In 2003 Albany Pro Musica (David Griggs-Janower, conductor) organized a tour with another choral group, the Catskill Community Chorus (Jiri Kratochvil, conductor), to give concerts in central Europe. The premier venues were Smetana Hall in Prague and St Peter’s church in Salzburg. My wife and I bought a Pimsleur audiotape and tried to learn a little Czech before the trip.
Our hotel in Prague was the Hotel Astorin, from which we had a clear view of one of the biggest monuments in Praque:
The Vitkov Memorial was built after World War I. The equestrian statue is said to be the third largest in the world, and honors the memory of Jan Zizka, who defeated King Sigismund in 1420.
We came across this statue of Diana the Huntress with her dog. This appears to be a copy of the famous statue in the Louvre. There are many sculptures in public areas of Prague.
Here is another one, the monument to Jan Hus, executed for protestant heresy in 1415, about a hundred years before Martin Luther’s time. The picture also gives an idea of the beauty of the generic buildings in Prague, many of which were painted in a variety of colors.
In 2003 the Czechs were about to vote on joining the European Union. We found the people to be very welcoming to tourists, eager to do business, with many shops and boutiques, and market stands. One just felt the pent-up energy from their long period of economic stagnation. But we also realized that the government had preserved many of the classic buildings of the past, not just the Vitkov national monument.
There are numerous bridges across the Vltava river that meanders through the city. The Palacky bridge, photographed from a cruise boat, used to have many statues along the sides, but they were removed for safekeeping in a museum and never brought back after the war.
Another statue of interest is this martyr and saint of the Catholic church, Johann Nepomuk. An Archbishop, in 1396 he was ordered by King Wenceslas to be thrown off the Charles Bridge for refusing to reveal the confessional secrets of the queen of Bohemia. The statue is located…on the Charles Bridge.
Not far from Prague is the infamous fortress-turned-prison of Terezin, used by the Nazis. We had a tour guided by an elderly lady, very dignified and fluent in English, who unflinchingly told about the role of the Prague authorities in supporting the pogrom of the Jews.
Terezin had been used as a prison earlier by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and housed the assassin who started the first World War, Gavrilo Prinzip:
We also visited the famous hunting castle called Konopiste. This was the property of the Archduke Ferdinand, one of Gavrilo Prinzip’s victims. In the late 19th and early 20th century, aristocrats were enthusiastic shooters of game, and there was a lot of it. After a day of shooting by the host and his guests, hundreds of carcasses would be brought in. This castle was essentially a monument to the Archduke’s passion for hunting. Afterwards we had lunch at a nearby restaurant with a distinct hunting theme.
Also not far from Prague we visited the Dvorak museum, the building having no particular connection to Dvorak, but now used to house many manuscripts and other artifacts of the composer’s life.
Our concert in Prague was held in Smetana Hall. The program consisted of Ravel’s Bolero, “Itaipu,” by Philip Glass, and the Dvorak “Te Deum.” The concert featured singers from our two groups as well as the University Chorus and Bohemiachor, and the National Opera Orchestra. There are many concert halls in Prague, both large and small, and it seemed that one could go to a performance every night of the week. Music is a very big deal in this city, and the country in general.
The fact that Smetana Hall, and indeed many other buildings, survived Communist rule in such good shape struck me forcefully at the time. Many subsequent visits confirmed for me that people in Europe are very attached to their history. Think for example of the fact that Nuremburg was rebuilt rather than replaced at the end of the second world war. Despite the grim economic conditions of the postwar period, and the Communist government, the Czechs maintained their heritage.
Prague is an ancient, beautiful and vibrant city. But we were on a tour. We went on to Salzburg.