HOW CZECH MUSIC REACTED TO THE EVENTS OF 1968: "May Peace Remain With This Land...".
The song, titled Modlitba pro Martu (A Prayer for Marta), was originally written for a television series with a screenplay by Jaroslav Dietl, Pisen pro Rudolfa III. (A Song for Rudolf III). The screenplay was not political; Rudolf III was an ordinary butcher who had a somewhat goofy daughter with an imagination so rich it allowed her to transfer herself and her family to various periods of history. The principal aim of the series was to use the loosely assembled episodes to get the popular singers of the day on screen with their newest hits. The first original Czech cinematic musical, Starcina chmelu (Green Gold or The Hop Pickers) was four years old; there was a boom in small theatre with mixed original variety programmes of which music was an indelible component, and their popularity met a talented generation of writers and performers.
Dietl's nine-episode Song for Rudolf III was neither filmed nor screened in its entirety; in the spring of 1969, renewed censorship struck and the last episode did not air. The song which Marta Kubisova recorded for this series in the August days of 1968, however, became almost an anthem - at the time, it was sung together with the real anthem, Frantisek Skroup's Kde domov muj (Where My Home Is). For Marta Kubisova, it was a fateful song. To dispose of her, the so-called "normalisation" regime in the 1970s construed accusations on the basis of which she could not perform for the next twenty years. She only sang A Prayer for Marta in public after the 17th of November 1989 - and she also did so this year on the 21st of August, during a gathering on Wenceslas Square on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the occupation by the troops of the Warsaw Pact.
The Students Rise Up
Nothing happens without cause and in isolation. The 1968 student protests in France, Germany, Rome, Copenhagen, Tokyo, the US, the provocations of the young actionists at the universities in Vienna, and the student protests in Czechoslovakia all happened for different reasons, and yet they were connected. The generation born after World War II was significantly politicised. Popular music stepped out of the category of commerce and began protesting and encouraging. A number of songs were written which disguised their open disagreement with a regime that spied and persecuted every manifestation of free thought, others contained allegories, or people simply interpreted them allegorically. In the domain of Czech pop, we might mention Risen o me zemi (A Song About My Country) by Pavel Zak and Karel Cernoch, which won first prize at the Bratislavska lyra (Bratislava Lyre) competition in 1969, new meanings were given to songs such as Bohuslav Ondracek's Requiem with lyrics by Jan Schneider from 1967 in Eva Pilarova's rendition, Lejoueur de pipeau from Hugues Aufray's repertoire, rendered in Czech as Krysar (The Pied Piper) by Ivo Fiser and sung by Waldemar Matuska, another song by Jindrich Brabec and Petr Rada, Prejdi Jordan (Cross the Jordan), which suggested people "Go and do not wait / until you fall cruelly for the tyrant, / go, and when you want, / ask, / for whom this bell tolls...", and Karel Kryl's rousing songs Bratricku, zavirej vrdtka (Little Brother, Close the Gate) or Morituri te salutant. These were the songs of a youth who did not want to be tied up, and so they rebelled.
Patience was running out in general, the discrepancy between news of economic prosperity and an acute insufficiency of everyday items, between the optimism of the official slogans and daily reality was too great. The prelude to the "Prague Spring" - a term for a reformist movement within the Communist Party which strove for democratisation and an establishment of "socialism with a human face" - was the 4th Congress of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers in June 1967. The congress saw open calls for the removal of censorship and freedom of speech. In October, Prague hosted the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) festival, the first time this event was held in Prague. Hudebni rozhledy (Musical Horizons), a music magazine, wrote that this was the "first time the event takes place in the country of the national section of a socialist state", but the festival did not have an open political subtext, and the representation of composers and performers from seventeen states from Brazil to Japan signified an extraordinary occasion. Czechoslovakia left the ISCM in the early 1950s, returning in 1957, and by hosting the festival, it seemed once again to subscribe to the original idea of the society: to support contemporary works regardless of political and other barriers. Contemporary Czech operas were presented at the National Theatre as part of the accompanying programme: Otmar Macha's (1922-2006) Jezero Ukereve (Lake Ukereve), Jarmil Burghauser's (1921-1997) anti-opera Most (Bridge), and two fairy tales by Jiri Pauer (1919-2007), already a little old by then: Cervena Karkulka (Little Red Riding Hood) and Zvanivy slimejs (The Blabbing Slug). The special programme of the Czechoslovak section within the main festival programme featured seven pieces by local composers: Miloslav Istvan, Roman Berger, Jan Kapr, the world premiere of the 16th String Quartet (in fifth-tones) by the "senior" of the entire festival, 75-year-old Alois Haba, and orchestral pieces that stood up more than well in the international competition: Svatopluk Havelka's Pena (Foam) after Hans Magnus Enzensberger's poem Schaum, Patndct listu podle Durerovy Apokalypsy (Fifteen Pages After Durer's Apocalypse) by Lubos Fiser, and Eufemias mystenon by Miloslav Kabelac. It is telling that in the 1970s, the composers in question were generally labelled as politically suspect.
That autumn in 1967 saw student protests in Prague in response to electricity cuts in the dormitories. This was the spark, the beginning of the unrest that spread through society and finally led to the resignation of Antonin Novotny as general secretary of the Communist Party, followed in March 1968 by his resignation as president of the republic. The tension grew, and in atmospheres like this one, the writer's pen becomes a weapon. Ludvik Vaculik wrote Dva tisie slov (Two Thousand Words), published in Literdrni listy (The Literary Papers) on the 27th of June 1968. With its efforts for a "socialism with a human face", the "Prague Spring" had the somewhat quixotic outlook of tilting at windmills, but it could have done much good, were it not for the fact that - among other things and as had happened several times before - the naturally beautiful geographical location of our country were not so politically disadvantageous. Since 1948, Europe had been divided by the "Iron Curtain", and Czechoslovakia's western border was to remain impenetrable.
During the night of the 21st of August 1968, Czechoslovakia was invaded by five allied countries, the armies of the Warsaw Pact states. It was not only the Czechoslovak citizens who were surprised but also some citizens of those states, now placed in the position of enemies apologising for the actions of their governments. Like the astrophysicist Dieter B. Herrmann, a lifelong friend of composer Hanns Eisler, through whom he met Alois Haba. Eisler died in 1962, but the East German physicist and the Czech composer kept in touch. Dieter B. Herrmann sent word to Czechoslovakia: "You know that the people of our state wish only the best for the new path on which the Communist Party of your country has so boldly set out. Know that we were not asked what means should be used to stifle the 'counter-revolution'."
And What About Music?
The protest statement published a day after the occupation in a special edition of the Literdrni listy weekly was a joint proclamation of five artist unions (the union of writers, journalists, theatre workers, film and television artists, and architects). The Union of Czechoslovak Composers published its own proclamation on the 30th of August, calling for a "normalisation of public and political life", the "undisturbed work of public and political bodies", and the "departure of the foreign armies" - the latter, however, only took place twenty years later. Later on, the word "normalisation" - in conflict with its original meaning - became a cover for the reintroduction of political censorship, the persecution of artists other than those sanctioned by the authorities, and other phenomena generally considered to be outside the scope of normality.
One of the first to react to the August events with a new composition was the Brno-based composer
Alois Pinos (1925-2008) with his cycle Prislovi (Proverbs) for solo baritone. It was certainly no coincidence that he chose proverbs that could clearly be interpreted in light of current events: "It is not yet the end of days", "Your deeds come back to haunt you", "No trees grow to heaven". Lubos Fiser's (1935-1999) Requiem became another piece of the year. It was written as the last part of a triptych (Fifteen Pages After Durer's Apocalypse, Caprichos), but the premiere of the Requiem on the 19th of November 1968, performed by the FOK Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vaclav Smetacek with soloists Helena Tattermuschova and Karel Berman, seemed to acquire symbolic value, just like the premiere of Fiser's piece Zddost 0 popravu (A Request for Execution) on March 4th 1970.
In its September 1968, Hudebni rozhledy, the official magazine of the Union of Composers, stated that "at the time of writing, the subscriber cycles of the Prague concert halls are still undergoing changes demanded by the change of circumstance created by the entry of the armies of the five Warsaw Pact states.
The changes will be directed towards an unambiguous expression of unity among the traditions of our national art and the history and feeling of all our people". It also disclosed that the Supraphon company was preparing recordings of composers and performers who had long lived outside the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic - Karel Boleslav Jirak and Karel Husa - and was also negotiating taking over the licence for Rafael Kubelik recordings from Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft.
Little of these plans came to fruition, and very late at that. All those named above left the country after the Communist putsch in 1948. Karel Boleslav Jirak (1891-1972) was active in Chicago, and he was only allowed to return to his homeland after many years of waiting and bureaucratic delays, at the end of the year 1968. Composer and conductor Karel Husa (1921-2016) also worked in the United States. He reacted to the events of August 1968 with Hudba pro Prahu 1968 (Music for Prague 1968). It was originally written for wind band, commissioned by the Ithaca College Concert Band. This version was first performed on January 31st 1969 in Washington. Exactly a year later, the composer conducted the premiere of the orchestral version with the Munich Philharmonic. He used a quotation from the Hussite song Kdoz jsu bozi bojovnici (Ye Who Are Warriors of God) - it had become a comprehensible symbol since Bedfich Smetana used it in his cycle Ma vlast (My Country). The Czech premiere of Karel Husa's Music for Prague 1968, however, could only take place on the 13th of February 1990 in Prague's Smetana Hall - conducted by the author. Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996) only returned to the Czech Republic in 1990 in order to conduct the opening concert of the Prague Spring festival: Ma vlast.
Petr Eben's (1929-2007) response to the events of 1968/69 took the form of a symphonic movement for three trumpets and orchestra, Vox ciamantis. He said the following about the work: "The piece was born of a time in which our nation vainly called for help in the desert of its solitude. In each of us there is a voice calling for truth, an unrest calling for certainty in life, and throughout our entire lives, we follow this goal. But when we go far enough, we discover that the Faustian question cannot be answered completely, that searching is the permanent fate of man." The premiere took place on the 13th of January 1970, with Dean Dixon conducting the FOK Symphony Orchestra.
Certain allegories remained purely personal - so, for example, we know only from Alois Haba's testimony that he inscribed the words "Go home, Soviets" in a motive in the second movement of his Suite for Bass Clarinet and Piano written for the Due Boemi ensemble - this slogan was painted onto many walls in 1968, and was expressed in slightly different words in Jaromir Vomacka's song Dobre minend rada (A Well-Intended Piece of Advice).
Musica viva Pragensis, an ensemble dedicated to new music, could still take part in the Donaueschingen Musiktage festival in October 1968, performing the compositions of Ladislav Kupkovic, Vladimir Sramek, Zbynek Vostrak, Rudolf Komorous, and Marek Kopelent, a generation of composers who in the second half of the 1950s had begun catching up with what had been going on to the west of Czechoslovakia. But meanwhile, the screws tightened. Ladislav Kupkovic and Rudolf Komorous left Czechoslovakia, as did the conductors Karel Ancerl, Zdenek Macal, Jiri Starek, and Martin Turnovsky, jazz clarinettist and conductor Karel Krautgartner, singer-songwriter Karel Kryl. Writers, musicians, artists, singers, and actors were all leaving.
A Living Torch
"We are deeply shaken by the tragic events of the last few days. The death of Jan Palach has put a terrible mirror of responsibility up in front of all of society, of the entire world. How is it possible that we have come this far - a free-thinking person; no fanatic, is today burning himself alive in order to secure for himself and his fellow citizens elementary human rights? Us of older generations, wherever we live, we cannot rid ourselves today of a feeling of responsibility for a world we created and which the young of the world inherit from us. Just as we don't agree with the resolution of political conflicts through wars and murder, we protest against a young person being driven into such an extreme situation that he must resolve the conflict of his conscience and the world by sacrificing his life."
This was the opening paragraph of the Proclamation of the Central Committee of the Union of Czechoslovak Composers, published on the 23rd of January 1969, four days after the death of Jan Palach, who committed suicide by self-immolation in order to rouse up a nation falling prey to apathy. The final paragraph of the proclamation emphasised that "one can only live freely in a free state", and despite the shock presented by the death of a twenty-year-old boy and the preceding events, it expressed its belief in "socialism with a human face", to whose vision some still clung.
Palach's death also had its musical responses. Jan Novak (1921-1984) composed a cantata on his own Latin text as a reminder of the tragic act, Ignis pro Joanne Palach (A Flame for Jan Palach), which was premiered on the 15th of April 1969 in Prague. The composer thus bid farewell to his motherland - he no longer wanted to live in a dictatorship. He died in Neu Ulm, Germany in 1984, and his remains returned home in 2011. Evzen Zamecmk's (1939-2018) Elegie per Jan Palach also bears the name of the tragic victim. The piece is written for violin and string orchestra or violin and piano. The vocal triptych Poselstvi (Legacy) by Jan Hanus (1915-2004) was another reaction, scored for baritone solo, mixed choir, and two pianos, setting verses from Scripture and by poet Kamil Bednar. The middle movement is called Horici ker (Burning Bush), which was also the title given by director Agnieszka Holland to her 2013 film dedicated to Palach's memory and the events of those years. Jan Hanus's composition was premiered on January 26th 1970 by the Choir of Czechoslovak Radio with choirmaster Milan Maly. The soloist was Vaclav Zitek. The composer had to leave his position as editor-in-chief of the Panton publishing house immediately after the performance. The Union of Czechoslovak Composers was abolished in May 1970. Two years later, on the 19th of December 1972, the establishing congress of the "normalised" Union of Czechoslovak Composers and Concert Artists took place. In the following years, much care was lavished on no pieces being performed around the anniversaries of the August occupation and Jan Palach's death which could bring up "inappropriate associations".
by Vlasta Reittererova
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2018|
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