by stream, thread by thread, drip by drip, Smetana creates a musical river. It begins with the two streams that form the Vltava river, or Moldau in German, the cold Vltava and the warm Vltava, until they make a warm, wet river bed in which both streams unify into a single current. (up to 2:49)

Those of you who know the Israeli national anthem now hear exactly where it comes from. But before the theme was The Moldau, it was a folk song Smetana heard while living in Sweden, which apparently was originally an Italian song. I'm sure you hear the occasional ominous rush of the current which threatens to go from a river that invites people in to a river that dashes those who dare cross it upon the rocks. But then we hear the the thousand year procession of hunters in the woods and meadows Bohemian forest, noblemen and peasants alike, using their hunting horns to signify where they are so the other hunters don't shoot them, communing with the earth in an era before industrial farming when a hunter could still imagine himself part of nature's great chain of being. (up to 3:42)

And then, a wedding dance, a dance like so many Central-to-East European composers. The first and only people whose faces we will see on the course of this river tale. A wedding is life, and in this piece the continuity of life is all. (up to 5:18)

After the wedding the sun sets, and then comes wedding night. But perhaps, this being the 19th century, Smetana can't speak something so graphic out loud, so he calls it the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine. Mermaids have a great romantic pedigree in music: Wagner's Rhine Maidens, Dvorak's Rusalka, Mendelssohn's Fair Melusine, Zemlinsky's Seejungfrau. You hear not only the river flowing onward in the high winds with crossrhythms in the clarinet creating a sheen that sounds like moonlight, but the song of the mermaids in muted violins that in itself creates an aural sheen so luminous that could be moonlight in itself. (up to 7:43)

The sun rises, and The Moldau, as ever, is there for a new day. But rivers, like all nature, is as terribly dangerous as inviting. As we pass the now extinct St. John's Rapids, we see just how lethal this seemingly beautiful life force can be. Nature destroys people, families, cities, whole nation states. But a phenomenon not large enough to kill is also not large enough to give life. After St. John's Rapids, the Moldau reaches its widest point, wide enough to give birth to Prague and the entire story of this ancient and gorgeous city. And then it flows broadly onward, into the distance, in which bodies of water seem to move more slowly until they disappear from view, the mystery of nature, as ever, intact. (up to the end)

And now comes the incredibly underrated movement, Sarka, which tales Czech mythology's tale of the Maiden's War - an uprising of women against men. So we'll forego speculation about why it's underrated and just give us some prep to hear its best passage, one of the great endings in music, in all its magnificence. So in order to tell the tail of Sarka and the Maiden's War, we also have to tell the tale of Libuse.

Libuse is the legendary mother of the Czech people, daughter of the legendary Czech ruler, Krok, who is a bit like King Arthur. Libuse was the youngest and wisest of King Krok's three daughters who could see the future and was chosen by her father to be his successor. She married a ploughman named Premysl, and together they founded the Premyslid dynasty. One day, she spoke from a great cliff high above the Vltava river, and said "I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars.' On the site she built Vysehrad, and the town would be Prague.

After Libuse's death, a band of women staged a rebellion against Premysl, their general was a woman named Vlasta, and her lieutenant was Sarka. Sarka laid a trap for a band of armed men led by Ctirad. She tied herself out to a tree and claimed she was tied there by rebel maidens and put a horn and a jug of mead just out of reach to mock her. When Ctirad unties the tree, she pours the mead for the men as a thank you gift. But the mead has a sleeping potion. When the men fall asleep, Sarka blows a horn, and out come the rebel maidens, who slaughter all the men. Of course, Sarka and Vlasta and all their rebel maidens are defeated soon afterward, but the national mythology remembers her thereafter.

So all we're going to hear is the ending, when the men go to sleep, Sarka blows the horn, and we hear the slaughter. You hear the snoring in a low bassoon note, you hear Sarka blowing the horn in a manner that strangely resembles Götterdämmerung a year before Götterdämmerung's premiere, the suspenseful rustling of the leaves, a mournful clarinet solo with musical material that occurs all through the movement, and then all hell breaks loose. Everything we've heard so far is from Czech orchestras and conductors. But this is the recently deceased Austrian maestro, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. I'm telling which performance this is because so much of the effect of this passage depends on getting those incredibly difficult brass passages exactly right, particularly the trombone, in a manner that seemingly all the Czech orchestras and conductors seem content to keep sloppy, probably because it's just so hard to play correctly, and they do it while Harnoncourt makes an acceleration. Just incredible. Hearing it is the difference between the movement's ending being a musical punctuation mark at a much faster that makes a little bit of excitement before it's all over in a flash, and the musical violence that makes the music sound as it should, like an army of women is getting their long delayed revenge, and butchering all the men to a pulp.   (to the end of the movement)

So now we come to From Bohemia's Woods and Fields. It tells no story, it merely paints a picture of the Bohemian forest. And some of the writing in the first few minutes is so modern that it could be from Sibelius's 4th Symphony or Tapiola, written forty or fifty years later. Surely, with Smetana's Swedish connections, Sibelius had to know plenty about his music. I don't know if too many musicologists have thought about looking for the roots of Sibelius's bleak and chormatic late style in Smetana's chilling fugue, but I'd imagine a good half-dozen PhD's could be written about it. (to 4:10 Kubelik/Chicago)

After these four movements, Smetana put the piece down for a few years during which he wrote his famously angst-ridden String Quartet - From My Life, and three operas that are played all the time in the Czech-speaking lands but rarely ever anywhere else. The first four movements of Ma Vlast can almost be seen as a symphony. It's customary in a lot of performances to take an intermission between the first three movements and the last three. That strikes me as a horrible break in the momentum. The first four movements clearly belong together, and they're meant to belong together. Even if the last two movements technically belong with the first four, they're the work of a  composer who has evolved to become something very different.

If you were to play the fifth movement, Tabor, on its own, it frankly wouldn't work at all. It only makes sense when seen as a two-part meta-symphonic poem that is an organic part of the last movement, Blanik. It takes five minutes to get going, it has an almost Philip Glass like obsession with the three D's that clearly take their cue from the Allegretto in Beethoven's 7th.

Smetana is, easily, in the pantheon of musical geniuses, and there's so much music by him that hardly anybody knows. But there are two kinds of musical genius, just like there are two kinds of artistic genius. So I'm going to talk about this by quoting and then let the quoter quote a quote. Here is what Isaiah Berlin has to say... about what Friedrich Schiller has to say about it.

In his once celebrated essay, published in 1795, which he called Uber Naive und Sentimentalische Dichtung, Schiller distinguished two types of poets: those who are not conscious of any rift between themselves and their milieu, or within themselves; and those who are so conscious. For the first, art is a natural form of expression, they see what they see directly, and seek to articulate it for its own sake, not for any ulterior purpose, however sublime. 
Homer, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, even Goethe are poets of this kind. They are not, as poets, self-conscious. They do not, like Virgil or Ariosto, stand aside to contemplate their creations and express their own feelings. They are at peace with themselves. Their aim is limited, and they are able, if they have genius, to embody their vision fully. These Schiller calls naive. With them he contrasts those poets who come after the Fall. When man enters the stage of culture, and art has laid its hand on him, the primordial, sensuous unity is gone … The harmony between sense and thinking, which in the earlier stage was real, now exists only as an ideal. It is not in a man, as a fact of his life, but outside him, as an ideal to be realised. 
The unity has been broken. The poet seeks to restore it. He looks for the vanished, harmonious world which some call nature, and builds it from his imagination, and his poetry is his attempt to return to it, to an imagined childhood, and he conveys his sense of the chasm that divides the day-to-day world which is no longer his home from the lost paradise which is conceived only ideally, only in reflection. Hence this ideal realm is bounded by nothing; it is in its very essence indefinable, unattainable, incapable of being embraced by means of any finite medium, no matter how great the poet’s capacity for finding, molding, transforming his material. Let me quote Schiller again: “Visual art reaches its goal in the finite; that of the imagination . . . in infinity.” And again, “The poet … is either himself nature, or he seeks her.” The first of these Schiller calls naiv, the second, sentimentalisch. 
The naive artist is happily married to his muse. He takes rules and conventions for granted, uses them freely and harmoniously, and the effect of his art is, in Schiller’s words, “tranquil, pure, joyous.” The sentimental artist is in a turbulent relationship to his muse: married to her unhappily. Conventions irk him, although he may defend them fanatically. He is Amfortas and seeks peace, salvation, the healing of his own or his society’s secret and patent wounds. He cannot be at rest. 
His observation is forcibly pushed aside by fancy, his sensibility by ideas, he closes his eyes and ears so that nothing may disturb his self-absorption in his own thoughts … His soul suffers no impression without at once turning to contemplate its own play … In this manner we never receive the object itself, only what the reflective understanding of the poet made of the object; and even when the poet is himself this object, when he wants to portray his feelings to us, we do not apprehend his feelings directly, at first hand, but only their reflection in his soul what he thought about them as a spectator of himself.
Smetana was as much the second type, the sentimentalisch - which does not mean sentimental in the sense that we use it today, as there exists in music. So was Wagner, so was Schumann, so was Mahler, so even perhaps was Beethoven. But so many of their rivals and competitors were naive geniuses: Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Verdi, Liszt, Chopin, Strauss, Mozart, Schubert. To these naive geniuses, composing comes easily - and even if the meaning is closer, it does not mean naive in the sense that we mean it today. It's not that these composers are naive people, it's that their genius is naive - the person who has it is completely ignorant of where it comes from. Music for them is like a stream they could never stop if they wanted to turn it off. Whatever qualities their music has, the moment they write the music down, so much of it seems to be perfect, like it comes all too easily to them.

So let me formulate this slightly differently. The first type, the naive type, is musical geniuses. The second type, the sentimental type, is geniuses who chose music and wrote their music with an expressive purpose in mind. Their great musical gifts are hard-won, they take a long time to ferment, and their gifts sometimes dry up before the end of their lives. In some ways, their music can be extremely clumsy, but their great works always manage to do the right thing at the right time.

Smetana was clearly not a musical genius but a genius who chose music. He saw, when no one else did, that Wagner had exhausted tragic opera but that comedy was still a mine worth digging. He saw that his nation had need for an opera which spoke to their experiences, and from those two insights, he created The Bartered Bride - an opera that everybody knows, even if you don't think you know it.  (up to 0:32)

This semi-didactic way of writing was how Smetana got inspiration. He seemed to say, 'What do my people need?' and what they seemed to need, above all else, was music that spoke to their experience. Almost all his mature piano music is dance music. His mature songs can just about all be sung by amateurs. His mature operas are all either from Czech mythology, Czech history, or realistic dramas about Czech people.

I don't know if that is the reason, but except for The Moldau and The Bartered Bride, Smetana doesn't really cross borders. Even Ma Vlast, which has had a number of great conductors champion it, gets much more lip service as a masterpiece than it ever gets performances. The average city with a competent C-List orchestra might play it once every twenty years when some veteran Czech conductor comes into town. Every major musical country has their secret geniuses who don't seem to translate - even Germany has Max Reger and Carl Maria von Weber while Austria has the Franzes Schmidt and Schreker. I have yet to hear a snatch of work by Franz Schmidt and think to myself that this guy has a memorable thought, but that is the nature of so much art - not everything is going to speak to everyone. Abroad from here, people recognize the greatness of Gershwin and Ives all the time, they even play Barber's Adagio ad nauseum even if they don't play any other Barber, but believe it or not, the genius of Aaron Copland still seems to be our little secret. Everybody else seems to find it a kitschy picture-postcard soundtrack.

And yet, like Copland, there is something about the incredible dignity and longing in this music that, at least I, find impossible to stop listening to. But like Copland, it is precisely the power of this music which is dangerous. Just as Copland, the gay Jewish Communist, was co-opted by Reagan's campaign for his Morning in America ads, Smetana, the great Czech nationalists, was co-opted by Czech communists. And this is the moment when we have to tell the story of Zdenek Nejedly - the sinister Czech version of Forrest Gump.

Nejedly was born in Litomysl, which was also the hometown of Smetana. He went to Charles University in Prague, where he studied music and philosophy, the latter with Tomas Masyryk, the first President of a democratic Czechoslovakia. While of student age, Nejedly asked Dvorak for his daughter's hand in marriage, and Dvorak refused him. This may not be the reason for Nejedly's lifelong effort to promote Smetana's importance at the expense of Dvorak's, but I doubt it's unrelated. Nejedly, a university graduate, hated the music of musicians taught at the Prague Conservatory, which he associated with Dvorak, with Germanization, with conservatism, with music being just music rather than a didactic tool for social responsibility.

As a music journalist, Nejedly was so anti-conservatory musicians that he was banned from writing for Czech newspapers. He then began a music journal called 'Smetana' which he ran for sixteen years. It was not without its good causes - which included the music of Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg's great opera - Wozzeck, but the first four years of the journal seemed to be largely devoted to attacking the legacy of Dvorak and every scrap of music Dvorak wrote. When musicians rose in defense of Dvorak with a petition of support, Nejedly took note and sought to end the careers of the musicians who sided with Dvorak in a hail of vitriol, which included a number of great and undervalued Czech composers, one of whom was Dvorak's son-in-law Joseph Suk - of whom Dvorak obviously approved in a manner he didn't of the man who later sought to trash his legacy; another of whom was Leos Janacek, whom in 2018 seems arguably a greater composer than either Smetana or Dvorak.

Like so many ideologues from small nations, Nejedly was both a Nationalist and a Communist. Nejedly, obviously no stranger to controversy, became one of the Communist Party's most effective spokesmen once the party was legalized in the early 20's. For twenty years, he largely devoted himself to political activism. He wanted to write three grand multi-volume biographies about three great men of his era - Smetana, Masyryk, and Lenin. He barely even scratched the surface of the Smetana biography, but during World War II, he fled to the Soviet Union, and so eminent a political figure was he considered by his return after the war's end that Eduard Benes, postwar leader of the democratic Czechoslovakia, appointed him Minister of Education, Arts, and Sciences, and in 1946 he was appointed Minister of Social Security.

When Stalin created the iron curtain in the late 40's, it was time for show trials, and few people could possibly have been in a better place to settle scores than Nejedly. Nejedly's vitriolic public criticisms of Janacek turned many old friends and allies against him. One old friend in particular, Josef Hutter, whose sole crime was in not shunning another friend who'd criticized Nejedly, was given a show trial, at the end of which was sentenced to thirty-nine years in prison.

 Nejedly had still higher ambitions. While at a meeting at which Stalin berated his Czech lapdog, Klement Gottwald, Stalin is reported to have said "I could have anyone do your job." He then gestured to Nejedly, "Even Nejedly could do it!"

From that moment on, Nejedly wanted nothing more than to be the dictator of the country, and until the end of his life apparently did everything in his power to earn the good graces of his party's Russian masters. He was thought of by the Czech party elite as a contemptible old man and a joke. The university students, required to read Nejedly's book: "The Communists - Inheritors of the Grand Progressive Tradition of the Czech Nation" as part of the Marxist curriculum, thought of him as just another faceless Marxist apparatchik, and most probably had no idea he was even a musician.

The musical legacy of Zdenek Nejedly was the requirement that Czech students listen to Smetana ad nauseum. Bussed to sit in concert halls, regularly listen to recordings, learn to play Smetana. Nothing kills love of music like being conscripted to love it, and nothing killed Smetana's reputation faster than his greatest champion. Nothing can kill the reputation of a naive musical genius, their work will always speak for itself. But a sentimental artistic genius needs the right environment for his work to speak properly, and if Smetana could not even speak in the Czech lands, what hope had he elsewhere?