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Cultural Freedom in Mitteleuropa

Cultural Freedom in Mitteleuropa

In this corner of Europe, music and politics have always mixed.

Jeffrey Gedmin

Jeffrey Gedmin's weekly newsletter on politics, culture, and music is made possible by American Purpose's generous members. Join today to receive his newsletter and other great benefits.

You can’t escape music in Prague. Wander the cobblestone on Nerudova Street up to Prague Castle and you’ll come across number 12, where Beethoven once took his violin to be repaired. It’s a pub now, but you’ll see above the door a decorative emblem with three violins (the pub today is “The Three Fiddles”).

This is a corner of Europe marinated in culture and history. Spa town Teplice is an hour’s drive northeast of Prague. It’s just across the border from Chemnitz, once known as Karl Marx City during East German communist times. Teplitz (in German) is where Beethoven met Goethe in 1812. It’s also where, in a letter dated July 6 of that summer, Beethoven wrote his famous “Letter to the Immortal Beloved.” The identity of Beethoven’s great love has never been established. Or was it an intense flirtation? There’s a 1994 film called Immortal Beloved with Gary Oldman as Ludwig van Beethoven.

Beethoven was passionate about life and liberty. 1812 was the year the Russians repelled Napoleon’s invading forces. Beethoven had once dedicated a symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte. He saw him as embodying democratic ideals. Upon hearing that Napoleon had declared himself emperor of France, he tore up the title page in rage.

The great German composer was taken by anti-monarchic ideals. Beethoven’s opera Fidelio was in piece with other work of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that celebrated ideals of the Aufklärung, the Enlightenment, with stories in which a main character is liberated from malevolent forces.

In Mitteleuropa, music and politics have always mixed.

A decade after the end of World War II, the Wiener Staatsoper (the Vienna State Opera House) reopened. On November 5, 1955, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was in attendance as Austrian television, ORF, made its first live broadcast with Karl Böhm conducting Fidelio. The streets were lined with people unable to get tickets, but eager to hear the performance over loudspeaker. Furtwängler saw in Fidelio ”comfort and courage” after ”human dignity and liberty” had been restored.

On October 7, 1989, a performance of Fidelio at the Semperoper in Dresden was to mark the fortieth anniversary of communist East Germany. The performance coincided with pro-democracy demonstrations across the so-called German Democratic Republic. Rousing applause after the “Prisoners’ Chorus” went on so long that the opera was interrupted. Four weeks later, on November 9, 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of the East German regime.

For Beethoven, everything involved struggle. May 23, 1814, marked the first proper performance of Fidelio. It premiered in Vienna at Theater am Kärntnertor.

For Beethoven, the road to Fidelio—his only opera—was an arduous one. Along the way there were meddling censors, a disappointing libretto, a cancelled commission, a bankrupted theater, two major revisions, a failed love relationship. Leonore, as it was originally called, had to be shortened at one point from three acts to two. The opera was poorly received at first. Beethoven had lost his ”original creative flair,” wrote one critic. The genius became depressed, friends reported.

Of course, Fidelio stands as one of his greatest works. Here’s an aria from the opera sung by Florestan, inmate of the cruel prison warden Don Pizarro. Beethoven reworked the beginning eighteen times.

Last July, Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska brought down the house at Royal Albert Hall in London with her performance of Leonore’s great aria ”Abscheulicher!” Leonore is the character who rescues her husband Florestan from political prison.

As for the symphony Beethoven wished to dedicate to Napoleon, you can see the first printed edition at Lobkowicz Palace at Prague Castle. The symphony is Eroica—Symphony No. 3—with the revised dedication to Prince Lobkowicz. The edition has Beethoven’s handwritten corrections and annotations.

As for Prague, it’s always been a capital of cultural freedom.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered here on October 29, 1787, a work that grappled with issues of freedom and responsibility at a time when the liberal regime of Habsburg Emperor Joseph II was falling apart.

Czech composer Antonín Dvorák started with violin at the age of six here and would become known as the composer of the late 19th century able to balance and fuse change with tradition.

Written in New York City in 1893, his Symphony No. 9, From the New World, drew on Black spirituals and Native American music. Starting in 1892, Dvorák lived for three years at 327 East 17th Street. Neil Armstrong took a recording of the New World Symphony along during the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the moon in 1969.

Otherwise, Dvorák lived a good portion of his life on Žitná Street in Prague, a few blocks away from where I currently stay, next to the Václav Havel Library and three blocks from Žofín Palace—where Smetana, Liszt, Berlioz, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky all paid visits.

Jeffrey Gedmin, co-founder of American Purpose, is currently in Prague on temporary assignment as acting president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Views expressed in this article are solely the author’s.

Image: Architectural detail on the House at the Three Fiddles, Prague, Czech Republic. (Welcome to Prague)