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Prague Is Pop

Robert R. Thompson

Sure enough, before the soup arrives the band of young, shaggy musicians is working hard to blow the breadbaskets off the dinner tables.

The speakers above the bar in the small café seem about to bounce of their shelf. The din of pounding pop music makes it difficult to sit, let alone talk. There are several of us around one of the cafe's small, dingy tables. We're professors of politics and history spending a week in St. Petersburg on a special seminar on democracy in the new Russia. It's August 1993. I am trying to discover what my colleagues are like, but it's impossible to talk to them without shouting.

Later we go to the hotel restaurant, a fairly fancy place with two levels, booths spread with bright white table cloths and sparkling silverware, surrounded by tall windows with thick green velvet curtains. We prepare to order when someone says, "Uh oh." We all turn and look down at the level below. The bare space in the center of the first floor is rapidly filling up with technicians, very large speakers, and a band getting prepping for tune-up. Sure enough, before the soup arrives the band of young, shaggy musicians is working hard to blow the breadbaskets off the dinner tables. We could care less about the shagginess, it's the raucous Russian pop which drives us away before the main course arrives.

The next night we sit in boxes at the famous Marinsky Theater. (Formerly, and still sometimes, called the Kirov, as was its ballet company it is named after Kirov, one of Stalin's associates. His murder provided Stalin with the excuse to begin the great Terror and purges of the 1930s. Numerous landmarks were named for Kirov, who was most likely killed at Stalin's command.) Thick blue curtains surround the tiers of seat boxes which curve around the theater, and glittering, gold decorations sparkle on the ceiling above us. The gold of the restored (since 1991) Russian double eagle, above what would have been the Czar's box before the Revolution, glistens in the reflected light of enormous crystal chandeliers.

Our group is fortunate to see a performance of Aleksandr Borodin's opera, "Prince Igor". One of Russia's greatest composers, Borodin weaves a tapestry of Russian melodies and western orchestral music. The production is stunning, the singers superb, and I feel swept away by the opera's mix of Russian motifs and the exotic strains of the justly famed "Polevestian dances". The audience is mixed; tourists lugging their cameras, older people dressed carefully in coat and tie or long sweeping dresses, and many younger people, children, and those in their 20s and 30s, casually dressed, tieless and in jeans. This music which speaks to and from the Russian soul is obviously quite popular.

We emerge from Borodin's lush sweeping music with its story about Russian redemption and triumph, to the competing blasts of music from several nearby cafes. Forget the after show aperitif, and avoid the café disco and the restaurant rock show � it's back to the hotel for us. I see this "Battle of the bands" between opera, ballet, and classical concerts, and pounding pop music-recorded or live, foreign (there's no escaping Brittany Spears! in Moscow in 1998 or Prague 2002) or local, take place in Russia, Romania, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, in all the countries of the former Soviet bloc through which I travel. It does seem to be mostly younger people who go to the cafes, to drink and smoke while being blasted by pop music. Indeed, it is the younger people who frequent clubs and places like our hotel restaurant for live music. But the classical repertoire, too, has younger followers.

And yet in each country I stay in I hear people complain that American, and local, pop, rock, grunge, punk, or whatever-they-call-it-music, always muscles aside the classical, meaning both "classical" and folk/indigenous, music of their national heritage. Driving in June, 2000, with my Romanian hosts on a long journey from Bucharest into the Carpathian Mountains, father and daughter clash over the tape player. Dad wants me to hear the classical compositions of the renowned Romanian composer George Enescu, daughter wants some Romanian rock group. My Russian friends in St. Petersburg lament that their three year old daughter is already singing American and Russian pop songs taught to her by her 10 year old friend down the hall.

These older family members echo the thoughts of a mother about her daughter in the Czech author Ivan Klima's novel, No Saints or Angels. "From the bedroom behind me," the mother muses, "comes a roar of what is now regarded as music and what my little girl idolizes: Nirvana or Alice in Chains or Screaming Trees, heavy metal, hard rock, grunge, I can't keep track of it anymore." The daughter also plays in a band. The mother went to a disco to hear a performance "and what they played depressed and disgusted me by turns. . .the sick music of lost souls."

Of course, these generational musical conflicts take place in the west as well as the east, and the "nothing new under the sun" Paleolithic parents probably had comparable generational battles with their kids, too. But the musical debates in the countries of the old Soviet block, as is evident in Klima's novel, evoke deeper issues. Born in 1931, Ivan Klima grew up under Nazi oppression. He spent time in the Terezin concentration camp near Prague, and began his writing career during the communist era. Communism's fall in 1989 in the Czech republic and all across the Soviet block liberated the artistic communities. Klima's works show his protagonists � writers, painters, filmmakers, musicians � and himself as an artist struggling with the idea of artistic freedom. The artist's patrons struggle, too.

My 20-something friends in St. Petersburg tell me that they love Tchaikovsky, but under communism he and other Russian composers were "shoved down their throats" by the rulers, while any rock or pop music was deemed a "decadent western influence". The Communist Party lavished money on ballet and opera companies and performers (though Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Barishnikov chose western artistic freedom over the Soviet Union's mink lined cage). With the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 western pop, American pop was all the Soviet youth wanted. Now, for them, as for the mother in Klima's novel, "The time when music like that excited me is in the past." A decade after the Soviet demise, Russia's classical companies are strapped for funds. Rock is all the rage. My friends are loath to shove a classical music on their daughter, but they want to balance Russian tradition with the raucous music that seems to have mostly replaced it.

Freedom! The freedom to wallow in "decadence" appeals in Russia, Romania, or the Czech republic. The freedom to break the old musical rules, to shout "Roll over Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news," attracts both young and old. Well, maybe mostly the young. Still, freedom is both liberating and frightening. Klima suggests, again, through the thoughts of the rock band daughter's mother, that newly free people now fear the quiet. They are "scared of silence, like almost everyone else these days."

Why? Klima doesn't answer that question. He lets us draw our own conclusions about what seeps into that silence, such as memories of forced obeisance to music the communist rulers most likely knew or cared little about? For those party leaders, strangely enough, ideas about Socialist superiority would rest on music from Czarist days. These people have memories of a past when artists depended upon the state; memories of being turned in by a "friend" for listening to American rock on Radio Free Europe. No wonder they now have thoughts of wild abandon, and take sheer joy in being loud!

Freedom. Milan Kundera, another Czech novelist, touches upon ignorance on the tangled relationship between freedom and art. He writes of a painter, but the thoughts of his protagonist also hold for musical artists. Josef, the painter's friend, appreciates the artist's daring canvasses as the communist Czech regime does not. The painter takes great chances, paints mostly for friends like Josef, and sells few works. He paints a work for Josef, inscribes it to him; and Josef is forced to leave the painting behind when he leaves the country for freedom in Denmark. After the 1989 revolution Josef receives a package of photographs, pictures of the painter's work done now in freedom. Josef is disappointed with the art he sees. The painter now produces work "that a million other people on the planet are painting. The painter had won a double victory: the freedom to paint; and, the freedom to paint like every one else." Like the music coming from the café loudspeakers, the paintings are indistinguishable from the work of any other artist. The artist fills his silence with bland homogeneity.

In Prague, the Czech Republic's capitol, the music booms out as it does all over east Europe and Russia. Rock bands paste up posters to announce their upcoming performance at some dingy little club near Wenceslaus Square in the city center. Tacky tourist shops abound, each with speakers blaring American pop and local rock. And yet. . .

Prague is not only one of the world's most beautiful cities. It is now once again, since communism's 1989 fall, one of the world's most beautiful and most vibrant cities. Tourists love Prague, but so do Praguers. With the possible exception of Vienna (another famously musical city), I have not been in a city so bursting with life, art, and music. On a summer evening nothing beats strolling across the Charles Bridge at the heart of the city. People stream by, craftspeople hawk their wares, artists offer to sketch your picture, photographers vie take your picture against the stunning backdrop of Prague Castle. And musicians play.

They play loudly, they play softly. They play the Beatles, they play Mozart. Mozart loved Prague and Prague loved, and still loves Mozart. One of his greatest symphonies is called the "Prague" symphony. I pass by a palatial mansion where he taught piano to a count's daughter, on the way to a performance of his "The Magic Flute" at a theater where the opera was first performed in Prague. In this performance there is a mix of the avant garde and the traditional: slides projected over the stage enable singers and audience to watch each other watch each other. The performance is delightful. And, also, with the opera sung in Czech, translated into German supertitles over the stage, the whole experience is a cultural collage.

Then there is Antonín Dvorák: the greatest Czech composer, and one of the giants of western classical music. Dvorak is the "king" in Prague. (That is, a musical "king", but he is not on par with Elvis. I have no idea who the pop king is in Prague, if in fact there is one.) I cross the Charles Bridge at sunset, when the light streams out from behind Prague Castle, highlighting the throng on the bridge, their shadows lengthening and merging together. On the river tour boats ply the Vltava River.

And here next to the bridge's ancient wall, a lone violinist carves out a spot for herself. She appears young, perhaps about twenty, but she is obviously an accomplished player. Is she practicing? Hoping for a job? Getting ready to try out for one of the cash strapped Prague ensembles? Picking up a little cash? She plays some of the hauntingly beautiful slow movement from Dvorák's violin concerto. Before I can contrast her performance with the echoes of music drifting from tourist shops at either end of the bridge, she breaks into one of Dvorák's "Slavonic Dances". Yes! Dvorak, the stern Czech composer knew how to pen a popular tune!

I toss some crowns into the violinists' instrument case, and head down the bridge towards the tourist shop with the pounding music. I pick out some cheesy Prague T-shirts, and a Prague refrigerator magnet, pay, and I'm out of the store, down the street along the river, humming a bouncy Dvorák. Indeed, Dvorák rocks. Prague is pop.

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