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The power and glory of Prague

Prague is one of Europe’s elite cities, with more knockout picture postcard views than some entire countries. The Czech capital can also get a little bit busy. But it is still possible to enjoy this hugely popular city, its traditional sights as well as the bright new attractions, while dodging the crowds. Photo - Central Prague, by the writer.

The music starts the moment the seatbelt signs turn off. It's Smetana's Ma Vlast (My Country) - everybody's favourite patriotic tune from a land other than their own. We all like going home, but hankie makers must grow rich meeting the demand among returning exiles at Prague airport with this music playing.

Music means so much to the Czechs. The Soviet thought police told Russian composers what to write, and banned pop music. But they never quite managed to snuff out the spirit of music in the then Czechoslovakia, which they controlled for 44 years until 1989.

In Prague jazz continued to bloom. On my visit the saints were proudly marching in under the solemn statues on the Charles Bridge, led by a grizzled old trooper from the generation who kept the feet tapping in the dark old days. (There must be more open air music on this bridge, summer and winter, than in any other capital in Europe.)

Flashback to 1787 when Mozart gave the world premier of Don Giovanni here in the Stavovske Theatre. The then Bohemians took instantly to this masterpiece, while Mozart knew his native Vienna would have been aloof and disapproving.

Don Giovanni is Prague's top claim to cultural fame, and they celebrate it daily in a reduced version played by puppets. It’s not tourist kitsch. A fine recording, excellent sound, six hard working puppeteers, comic (I loved the puppet cat hissing at an anguished diva in mid aria) and ribald (some of the Don's conquests are, well, energetic). What a way to discover a masterpiece.

Wherever you walk in central Prague people sell you tickets to short, classical-lite concerts held in churches every night. But there are only so many times you can take in Eine Kleine Nachstsmusik, while gazing up at some ornate baroque altarpiece.

After that musical tapas, Czech music moved on to the main course this year. It's the 100th anniversary of the death of Antonin Dvorak, passionate Czech who synthesised the heart and soul of his beloved homeland in notes. Radio Prague's signature tune is the horn fanfare from the New World Symphony.

Music should give Prague a firmer foundation for its tourism. The city can seem like a chocolate box, richly wrapped but only one layer deep. Hardly surprising when you consider it only 15 years old as a visitor attraction.

Dvorak wrote for the world - and beyond it. He spent three years in New York, living on East 17th Street, as director of the National Conservatory. Aficionados can follow his trail there and on to Spillville Iowa, a Czech town where he played the organ, his heart aching for Bohemia. The American stay inspired the New World Symphony. US astronaut Buzz Aldrin played it during the first Moon landing.

Dvorak references abound in Prague. His statue is outside the Rudolfinum concert hall on Jan Palach Square. They performed his mass Stabat Mater, with Czechoslovakia finally free, at the inauguration of President Havel at St Vitus Cathedral high above the city.

They were playing the composer’s American Quartet as I walked around his museum in the Villa Amerika. I liked the random items on display. His gown from Cambridge when they gave him an honorary doctorate. A poster for an Albert Hall performance. And his ticket for that emotion-packed return from America.

On to Dvorak’s birthplace in the little village of Nelahozeves on the Moldau, a 30 minute drive north. Dvorak senior ran the pub, now a museum devoted to the composer. Father wanted son to take over the business. Antonin could have become the most musical publican in history, or a drink-sozzled host never realising his talent.

The pile of records and CDs by the artistes of the world suggest music was the right career choice decision. On display is the first recording of the New World, a box of 10 78 rpm discs. And a letter from NASA confirming its first performance in space.

Was Dvorak the first train-spotting musician?. His love of steam engines began when the railway from Prague reached his village. (His other big love was pigeons.)

The penniless boy departed to play in bands in the cafes of Prague. But why wasn’t he talent spotted by the Lobkowitz noble family, who lived in the vast Renaissance chateau just up from the pub?

It isn't as if they didn't know music. Beethoven dedicated his Eroica Symphony to Prince Lobkowitz after he withdrew the original dedication to Napoleon. I marveled at an early score of the symphony in the chateau, now restored as one of the finest stately homes in Central Europe.

The main works of art are back where they belong. My guide led me, with no hint of the wonders to come, through several rooms of tedious portraits. We entered a room full of manic aquatic bustle in a very familiar setting: Canaletto's two versions of the Lord Mayor's procession on the Thames.

The house’s finest work is Bruegel the Elder’s Haymaking. The Met in New York has another in this series. A third was stolen from this castle. 'Oh, maybe they'll recover it' I said , imagining Interpol's finest on the trail of some recent crime. My guide: 'I don't think so now. It was in the 30 Years War, 1618-1648.'

The local boy is honoured here every summer in a music festival. Another Dvorak stop is the manor house, near the village of Vysoka, 40 miles SW of Prague, where he spent his last years with family and his beloved pigeons. Nearby is Rusalka (water nymph) Lake, inspiration for his most famous opera.

No time for Brno where they are celebrating Janacek’s 150th birthday in 2004. His Cunning Little Vixen is surely the best example of nature set to music.

I took the train back to Prague, for more music. Smetana, (he also wrote the Bartered Bride), has the best museum spot, on the banks of the Vltava, the river of his Ma Vlast.

But the greatest of Prague musicians has to be Mozart - he penned the Prague Symphony in its honour. I took the number 7 tram to his museum, in Villa Bertramka. He finished Don Giovanni in this quiet retreat under a hill. The first billboard for the opera is on display.

Mozart’s wind serenade was playing. In the film Amadeus, Salieri hears this and realises his exuberant rival has a talent way up in the stars. I find a lock of his hair on display. What a race of super-composers a mad scientist might create from the DNA.

On Charles Bridge a versatile violinist was playing Mozart's Elvira Madigan piano concerto. I browsed among the T shirts in a shop.

There was an Amadeus T shirt, but no Dvorak. Maybe he is already close enough to Czech hearts. I turned to go. Central Prague is expensive, although prices, particularly in pubs and restaurants selling Czech food, nosedive just a few streets away.

'Nothing you like here?' said the assistant 'We have Cliff Richard. Wait, I do you a discount.'

Fact Box:
The writer was a guest of Corinthia Towers Hotel, Kongresová* 1,
140 69 Praha 4. www.corinthia.cz


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