Czech Culture

Culture

Festivities and traditions

Czech people celebrate Christmas every year, beginning with a dinner on December 24. The tables for this dinner can only be set for an even number of guests, because an odd number will bring bad luck. All of the lights in the house must be turned off until the first star comes out, and when it does, the dinner may commence. The first person to leave the table when the meal is finished will be the first person to die that year - this is why everyone must stand up at the same time.

Easter, or "Velikonoce" (meaning "great nights"), is a very cheerful and lighthearted holiday in the Czech Republic. Red is a very commonly worn color during this time, because it symbolizes joy, health, happiness, and new life that comes with spring. Families decorate Easter eggs elaborately together. Another Easter tradition is the whipping of other's legs with the pomlázka, or willow twigs. Willow twigs are braided and painted with bright colours and then are used by young boys to beat the back of girls' legs. This long-standing tradition is thought to bring health and youth to young girls.

The 1st of January is the New Year holiday. After a late morning start the main meal of the day is prepared which should include pork for good luck and lentils for prosperity in the new year. It’s bad luck to eat fish (your luck could swim away) or poultry (your luck could fly away).

January 6 is the Feast of the Three Kings. In many Czech and Slovak villages, boys dress up as the three wise men “Kaspar, Balthazar and Melchior”. With a piece of chalk blessed by the village priest the boys write K + B + M above the doorways on a home. Which brings blessings on that home and its family for a year. The chalk letters should never be cleaned off, but only replaced the next year. This is also usually the day the Christmas tree is taken down.

Music

The Czech Republic has a rich, largely home-grown musical heritage. Psalms written as long ago as the 13th century used the Czech language. It was nationalism which, centuries later, inspired Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, the most famous of the unusually large number of composers to emanate from this small country.

Religious music of the Hussite period

The earliest surviving pieces of Czech music include choral elements of the Christian liturgy, interwoven with native folk melodies. The oldest known composition is the 10th-11th century psalm Hospodine Pomiluj ny (“Lord have mercy on us”).

During the 15th century the reformist Hussite movement began to oppose the Latin singing that was the norm in Czech churches; this in turn inspired the growth of Czech religious songs. Hussite works were published in hymn books both at home and in neighbouring countries, including Germany. The subsequent development of music in the Czech Lands occurred during the Renaissance period, when artistic life centred around the imperial court and palaces of the nobility.

After the defeat at the White Mountain

After the defeat of the Czechs in 1620 at the Battle of the White Mountain, increased repression by the Habsburgs forced many musicians to leave the Czech Lands. Meanwhile, the imperial court, which moved to Vienna, ceased to sponsor Czech composers. Among the few musicians who worked during the 1700s, the most prominent positions went to the church music composers Jan Jakub Ryba and František Brixi.

Mozart in Prague

Mozart visited Prague for the first time in 1787, and fell in love with the city. He returned here to write Don Giovanni, which he dedicated to “the good people of Prague”. The citizens of Prague were entranced by Mozart: opera was already a popular form of entertainment, and war open to everyone rather than just the wealthy classes.

Smetana and the era of National Rebirth

Music played an important role in shaping the Czech national identity. The first composer whose works espoused the aspirations of his countrymen was Bedřich Smetana (1824-84), who was active in the 1848 revolution and, later, the national revival movement. While his music was rooted in German Romanticism, it took its themes primarily from the legends and history of his homeland. Smetana also borrowed elements from Czech folklore. Most popular among his large volume of work is his cycle of six symphonic poems known collectively as Má Vlast (“My Country”), written in 1874-79 and whose melodious theme is one of the signatures of Czech music, and his comic opera The Bartered Bride (1866), his most famous work internationally.

Antonín Dvořák

When Smetana died, he handed the baton to Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), with whom he had worked at the National Theatre. Dvořak’s first musical experience had been playing the violin in his village band. From these humble beginnings, Dvořák, became the source of inspiration for a new generation of Czech musicians and, much later, the most renowned Czech composer in the world.

At heart a peasant, Dvořák was naturally drawn to the folk music tradition of his homeland. He combined this with foreign influences, from Wagner to American folk music. The latter influenced his most famous work, the Ninth Symphony, subtitled From the New World. This was written during his stint as director of the New York’s conservatory from 1892-5.

The turn of the 20th century

Among the large group of composers who worked during the late 19th and early 20th century a prominent place is occupied by Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900), a pupil of Smetana. Considered, along with his teacher and Dvořák, as one of the fathers of Czech music, Fibich showed little interest in folk music or in patriotic themes; instead, his works were inspired by the music of Berlioz, Schumann and Liszt. His Poem is his most famous composition.

Despite being a contemporary of Fibich, Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), born in North Moravia, was a much more modern composer. He resisted the lure of Prague, instead devoting many years of his life to researching the folklore of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. He wrote down numerous native folk songs, investigated the intonation of the spoken language, and even notated the sounds made by animals and objects: he gave the name “speech tunes” to these sounds. While taking his inspiration from the very traditional life and art of country people, Leoš Janáček’s music was definitely avant-garde. As a result, his music was not given the recognition that it deserved at the outset. His Glagolitic Mass (1926), for which he achieved renown internationally, was composed at the very end of his life.

Two others musicians worth a mention are Josef Suk (1874-1935), the pupil and son-in-law of Dvořák, and the violinist Jan Kubelík (1880-1940). While Kubelík achieved fame for his virtuoso technique and interpretation, he was also a composer. The great German composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was born in a village near Humpolec in southeast Bohemia. He spent a significant part of his life in Olomouc and Prague.

Another famous name in the Czech Republic is Emma Destinová, Emmy Destinn in Czech (1878-1930). A soprano, she performed with Enrico Caruso at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Her portrait is still used in 2,000-crown Czech banknotes.

Choirs and Dechovky

In the 19th century choirs and amateur wind instrument orchestras known as dechovky started to play a significant role in the musical life of Bohemia and Moravia. One such choir, the famous Hlahol ensemble from Prague, founded in 1860, became an important element in the shaping of the Czech national culture. Dechovky remain a typical and widely popular form of music-making.

Music and the drive for democracy

Music stagnated during the Communist era: jazz, for example, a hugely popular genre, was proclaimed decadent. Yet music also played a role in the ideological conflict. In 1976, the punk band, the “Plastic People of the Universe”, was put on trial for “crimes against the state”. This helped ignite the process that led to the creation of the Charter 77 manifesto. Also famous for their resistance to the regime are singers Karel Kryl and Jaromír Hutka, who, until 1989, were banned from performing.

Art and Decorative Arts

Proof of the wealth of artistic life and traditions in the Czech Republic is shown by its magnificent works of painting and sculpture and a wide range of decorative arts. Artists that made a lasting contribution to the arts in Europe range from 14th-century painter Master Theodoric and the great sculptors of the Baroque era, Matthias Bernhard Braun, to Alfons Mucha, the undisputed master of the Czech Art Nouveau style. Czech artists and sculptors have always enjoyed great respect in their country, and their works of art are, to this day, the pride of numerous museums, galleries and public places.


Czech Literature and Film

The first concerted effort to write in Czech rather than in Latin came in the 14th century, when the work of reformist preachers prepared the way for the writings of Jan Hus. From then on literature flourished in Bohemia, halted only temporarily by the Thirty Years’ War. Writers and, more recently, film makers, have played an important role in the nation’s history (Václav Havel, a playwright, even became president), and in its search for a cultural identity.

Early Czech literature

The dawn of literature in the Czech language is linked with the Slavic writings associated with the 9th-century missionary work of St Cyril and St Methodius. In the 13th century, religious literature, usually chronicles and the lives of the saints, was still in Latin but started to be accompanied by text written in Czech.

The 14th century saw more concerted efforts to write in the Czech language, in lyrical poetry as well as secular and religious prose. Reformist preachers adopted Czech as their preferred language, and it was the trail-blazing reformer, Jan Hus (1369-1415), who made perhaps the most significant contribution to the development of the Czech language of the day. He codified the rules of orthography and extended the readership of the national literature to include the bourgeoisie.

The humanist period

The use of the vernacular spread during the 16th and 17th centuries, boosted by the humanist movement and the boom in printing. The crowning glory of this age was the publication of the Kralice Bible (1579-94), a Protestant translation of the Bible in Czech. With the Thirty Years’ War, however, came repression. Czech, the language of the reformists, all but died out as a written form, and became little more than a peasant dialect. But Czech was still used by exiles abroad. The most famous exiled writer was Jan Ámos Komenský (1592-1670), also known as Comenius. He won recognition in many fields of science, but became truly famous all over Europe for his ground-breaking ideas on education.

The literature of National Revival

The counter-reformation, and the Germanization process that accompanied it, prevented any revival of a national Czech literature in the early 1700s, but by the end of the 18th century the more liberal approach of Joseph II gave Czech scholars the chance to revive their language. A leading role in this campaign was played by Josef Dobrovský (1753-1829), who codified the Czech literary language. Among other leading writers active in the movement of national revival was Karel  Hynek Mácha, one of the greatest ever Czech poets. The second half of the 19th century heralded the arrival of realist literature represented by the great Jan Neruda (1834-91), a poet of world renown and also the author of some fine short stories. His Tales of the Little Quarter (1878), set in Prague, is a marvelous portrayal of life in the city.       

Literature between the Wars

In the period between the two World Wars, Czech writers did not follow a single path. Jaroslav Hašek (1883-1923) wrote The Good Soldier Švejk, an hilarious novel that pokes fun at the Habsburg empire. Instantly popular, its hero became a symbol of the Czech nation.

Another prominent figure was Karel Čapek (1890-1938), famous primarily for his plays. These included R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), written in 1921 and the source from which the word “robot” entered the English language. In this and other works, such as his novel The War with the Newts (1936), Čapek combines his interest in ordinary life with his love of science fiction.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924), a German-speaking Jew, did not write in Czech, but spent his entire life in Prague and was part of a thriving German-Jewish literary circle. His bleak works were banned during the Communist era.

Repression and literary resurgence

Accompanying the political upheaval of 1948 came curbs on freedom of expression. “Socialist realism” became the only style acceptable to the authorities.

The period of “thaw” in the 1960s, which peaked in 1968 during Prague Spring, inspired a literary resurgence. Writers such as Josef Škvorecký (b. 1924) and Milan Kundera (b. 1929) penned their first great works during this period. Škvorecký, an ironic chronicler of life during and after World War II, is as famous in his homeland as Kundera. Communist oppression is a common theme in Kundera’s often erotic books. A great story-teller, he was influenced by the revered Bohumil Hrabal (1914-97), famously scornful of war in his novella Closely Observed Trains (1965).

Russian intervention in 1968 forced many writers to go underground. Some of them decided to emigrate, including Kundera, who shot to international fame with the publication of his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). With the Velvet Revolution came a new era, in which literary life could flourish          and young writers could work unrestrained.

Theatre

Czech theatre, which has a long and worthy tradition, hit a peak in the 1950s and ‘60s with the emergence of many small theatres. One such was the Theatre on the Balustrade, which staged Václav Havel’s first play in 1963. Havel tackled the issue of life under totalitarianism and was typical of the Czech theatrical community in his determination to fight repression. Since 1989, the theatre has faced other enemies, such as funding crises, but it is still a potent cultural force.

Czech Cinema

Czech cinema earned a reputation as far back as the 1930s, mainly thanks to the work of Martin Frič and Karel Zeman. After 1945 film makers struggled to express themselves in the repressive Communist era; it is not by chance that the most avant-garde works of the period were animated films.

The more liberal 1960s saw the golden age of Czech cinema, although the Soviet invasion of 1968 brought this renaissance to a rapid end. This success was associated with the work of a group of young filmmakers, who created the style known as the “New Wave”. In their films they tackled moral and historical judgments of World War II as well as contemporary moral and social issues. One of the young film makers was Miloš Forman, who fled the country after 1968 and later achieved international fame as director of films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Other great movies made in this period were A report on the Party and Guests by Jan Němec, and Closely Observed Trains by Jiří Menzel.

Czech cinema’s greatest success in recent years was Kolja (Kolya), directed by Jan Svěrák, which won an Oscar for best foreign film in 1997.