What are we watching?
A musical journey through Prague. We visited Prague! And we had our own musical journey. The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra with its principal conductor Jiří Bělohlávek at Dvořák Hall, a concert at St Nicholas Church in the Old Town Square, a concert at Lobkowics Palace in Prague Castle, a concert at the Klementinum and another concert at St Nicholas Church in Lesser Town. One can never have too many churches dedicated to St Nicholas. He brings presents! 🙂
Prague is known as the Golden City of A Hundred Spires, based on a count by 19th century mathematician Bernard Bolzano. Today’s count is estimated by Prague Information Service at 500. The river Vltava, the Czech national river, cruises through Prague on its journey to the Elba and eventually into the North Sea. In Prague, it is crossed by 18 bridges.
The flow of the river is captured by Smetana in his symphonic poem, Vltava. A devoutly patriotic work, Vltava captures in music Smetana’s love of his homeland. Completed in 1874 and first performed the following year, the piece constitutes the second movement of a six-movement suite, Má vlast (My Country), which premiered in its entirety in Prague on November 5, 1882.
Prague has been here for a while and has a rich history. On of the early kings of Prague was Wenceslas, born in 907 CE, the very same Wenceslas as in the Christmas carol (Good King Wenceslas).
In the middle ages, during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, Prague flourished, it was bigger than either Paris or London. The Town Square is still flourishing because so much of the city retains its baroque appeal it’s a booming tourist destination. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to tumble into the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale, just step into Prague’s Old Town Square. In this pedestrian-packed medieval market place, ornate frontages rise up on all sides like pieces of gingerbread and heels click on cobbles that have seen nearly a millennium of footfalls. As the setting for Prague’s famous astronomical clock, the square is visited by almost everyone, but that doesn’t diminish its sense of timeless wonder.
Charles the IV was a king who loved learning and the arts. He established many institutions in Prague, including the first university in Central Europe, called Charles University today.
Despite many wars and fires, Prague Castle has grown from its 9th century origins into a unique complex, the largest of its kind in Europe.
Looming above the Vltava’s left bank, its serried ranks of spires, towers and palaces dominate the city centre like a fairy-tale fortress. Within its walls lies a varied and fascinating collection of historic buildings, museums and galleries that are home to some of the Czech Republic’s greatest artistic and cultural treasures.
The castle has always been the seat of Czech monarchs as well as the official residence of the head of state. Its history begins in the 9th century, when Prince Bořivoj founded a fortified settlement here. It grew haphazardly as rulers made their own additions – there have been four major reconstructions, from that of Prince Soběslav in the 12th century to a classical facelift under Empress Maria Theresa, creating an eclectic mixture of architectural styles.
This eclectic collection of styles is on evidence in St Vitus Cathedral, the city’s most distinctive landmark within the massive grounds of Prague Castle. St Vitus was a young Sicilian martyr who was thrown to the lions during the roman persecution. A relic of a piece of one of his arms was sent to King Wenceslaus as a gesture of good will from a neighboring king, Henri I. The cathedral houses a most eclectic collection of artworks and structures stretching from the Renaissance through to the 20th century: the graphic depiction of the murder of the Good King Wenceslaus, a neo-Gothic altar, a royal box for church, the tombs of kings and queens, including the final resting place for Wenceslaus. You will also find the bronze ring that king Wenceslaus held on to as he was murdered by his brother.
During the 16th century, the Austrian Habsburgs invaded Prague and assumed power. Rudolf II, eldest son of Maximilian I and his successor, was the third Habsburg king of Bohemia in the 16th century. He was described in his day as the greatest art patron in the world and turned the city into one of Europe’s leading centre for the arts and sciences.
Astronomy in Rudolfine Prague
Rudolph II used Prague Castle as his main residence. He founded the northern wing of the palace, with the Spanish Hall, where his precious art collections were exhibited.
Rudolf had a grand view of the red-tiled roofs of the splendid mansions of the Mala Strana (Lesser Town) under the castle walls and then across wide River Vltava he would have seen the spires and steeples of the Old Town.
The great meandering River Vltava divided the Old Town, the New Town and the Jewish Town from the Lesser Town and the Castle which rose up on a steep hill to the north and dominated the city. Clearly visible below was the solid stone bridge built by his illustrious ancestor Charles IV and founded on 9 July 1357 at 5.31am, a time chosen carefully for its propitious astrological and numerical associations. At that very moment, a conjunction of the Sun with Saturn occurred, with the great luminary of the sky overpowering the gloomy influence of the malefic planet.
Rudolf was fascinated by its sacred numerology: the date and time of its foundation consisted of favourable odd primary numbers which ascended and descended palindromically: 1 / 3 / 5 / 7 / 9 / 7 / 5 / 3 / 1. In addition, the setting sun on the summer solstice lined up Charles Bridge with an architrave of the Castle’s cathedral.
What wasn’t yet visible in Lesser Town was St Nicholas Church, which was founded in 1704. It is the most significant baroque structure in the city. The history of the church gives you an idea of just how much Mozart was loved in Prague. He played the organ here during his visits in 1787. Shortly after he died in 1791, the whole city paid tribute to him through a number of performances of his Requiem by the Prague Theatre Orchestra at St Nicholas.
Rudolf, who loved moving mechanical objects, would also have appreciated the large astronomical clock, made in 1410, on the front of the Town Hall in the main square. It indicated the time of day in Babylonian time and Old Bohemian time. The clock, which still exists, also depicted Ptolemy’s model of the universe with the Earth at its centre and charted the movements of the sun and moon through the signs of the zodiac. Moving figures were added in 1490. On the hour, the twelve Apostles appeared in windows before disappearing back inside the clock. Perched on pinnacles at four corners were figures representing what was considered to be the chief threats to Bohemia at the time: the lender with his money bags; Death, depicted as a skeleton carrying an hourglass and tolling a bell; a Turk shaking his turbaned head; and Vanity admiring his reflection in a mirror. Four other immovable figures symbolised Philosophy, Religion, Astronomy and History. Rudolf shared his ancestor’s vision of Prague as the centre of the empire but went one step further: he saw it as the hub of the universe. As a result, Prague became the most cosmopolitan city in Europe.
But after Rudolf’s death in 1612, the nation declined until the 18th century and the reign of Empress Maria Theresa when many of the buildings we still see today were established. The city had to be rebuilt following the destruction it suffered during the Seven Years War.
No day at Prague Castle is complete without attending a classical music concert performed in the beautifully decorated 17th century baroque Concert Hall of the Lobkowicz Palace.
The Lobkowicz Palace is the only privately owned building in the Prague Castle complex and home to the highly acclaimed Lobkowicz Collections and Museum. Highlights from the Museum include works by masters such as Antonio Canaletto, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Diego Velázquez; an impressive display of family and royal portraits; fine porcelain, ceramics and rare decorative arts dating from the 16th to 19th centuries.
It also includes the finest private library in Central Europe, as well as an unparalleled collection of musical instruments, original scores and autograph manuscripts by many of the greatest composers of the 18th and early 19th centuries, including manuscripts by Beethoven and Mozart, such as Beethoven’s 3rd (Eroica), 4th and 5th symphonies, as well as Mozart’s hand written re-orchestration of Handel’s Messiah.
After the lunchtime concert, it was time for a little lunch at Lobkowicz Palace Café – burger, chips and Czech beer. Just like this!
Suitably fortified, it was time for visit St Vitus Cathedral.
Prague became an archbishopric in 1344. Construction of the Cathedral of St Vitus on the grounds of Prague Castle began almost immediately, and Matthias von Arras was commissioned as master mason. Before his death in 1352, he managed to complete the choir gallery and main choir arcade in the southern French Gothic style. Arras was succeeded by Peter Parler, who had previously worked on the Church of the Holy Cross in Schwäbisch-Gmünd. Parler introduced significant technical innovations that subtly increased the dynamics of the interior. For example, he dispensed with the transverse arches separating the bays in the nave, thereby creating a new kind of visually continuous type of vault from west to east that spans the bays with decorative, interlacing diagonal ribs.
Parler’s second ground-breaking innovation was in the triforium, whose window-filled back wall joined with the panes in the clerestory to create a single, light-flooded membrane of glass. In breaking away from the traditional methods, Peter Parler brought a playful lightness and originality to sacred architecture. The famous triforium busts in Prague Cathedral are a testament to Parler’s awareness of this fact: along with the family of Emperor Charles IV and the archbishop of Prague, the two master builders of the cathedral are also portrayed.
That was a full day! Time for a little rest in the gardens…