"Christmas Eve" is the first ever concert melodrama that was introduced to the Czech audience. In celebration of the 130th anniversary of its first ever performance, Dita Asiedu explores how this masterpiece by the great Czech composer Zdenek Fibich was born and visits a Prague exhibition devoted to Christmas Eve in art.
Zdenek Fibich is one of three great exponents of the national revival of Czech music. Together with Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak he belonged to the founding generation of modern Czech music. Born in 1850, he was the youngest of the three. Zdenek Fibich liked to experiment and mastered various music genres ranging from opera to symphony and chamber music. Fibich was also the first Czech musician to introduce "concert melodrama" to the Czech lands. Vera Sustikova is from the Zdenek Fibich Association:
"Melodrama combines the spoken word or recitals with instrumental music. When it was born in the eighteenth century it was different than we know it today. What we know is 'concert melodrama' - a product of the Romantic period in Europe. It's basically a finished poem, which the author takes and combines with music. Concert melodramas were very popular at the turn of the twentieth century; a large number were written and performed in Central Europe at the time. But after the Second World War, live performances suddenly became very rare. I think the problem here was the building of the socialist state during which a very different kind of music was promoted - cantatas and compositions of 'mass' propaganda songs, leaving very little room for melodrama."
Zdenek Fibich's "Christmas Eve" features the poem of the same name by Karel Jaromir Erben. As an ethnographer, Erben went through life collecting poetry, songs, fairy tales, and legends, which he then all transformed into the masterpiece Kytice or the Bouquet - a collection of ballads. The poems, of which Christmas Eve is the most popular, are now taught in schools as Czech classics. Dr. Sustikova:
"Christmas Eve is a poem which portrays the traditional Czech Christmas very well. It was a pre-Christian tradition and is connected with superstition - it was believed that ordinary people could enter the usually hidden world of magic and charms on Christmas Eve, the Christmas feast had to have a bit of everything that Mother Nature offered, and young women believed they would see their future reflected on the surface of water bodies. Erben told all these legends and myths in his poems. Christmas Eve tells the story of two young women - Maria and Hanna, who go to a frozen lake, they cut through the ice to se their future reflected on the water surface. One girl sees a wedding and the other a funeral."
Excerpt from Karel Jaromir Erben's "Christmas Eve":
Deep in the icy waves
I'll gaze with hopeful eyes
My destined lover to behold
Where his face mirrored lies.
He wears a coat
Of dark green cloth,
His hat aslant...oh see
Those flowers to him I brought
It's Vaclav, Lord! 'Tis he!
I see it through a haze,
A flickering ray that streams
Out of the mist...
Red lights ablaze...
I'm in a church, it seems.
Some black amidst the white
I see it now... 'Tis clear
They're maids and through their light
My God! A cross and bier!
"The poem centres on the spinning wheel, or rather what it symbolises. At the time, women in villages used to weave textile on spinning wheels to make a living. The wheel stands for repetition, year after year, the life cycle - life, death and so on. So that was Erben's main message - you cannot change fate. It was a pre-Romantic vision of what life is about. Fibich, who was a generation younger than Erben and was a romantic, pushed its meaning a little further to say 'yes, fate is fate but it can be changed slightly through your actions and the choices you make in life.' How he does it is difficult to explain because one would have to be an expert on music to be able to understand."
The Museum of Music in Prague, which is part of the National Museum is currently staging an exhibition that features Christmas Eve in Czech music and art. Its first part is devoted to Karel Jaromir Erben and his Bouquet collection of poems. Since 1853, when the first edition came out, it has been republished 160 times. Many editions can be admired at the exhibition, including the first ever publication and changes that Erben continued to make to the poems as they were already being published. Vera Sustikova:
"Another part of the exhibition is devoted to Christmas Eve in music and that's where Zdenek Fibich's melodrama takes centre stage. We have the original manuscript of Christmas Eve - the piano and the orchestral versions. The Fibich family was also kind enough to lend us very precious things that once belonged to the composer. These include an ink-pot that used to sit on his desk, a cup with his initials, and a case containing his cigars. So, it's a very pleasant way of bringing us closer to Fibich. Also on show are documented materials on the melodrama's premiere, the first orchestral performance featuring the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Fibich himself, and photographs of many renowned personalities who made the recitals in Christmas Eve."
If you've ever wondered what the Christmas Eve described by Erben would have been like in real life - you can peak at a household shrine included in the exhibition. It's decorated with nineteenth century nativity scenes and a cosy little room with a spinning-wheel and furniture from the time, as well as Christmas decorations that only few people would recognise today. Did you know, for example, that the Christmas tree at the end of the nineteenth century was hung on the ceiling above the dinner table? Well, not very useful nowadays but certainly one of the many interesting old traditions you can learn about at the exhibition, which runs until February 28, 2006. For more information, visit the National Museum's official website: www.nm.cz
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