In 2015, the city of Plzeň in western Bohemia in the Czech Republic, known worldwide for its Pilsner beer, has been elected as European Capital of Culture (www.plzen2015.cz), together with the Belgian city of Mons (www.mons2015.eu).
Music of the Czech Lands comprises the musical traditions of Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia. Music in this area has its roots in more than 1,000 year old sacred music. The oldest recorded song from Czech lands is the hymn "Lord, Have Mercy on Us", dating from the turn of 10/11th century.
The traditional music of Bohemia and Moravia has been well documented and influenced the work of composers like Leoš Janáček, Antonín Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana, and Bohuslav Martinů. Janáček made his recordings at an auspicious time. The 1880s saw the decline of traditional music; however, Janáček brought a Moravian string band to the 1895 Ethnographical Exhibition in Prague, which led to increased feelings of national pride and identity, and a resurgence in traditional music.
The most famous classical music pieces from Czech Republic include The New World Symphony from Dvořák, Má vlast from Smetana and Sinfonietta from Janáček. Some pieces of classical music have actually been made more famous than the composer himself, for example "Entrance of the Gladiators" by Julius Fučík, better known just as "the circus music". Through the centuries, Czech composers were usually heavily influenced by traditional music from their country, which can be seen especially when listening to Smetana. Although the most popular classical music from Czech Republic comes from the Romantic era, Classical and Baroque composers should not be overlooked. These composers include Adam Michna, Heinrich Biber, Jan Dismas Zelenka, Johann Wenzel Stamitz and Johann Ladislaus Dussek.
Undoubtedly the most internationally famous dance is Bohemian polka. Polka is a dance in duple time that became popular across Europe in the 19th century and spread across the world, influencing music from Mexico to Japan. Perhaps the most famous example is "Škoda lásky" ("Wasted Love") from 1927, better known under the name "Beer Barrel Polka". Czechs had a highly influential role in the development of Mexican cultural music. In the 1800s immigrants from Moravia were settling in the gulf coast area of Texas; many of them brought along polkas and waltzes which began to become popular with the Mexican people who lived among them. Love for these styles by the Mexican people later developed into Norteño and Tejano.
Bohemian traditional music is most innovative in Chodsko, where bagpipes are common. Moravian traditional music is best known for the cimbalom, which is played in ensembles that also include double bass, clarinet and violins. The traditional music of the regions of Moravia displays foreign influences, especially in Valachia which is tinged by Romanian and Ukrainian legacy and has close cultural relations with Slovakia and Lachia (the borderland of northern Moravia and Czech Silesia) with its Polish aspects.
Prague was well known for its pub songs called Staropražské písničky ("Old Prague Songs"), which are influenced by Viennese schrammelmusik and other forms. These songs are still played by bands like Šlapeto. A more modernized urban music is called tramp music (trampská hudba). Tramp music has been popular since its invention as part of the Czech tramping movement that began when early 20th-century city dwellers began seeking physical and imaginative respite from the pressures of urban life.
The 1960s saw American bluegrass music gain wide popularity, and the first European festival was held in 1972 (the Annual Banjo Jamboree in Kopidlno). In 1964 and 1982, Pete Seeger toured the country, inspiring generations of Czech bluegrass and American-style folk musicians. One notable example is the band Poutníci, whose early success helped perpetuate bluegrass music in the Czech Republic. Many former members of Poutníci have recorded or toured with the band Druhá Tráva, which has brought Czech bluegrass to the modern world music stage.
Czech folklore is the folk tradition which has developed among the Czech people over a number of centuries. Czech folklore was influenced by a mix of Christian and pagan customs. Nowadays it is preserved and kept alive by various folklore ensembles uniting members of all ages, from children to seniors, showing their talent during competitions, folklore festivals or other performances.
The Czech Republic is divided into a number of ethnographic regions. Each of them has special folklore traditions, songs or costumes and specializes in different crafts. As a result, Czech folklore provides a diverse source of entertainment.
Music played an important part in life of common people or peasants in the Czech Republic. It offered both means of expression and a vent for their emotions. Resulting music varies not only by the region of its origin but also in the purpose of its use. Therefore, there are myriads of distinct folk songs.
Music often addressed everyday issues and was passed down orally. From the 19th century onward it was recorded by etnographs. Traditional celebrations such as welcome of the spring, successful harvest are still among the occasions traditionally celebrated with songs. More lively themes were used specifically during celebrations, weddings or feasts. Funerals and mournful occasions also had their own set of songs and tunes.
Songs and especially dance linked to conscription of young Czech boys called “verbuňk” in times of war has a particular place in Czech folklore and was listed by UNESCO in the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
There are a number of instruments associated with Czech folk music, which add to its distinct sound – violin and the double bass; instruments specific to Bohemia and Moravia such as bagpipes (bock), shepherd’s pipe, dulcimer and trumpet.
All of them are still in active use by the folklore groups during their shows.
Věra Bílá @ FW:
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.
Date: February 2015.
Photo Credits: (1) Plzeň 2015, (2) Prosti Dumi, (3) Jiří Pavlica, (4) Věra Bílá, (5) Jitka Šuranska (unknown/websites).