Prague is heaven for the classical music lover. This great musical city has a fine array of concert halls, many churches that stage concerts (though beware the expensive and mediocre offerings put on for the benefit of gullible tourists) and numerous festivals. Music-making has always been as natural as breathing for the Czechs.
Of course, we have to start with Mozart, who was venerated by the musical public in Prague. In 1787, he made two month-long visits to the city, enjoyed a number of other shorter stays and warmed to the adoration he received. His first visit, in January of that year, saw the premiere of the “Prague” symphony – Symphony No 38 in D major, to give it its proper title – a glorious work occasionally overlooked because of the focus on Mozart’s final three symphonies.
That first triumphant visit produced a commission for an opera, and what an opera it turned out to be – Don Giovanni premiered on 29 October 1787 at the Teatro di Praga (now called the Estates theatre). The ink was barely dry on the score: Mozart completed it the day before the first performance. Despite the chaos of the preparation, which necessitated a two-week postponement, the production was a great success. “Connoisseurs and musicians alike agree that Prague has never heard anything to equal it,” reported Prague’s Die Oberpostamtzeitung. “Herr Mozart conducted in person. When he entered the orchestra pit he was greeted with a triple ovation and this was repeated when he left.”
Mozart’s final visit to the city was in September 1791, just months before his death. He had come to conduct the premiere of La Clemenza di Tito, commissioned to mark the accession of Leopold II, the Holy Roman emperor, as King of Bohemia. The Estates theatre was again the venue. Mozart is reckoned to have bashed the opera out in 18 days, possibly with help from Franz Xaver Süssmayr (remembered today, above all, for his skilful completion of Mozart’s Requiem). The haste contributed to a general disregard for the work, but it has been reclaimed in the last 30 years, and is now firmly part of the repertoire.
After Mozart, everything else can seem like an anticlimax, but perhaps Jan Dismas Zelenka – championed by heroic commenters @thesecretorganist and @abkquan, among others – will save us. Zelenka was born in Bohemia in 1679, studied in Prague and wrote his early works there, and in 1710 joined the court orchestra in Dresden.
Zelenka, who has a small but loyal following, is unquestionably one of the giants of the baroque – his aficionados see him as a Catholic Bach. A good entry point to his substantial oeuvre is the Trio Sonata No 6 in C minor, though the other sonatas are well worth taking in, too. His Requiem in C minor is a work of astounding beauty, and his dramatic Missa Votiva demonstrates the scale of his achievement. Zelenka is one of the greats; we just haven’t acknowledged it yet. Give it a few more centuries.
An early advocate of Zelenka, instrumental in putting him back on the musical map, was the 19th-century composer Bedřich Smetana, who lived and studied in Prague and came to personify Czech nationalism in an age in which the old empires were creaking and their ethnic populations starting to seek independent statehood.
Smetana’s comic opera The Bartered Bride was premiered in Prague in 1866, but of course the work we must have is Má Vlast (My Homeland), a suite of six symphonic poems written in the 1870s. The first depicts the castle of Vyšehrad in Prague; Vltava, the second and most famous, follows the course of the river Vltava from its source to Prague and beyond. Few cities have been celebrated so lovingly.
Antonín Dvořák, who was born in a village on the banks of the Vltava close to Prague and took up the baton from Smetana as the exemplar of Czech music, also studied in Prague and played in a theatre orchestra in the city. There are any number of masterpieces by him one could include, but the Slavonic Dances are apposite – they are glorious miniatures and were crucial in giving the Prague-based composer, who was already in his late 30s, international status.
Now I must defer to the faithful @abkquan, who offers “Mozart’s and Beethoven’s contemporaries Myslivecik, Stamitz [Johann or Carl?], Vanhal, Wranitzky, Reicha, Tomasek, Vorisek etc”. He declares a particular fondness for Pascha’s Christmas Mass and Voříšek’s Symphony in D major, a pioneering work that paved the way for the flowering of Czech music in the second half of the 19th century.
For good measure, @abkquan adds Josef Suk’s Symphonic Poem “Prague”, the Hungarian György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments (on the grounds that “Prague and Kafka are inseparable”), and the symphonies of Bohuslav Martinů, who studied at the Prague conservatory and was a violinist in the Czech Philharmonic before moving to Paris in the 1920s and the US in 1941 in flight from the Nazis. The symphonies belong to his American period, but are a good introduction to Martinů’s work, with No 6 a suitably coruscating starting point.
@abkquan is ambivalent about whether to include Leoš Janáček, whose musical world, as he puts it, “was centred in Brno rather than Prague”, but @PositivistDinosaur has a neat solution, pointing out that Janáček’s opera The Excursions of Mr Brouček was premiered in Prague in 1920 and that The Makropulos Affair is set in the city.
Next week, the north German city of Hamburg will be our focus – and yes, we will try to make room for the Beatles.
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