Prague Radio Orchestra clarinetist talks about Smetana's 'My Country'

08-11-2002

November 5th was the 120th anniversary of the premiere of Bedrich Smetana's cycle of symphonic poems, 'Ma vlast' or 'My Country'. This work, one of the most popular in the history of Czech music, consists of six parts that reflect ancient Czech history and try to explore the nature of Czech people. The most popular piece is Vltava, a musical picture of the river that runs through Prague. When Smetana was composing 'My Country', he was completely deaf, so he never heard a single one of his most outstanding pieces. The premiere took place in the morning of November 5, 1882 in the palace on Zofin island, just a few steps from Prague's newly built National theatre, and it was given standing ovations. In a popular magazine of the period we can read that going to Zofin to listen to 'My Country' was certainly worth letting one's Sunday dinner of stuffed goose and beef broth go cold. Since then, 'My Country', or at least some of its parts, have been played in many concert halls throughout the world, and it always opens the Prague Spring international music festival in Prague on the 12th of May, the day of Smetana's death in 1884.

I spoke with Stepan Koutnik, who plays clarinet in the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, and asked him why is 'My Country' so popular abroad?

"When 'My Country' is played at a concert, it usually attracts people who already know the piece, and it always gets ovations. Smetana must have been an interesting person with a remarkable degree of imagination, because he was able to transcribe chapters from Czech history to music. And I think that even those who don't know our history can see it in this music."

Mr. Koutnik said that Czech music in general is very popular for instance in Japan and told me a story about his orchestra visiting a secondary music school in Maizaki. After they played in the school orchestra together with the students, at the end of their visit all the students –around 600 of them – gathered in the aula and sang the most popular part of 'My Country', 'Vltava', with Japanese lyrics which they themselves had created.

Some musicologists say that 'My Country' is composed in a highly didactic manner, and was meant to reflect actual events in Czech history. Because most Czechs know it, it is enough for them to hear just a bit of My Country and the particular period of history it is meant to evoke comes to mind. Mr Koutnik believes that foreigners can also get a lot out of 'My Country', as it is not difficult to understand.

"Smetana used simple motifs, and there are not many of them in the piece. You can clearly hear a Hussite choral 'You, who are God's fighters'; that reflects one of the most famous chapters in Czech history, the 15th century Hussite wars aimed at reforming the Catholic church, then there is the theme of Vysehrad, an important place in ancient Czech history. These two motifs and a few others can be heard here and there in the whole composition, but everything is so perfectly intertwined and in such a high artistic manner, that one does not even realize that one is hearing the same themes on first listen. This is a typical example of the well-known fact that ingeniousness lies in simplicity."

"My Country" is very evocative and Mr. Koutnik told me that it is the work's advantage: when Czech musicians play 'My Country' abroad, they always remember their homeland, while playing it at home often makes them think about places abroad where the piece received standing ovations. Finally I asked Mr. Koutnik if 'My Country' was difficult for musicians to play?

"I don't know if I can give you an objective judgement after so many years. To me it seems to be composed in a very natural way. But although I respect Smetana, I must say it's not well done instrumentally. My mouth always aches when I'm playing it, because quite frequently I must be holding the tone for quite a long time even when it's no clarinet solo. Although some say that Smetana's music is too descriptive, I love 'My Country' and in this respect I consider Smetana my friend."

Recently a plaque was unveiled on a Czech Radio building in Dykova street in the Prague 2 district. It was there that 36 years ago, a great Czech genius, Jara Cimrman was "born".

Two former editors of Czechoslovak radio, Zdenek Sverak and Jiri Sebanek were involved in the creation of Jara Cimrman, and they were immensely successful in mystifying first radio listeners, and later theatre audiences, about this 'great Czech prodigy'. Nowadays, Jara Cimrman is a phenomenon, because - according to his creators - he was a genuine Jack of all trades, ranging from a playwright, opera composer and engineer to a self-taught doctor. Mr. Sverak told me that the plaque was unveiled on the very day that marks the 36th anniversary of a memorable meeting when he, Jiri Sebanek and two other Czechoslovak Radio editors sat over a bottle of vodka and created the personality of Jara Cimrman for their new radio programme called "Wine Cellar at the Spider". Soon after, the Jara Cimrman theatre was established. I asked Mr. Sverak how long had people believed that the character really existed?

"It depended on their sense of humour and on how attentively they listened. We tried to be fully authentic, and did it as a regular live broadcast from a wine cellar, and only now and then did we hint that it was all nonsense. But many people believed that Jara Cimrman really existed, because many simply believed in whatever they heard on the radio. The name of the bar in the programme was 'Non-alcoholic Wine Cellar at the Spider' and it was intended to be suspicious. But yes, we were quite successful in our mystification."

Mr. Sverak told journalists that as far as he knew, there were altogether fifteen other plaques and memorials to remember Jara Cimrman throughout the country, and that passing through some places, he saw inscriptions such as "Jara Cimrman never entered this house", undoubtedly created by his fans.

The Jara Cimrman Theatre in Zizkov is hopelessly sold out all year round, and whoever wants to see one of the plays - Cimrman allegedly wrote - must be prepared to queue for at least two hours to get tickets. The Jara Cimrman Theatre has fourteen comedies on its repertoire at present. Long-term fans received a great treat recently when the team staged a new Cimrman play, entitled "Africa".

08-11-2002