While we stay at home in the first half of the concert with music that is somehow intimately close to Czech people, in the second half we go out into the world and encounter three great musicians. For the orchestra, this will be a demanding school of higher learning, and a kind of learning that cannot be done online. They will be forced to sink or swim in the waters of demanding symphonic repertoire, led by the no less demanding chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. Music of the youthful Beethoven will be heard, flanked by two opera overtures by two very different giants of opera, Wagner and Verdi. Of course, they both raised opera to such heights because they had learned something from Beethoven – in spite of the fact that Beethoven was not all that interested in opera. These three composers represent the most prestigious European school of the 19th century.
Verdi and Wagner were contemporaries, born in the year of one of Napoleon’s bloodiest battles, known as the Battle of the Nations. Wagner was actually born in Leipzig, near where the battle took place. And it is no coincidence that the music of the greatest Italian and German opera composers sometimes comes across like a battle between two nations, two distinctive, antithetical, confident countries, each with its own great music history. The were both the victims of nationalism to the extent that it is still urgently important to learn to understand their music from different perspectives and to look for what they have in common with each other and with us. No matter how you look at it, Italy gave the world opera and brought it to its supreme form, and Verdi’s behaviour is correspondingly calm and confident. Wagner, to the contrary, behaved like an arrogant troublemaker, constantly taking a stand against something and needing to compete with and triumph over everyone else. But he was a musician of genius who learned much from other composers, including those he slandered in revolutionary pamphlets written against them. Finding out what they thought or even occasionally said about each other is fun and interesting, but it is not what is most important. Europe was always big enough for both of them, and their most fundamental ideals are the same ones that they were able to learn from Beethoven: the ideals of freedom, humanity, and dignity.
Wagner grew up among theatre people, and he was interested mainly in theatre until the moment he heard Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony at the age of 15. From then on, the desire to compose never left him, and when writing operas, his love for symphonic music led him to treat the orchestra with the same degree of importance that he found in Beethoven’s music. For the world of opera, he discovered the German Middle Ages, the old Nordic and Germanic sagas, passion, and mysticism. But then in one opera he showed his country in a completely different light: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Herbert von Karajan regarded it as Wagner’s most humane work, although the whole opera might be a bit inhumanely long. Medieval Nuremberg is portrayed here as a charming, pleasant, even rather comical small town. Naturally, the opera ends with an ode to the German masters, but the story tells of Nuremberg’s craftsmen banded together with typical professional pride in a guild of musicians, singers who compete for the title of “master singer”. It is a rather pleasant, almost idyllic picture of the relationships between craftsmanship, art, community organisations, and social events – an old-fashioned fairytale about good relations between culture and business. And it is about how interest in culture is fostered in a small city with an almost cultish level of interest. So many people are on stage in the final scene that it is nearly impossible to perform the work in this country, even without special public health measures. But that does not matter. Let us learn from this most interesting work, which could have been created only in Germany.
It is interesting that Ludwig van Beethoven composed his Piano Concerto No. 3 in the same key of C minor as his Fifth Symphony, which he finished eight years later and is the most famous of his symphonies. He composed the concerto when he was 30, and it was his first attempt to write a work in that genre in a large-scale symphonic form. At 30, he stood at the beginning of the path leading towards his greatest works. He was steadfast and determined, although he could not yet know what great struggles awaited him with his deafness and many other obstacles.
The opera Lo forza del destino has only the theme of fate in common with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. A fateful curse pursues one of the characters to such an extent that he succumbs to it, and for this reason, both of the more likeable characters ultimately perish. But that is how things go sometimes in operas. But Verdi was at the height of his powers, and for the opera he wrote one of his most brilliant overtures. In other operas he set great dramatic subjects by Shakespeare, Schiller, and Victor Hugo to music, all with Enlightenment themes that were causing upheaval in Europe and bringing about a freer, more beautiful world, and not only in Italy.
Our wish for the Czech Student Philharmonic is that they successfully withstand their attractive and demanding journey of study through musical Europe.