František Škroup, author of the Czech national anthem

6-7 2001 Kultura English
obálka čísla

    On Sunday 21st December 1834, the Stavovské (Estates) Theatre in Prague witnessed the premiere of Josef Kajetán Tyl's play "Fidlovačka" -- named after the popular Easter celebrations on the meadow in the Nusle district of Prague and subtitled "or No Anger and No Punch-Up" with music composed by František Škroup. The play was a simple tale of common people, and it was Škroup's songs which constantly had the audience applauding and which gave the play an extra polish. They touched hearts, got feet tapping under the table, and quite simply roused enthusiasm. However, only one of the songs made both young and old get up out of their seats, applauding noisily, some with tears in their eyes, and shouting out loud praise to both authors. It was the song performed by the blind Mareš, who accompanied it on the violin:

"Where is my home? Water hums through the meadows, forests rustle on the rocks, spring blossoms in the orchard, a heaven on earth to behold!
And that is a beautiful land, the Czech land -- my home...!"

    The moment was ripe for the reception of such a song by weary souls, longing for a lost homeland that generations had carried in their hearts as a rare treasure. They had never forsaken their love, had cultivated their mother tongue, and passed it on to their children. On that historic occasion at the Stavovské Theatre the audience caught the words and sang along to the second verse:

"Where is my home?
Do you know, in the land beloved by God, quiet souls in lively bodies, clear thought, good health and strength, resistance to affliction:
that is the famous race of Czechs,
among the Czechs -- there is my home!

    How well Tyl described the Czech character! But it was the melody that added that true beauty necessary to lift souls and raise the heads of the oppressed. Škroup took a lot of trouble over the play for which he composed 21 songs. It was this, the eleventh, that charmed listeners and became a "hit". Soon after the premiere the song was included in the collection "A bouquet of patriotic songs" and it was sung all over the Czech lands by double bass player Karel Strakatý, and in Moravia by Jan Křesomysl Píšek (a native of Mšen near Mělník). It was sung in schools, at meetings, at home in families, and in amateur theatres. In the 1860s it became a musical symbol of Czech nationality, and in 1920 the Czech national anthem.
    In times of war and political changes those in power have tried to silence it or give preference to another anthem. At the present time the Czech flag can fly alone and no longer has to be accompanied by the flag of a dominator. Still we can detect in the joy with which the lads of the world-conquering Czech ice hockey team sing the anthem their consciousness that the song is a priceless inheritance from the nation's more difficult times. These times of hardship for the nation enhance the song and the anthem is a celebration of them.
    František Škroup is one of the composers whose worth the Czech nation has not yet fully acknowledged. Our view of him is narrow, and his name is remembered only as the author of the national anthem. Yet he was one of the most significant figures of Prague musical life in the mid-19th century. He devoted all his abilities to the cause of national awakening and was one of those responsible for helping create a Czech national music. In the not exactly easy conditions prevailing at that time he succeeded in getting the first Czech opera staged. He composed music for Czech plays, founded amateur choirs and was involved everywhere where musical life was awakening.
    He was born in 1801 in ;Osice near Pardubice and studied in Hradec Králové and Prague, to which he remained loyal for the rest of his life. After the great success of his first opera "Dráteník" (Ironmonger) he became leader of the orchestra of the Estates Theatre. He not only composed but also organised concerts of music by the most progressive European composers of the time, Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner. The greater he became, and the more he learned, the more, as is unfortunately typical here in the Czech lands, he became the subject of envy and ignominious intrigues.
    He tried to face up to these, but in vain. In spite of the huge ovation at the Estates Theatre, in 1857 he was dismissed from the post of orchestra head. When he was also rejected by the newly established Prozatímní divadlo (Temporary Theatre), he saw no other possibility than to seek a living and fulfilment abroad. He became conductor of the Dutch Opera in Rotterdam.
    His fate was similar to that of Smetana. Both came from east Bohemia, where there was a strong tradition of music. Both lived and worked for the needs of Czech culture. And both, after battling hard to attain success, garnered the hatred, envy, and lack of gratitude of the nation they had given so much to. Like Smetana, Škroup had a family that he had to take care of and provide for. Both of them experienced similar family tragedies, but Škroup's fate was even worse than Smetana's. Even though in Holland he had a grateful audience, a good employer, and gathered countless ovations and honours, he still longed for his homeland and promised his wife and daughter that they would return home the next year, and then the next, expecting all the while that the nation would open its embrace to him. It never happened. His dream of dying at home and being buried in Prague was not fulfilled. He died worn out in Rotterdam in February, 1862, aged 61.
    In his memory the opera "Dráteník" was performed, but it was too late for him to be able to derive any pleasure from this. Not even the song of the blind fiddler Mareš from his and Tyl's "Fidlovačka", which the Czech nation requested as the song of songs and which was the true hymn of the "slender souls in lively bodies" from the land where "water hums through the meadows, forests rustle on the rocks", was not always loved by those who did not mean well for the nation.

"Where is my home? Water hums through the meadows, forests rustle on the rocks, spring blossoms in the orchard, a heaven on earth to behold!
And that is a beautiful land, the Czech land -- my home...!"

    No occupiers wish the occupied nation to have a remembrance of its rebirth from the humiliations it has often got into. The song was most frequently heard and sung after the First World War. It flew up to heaven together with our flag as a dove to the sun of hope. After each fall, or humiliation, of our independence it fell silent.
    The anthem "Where Is My Home" is not at all similar to the anthems of other countries. In these, such as the Slovak "Lightning Flashes Over the Tatras", the French "Marseillaise", or the English "God save the Queen", can be heard the resistance and triumphs of national being, awesome, grandiose tones and the thundering of power. The Czech "Where Is My Home" in contrast sounds merely like the simple contemplation of an ordinary person under God's heaven on the simple natural beauty of the small land in which a Czech was born, worked, and passed on the results of his or her being, work, and living to his or her descendants. When Škroup composed "Fidlovačka" he never dreamt that the song would one day become the national anthem, and he did not live to witness this. Critics later wrote that Škroup never rose "much above the average". Others, wiser, judged that it was immoral to underestimate his work, which was conditional on the possibilities and needs of the time. For a long time no one took care of Škroup's grave in Rotterdam. He was forgotten, like hundreds of other notable members of our nation who would elsewhere be honoured. It was only after the ceremonies in Prague to celebrate the 100th anniversary of our anthem that researchers started to search for the last resting place of its composer in Rotterdam and a memorial was placed above his grave. There is also a plaque on the house in Osice where Škroup was born, and on the house in Rotterdam where he lived and died.
    If you go to the Olšanske graveyard, in the III. part (3. division) you will find the grave of Škroup's widow Karolina and his daughter Růžena. They had a tough lot in life. His daughter was involved with music until the end of her life and remembered her father with respect. She died more or less in poverty.

Dagmar Štětinová

PS:In addition to the operas Dráteník and Fidlovačka he also wrote the operas: Oldřich a Bozena, Libušin snatek (Libuše's Wedding) and two German operas which he staged with success in Holland, as well as many songs for solo voice or for choirs, and piano and chamber music.

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