The Corner


Czechs: The ‘Entire Gamut’

Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, hero of Czech independence, c. 1919 (Library of Congress)

In a review yesterday, I referred to “the Greatest Moment in All of Music.” I was exaggerating, of course, but there was a point. I discuss this in my latest Jaywalking. I also discuss Russia, Canada, and sundry other things. Frank Sinatra enters at one point, to sing about Chicago.

This is not the Greatest Moment in All of Music, in my opinion, but it’s a damn good one, regardless.

The review in question was of a concert by the Czech Philharmonic. The orchestra, like the Czech Republic itself, is celebrating 100 years of Czech independence. I want to share with you a statement written by Semyon Bychkov, the music director of the orchestra. But first, another matter, which I hope you will find interesting, as I do.

At the top of my review, I tell a story. I will retell it here. Years ago, a friend of mine gave an interview on Czech radio. (A musician friend of mine, I should say.) He made reference to the “Big Three” Czech composers — namely, Dvorak, Smetana, and Janacek. His interviewer said, “But there are four.” Puzzled, my friend asked who was the fourth. The interviewer said, “Mahler,” as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.

This is an amazing statement about national identity, in a sense — or the desire to claim great others as one’s own. (Some Czechs also claim Kafka.)

Mahler was born and raised in Bohemia, to be sure. But his family belonged to the Jewish and German-speaking minority, and Gustav left Bohemia when he was 15 to study in Vienna. Eventually, he became probably the leading cultural figure in all of Vienna (and therefore, you could say, in Europe, and in the great broad world).

Anyway, I was talking to a friend of mine, Véronique Firkusny, who works in the music business. She is the daughter of Rudolf Firkusny, the great Czech-born pianist (1912–94). After the Velvet Revolution, her father found out something interesting. His father — whom he had never really known — studied in the same school as Mahler. In fact, they were classmates. The town was Jihlava. Then Gustav skipped off to Vienna.

Mahler’s parents are buried in Jihlava. Perhaps I should not downplay Mahler’s Czech roots, Viennese though he was (pretty thoroughly).

Semyon Bychkov, the music director in Prague, was born in Saint Petersburg, or Leningrad, as it was then. The year was 1952. He was on track to become a conductor and everything was going well: but he was Jewish and a “free-thinker,” and that meant trouble. His career hit a roadblock. And, when he was 21 or so, he managed to leave the country.

In Vienna, he was helped by HIAS, i.e., the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. I mention this because the mass-murderer in Pittsburgh — the murderer of those Jews at prayer — was obsessed by HIAS.

In 1980, while still in his twenties, Bychkov became music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony, in my home state of Michigan. (I point this out as a matter of personal pride.)

He has risen a bit in the world. And as music director in Prague, he penned a statement about the 100th anniversary of Czech independence. I would like to share a paragraph with you:

In the last 100 years, the Czech people have lived the entire gamut of conditions: from the pride and prosperity that came with independence to the Western betrayal inflicted by the Munich Agreement; from destruction in World War II to the decades of Soviet domination. Fifty years ago, on August 21, 1968, when the Soviets rolled their tanks all the way to the streets of Prague, they proved yet again that the strong have no shame and stop at nothing to bring down those who are unable to defend themselves. Yet in spite of the adversity — and quite possibly because of it — the nation lived on to welcome the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and once again to become a free and independent member of the world community, this time hopefully forever.

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