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The Czech zither.

MADAME Libuse Vokrova Ambrosova was the wife of a member of the Benes government that managed to govern Czechoslovakia without the help of Russian tanks. Her husband was responsible for sport and youth activities, and hence very active when the |Sokol' had to be organised in 1938, for this festival brought to Prague the athletes and delegations from all the Slav countries and was confessedly a pan-Slav demonstration. I was not a Slav, but received an invitation to attend, and was welcomed by M. Ambros himself who told me that his wife would take care of me during the celebrations. Which, indeed, she did so well that for the inaugural march-past I found myself on the presidential dais next to Madame Zenkl, wife of the mayor of Prague and thus only one chair away from the President himself.

Madame Ambrosova was blonde and beautiful, with eyes of the blue of cornflowers and waves of hair like wheat burnished by the summer suns, and a complexion cream and rose not at all Slav.

I was taken to all the Bohemian beauty spots by a Bohemian beauty and learned my history from my delightful guide in the shadow of the famous hill Rip, at mediaeval Karlstejn and Krivoklat, in the Lobkovitz library and in the presidential garden at Lany. And that novitiate over, I was introduced to the elegance of the Bohemian way of life in the company of Antonin Heythum, the architect who had designed the Czech pavilion at the Brussels Exhibition, and his wife Charlotta, who was as much Polish flame, colour and vivacity as he was Czechoslovakian imperturbability. We dined at the Golden Orb, the little cafe that hangs out from the Castle rock over Mala Strana or up river at the Barrandov restaurant, a name that commemorates, it seems, a French geologist who lingered here fascinated, it is said, by the geological contours; although as I listened to Libuse Ambrosova I wondered if that was his official explanation for other more pleasing contours.

It was while dining on the terrace of the Barrandov restaurant that I first heard a zither played. The summer night was warm, with a light haze on the water-meadows. In the wide river below was reflected the orange moon; and around me, dining and talking and laughing were the Czech families whose brutal oppression of their Sudeten neighbours was -- so the world was informed -- paining the sentitive heart of Hitler.

With the good dinner and the Melnik wine and the political conversation, the peaceable and unassertive Heythum was growing patriotic and bellicose, was marshalling and manoeuvering all the armed forces of the Republic to the derisive laughter of his Polish wife, who gently assured him that he would be annihilated without the Polish cavalry.

It was then that one of the musicians began a song -- a Moravian folk-song, said Libuse -- to the accompaniment of a zither. The general conversation died away. Everyone listened. And whether it was the plaintive melody, the luminous night beyond the terrace, the groups round the tables under the shaded lights, immobile as though transfixed by enchantment--I was so moved by the whole scene and the song that, back in London I looked round for zithers, but in vain, and must have annoyed my musical friends by wondering how the country had lived so long without them.

It was with difficulty and the help of a member of the music department of the BBC that I discovered that there was, or had been, a Czech who taught the zither; and later I succeeded in locating him at the end of a dark alley in Charlotte Street in a room that had a narrow bed, a chair, and a small table. He was clearly astonished to have a visitor and seemed equally surprised that I came about a zither. There were four or five of them in a corner of the room, but so dusty they evidently had not been disturbed for a long while, and he himself gave the same impression of having been long forgotten. He was plainly as under-nourished as he was ill-clad. He sat on the edge of the bed and invited me to sit on the one chair; and I explained to him that I had been to Prague -- there was a passing flash of interest in his face at the name: |Do you know Lubochna?'. I admitted I didn't. It was probably his native village--that I had been to Prague and while there had heard the zither played, and had returned to England to find it almost unknown, and so had persuaded the national radio to consider giving a talk on the folk music of Central Europe with special reference to the zither. They would need a good zither player: would he be willing to play? He was a Czech and remained calm, in fact too calm. He smiled faintly, but I could see no emotional response.

It would, I urged, be the best of publicity for him: the national network, relayed throughout the country; his name made known; he could probably sell his zithers--was he in touch with a Czech supplier?; he would surely gain some pupils eager to learn. It would enable him, I added,--as polite a hint as I could formulate--to find a larger studio for his lessons.

I think now that all this was my psychological mistake. Instead of sharing my enthusiasm, he looked at me with what seemed rather to be alarm than pleasure. But he thanked me, mechanically; said he would begin to practise; that he would write to Prague. |There will be a preliminary meeting at the BBC in a week's time to discuss the programme. I will call for you on the Wednesday, early, at nine-thirty. You will note the day?' He nodded, shook my hand, and showed me to the door.

On Wednesday morning at nine-thirty I crossed Charlotte Street to the alley where he lived and found a policeman standing at the entrance. He did not make way for me, but asked what my business was. I said that it was with Mr. Cermak and that I was to take him to the BBC for a meeting. The policeman looked closely at me, reflected for an instant, apparently decided to accept my explanation, and said: |He was found dead this morning. Hanged himself during the night'.

It had been a mistake to disturb the miserable obscurity to which evidently he had become accustomed. It had been too great a shock. He could not, as the saying is, face the music.
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Title Annotation:problematic Czech zither
Author:Pennington, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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