Tanks and Rivers?
Let me start with Smetana’s Vltava, one of his great cycle of Symphonic Poems written in 1874 and known as Ma Vlast.
We left Rostropovich in 1968 weeping for Prague as the Russian tanks crushed the liberalising efforts of Alexander Dubček. It is a city which has endured more than its fair share of violence, with defenestrations, pogroms, famine and many invasions. Under the heel of the Hapsburgs during the 19thcentury, and undeterred by ferocious repression after the revolutions of 1848 in which the young Smetana played his full part, a fledgling Czech nationalism took root. Just as Verdi became the focus for Italian nationalism, so in Bohemia Smetana came to symbolise the desire for a Czech national state. Ma Vlastbecame the unofficial national musical symbol of the First Czech Republic from its creation in 1918 on the collapse of the Hapsburg empire at the end of WW1.
Vltava is the second of the cycle and tracks the epic journey of the river, which, “rising in the forest of Sumava, flows through Prague, past its ancient monuments, and is lost to view in the shining distance.” It starts with the flutes burbling at the river’s source. While still in the high mountains, hunting horns announce the chase which gives way to a bucolic peasant wedding feast that seems the natural successor to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. From there, the dance of the nymphs brings back the river’s motif, which had temporarily been lost amongst the festivities. From there the river’s motif mingles with the increasingly prominent main tune of the Vltava until they cascade along St John’s Rapids. Then the river bed widens until it reaches Prague, the heart of Bohemia. On it flows until it seems to disappear into the upper reaches of the strings. The journey is concluded by two chords of unerring finality.
The tunes of Vltava are extraordinarily evocative; and they remain a potent statement of Bohemian and Czech nationality. After the occupation of Prague in 1938, performances of Smetana’s music was severely curtailed by the Nazis because of its nationalistic potency. Which makes it all the more remarkable that, on 5 June 1939, a defiant performance of Ma Vlast was given by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Talich with the entire audience standing, cheering and weeping for the loss of their nationhood. Over half a century of occupation and oppression later, one of the symbolic moments of the re-emergence of an independent Czech state was when the aged Rafael Kubelik returned to Prague in 1990, having been airbrushed out of existence by the communist regime since 1949. Almost inevitably, he returned home and lifted his baton for an unforgettable (recorded) performance Ma Vlast.
I don’t have either the 1939 or the 1990 performances for you; but I have something rather special. A stunning performance of Vltava by the Czech Philharmonic under Karel Ancerl on 12 May 1968. I had never seen him conducting before, and he is absolutely marvellous. His tempi are flawless; and the spirit of Smetana’s music seems to infuse his every movement on YouTube.
Three and a half months later, the Russian tanks rolled in: and Rostropovich wept.
Plenty of tanks have crossed the Rhine, but that was one thing that didn’t trouble Robert Schumann. His first vision of insanity came in 1833 and he battled with episodes of depression periodically from then on. When the demons were not weighing him down, he was capable of great personal generosity and musical humour. He had long been excited by the great musical festivals of the Lower Rhine and thought to make a lasting contribution to them as a composer. The result was his Rhenish symphony, which was written between 2 November and 9 December 1850. It used to be believed that he was inspired to write it by being present at the enthronement of Archbishop Geissell in Cologne Cathedral during this period; but it is now known that he was ill in bed on the day of the ceremony. So the inspiration was in the mind rather than the eye. Eventually, as you will know, the river was his almost nemesis as he escaped his carers in 1854, threw himself from a bridge, and was almost drowned. He never recovered his health and died two years later.
For my money, this is Schumann’s great symphony; and the emotional core is in the Fourth Movement, which conjures up the spiritual mystery of Cologne Cathedral as one great musical arch.
Here are Sinopoli and the Dresdeners. A bit pedestrian in the first movement, but the fourth is good, I think here on YouTube. And there is an encore in which the cymbal-player displays his braces to good effect.
My favourite recording? Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique every time. Fresh as a daisy and full of life. It comes in a set of the complete symphonies plus the Konzertstück. To buy at Amazon.
And so, in a time of change, to the Mississippi. One of the fascinating and disturbing things about Ol’ Man River is how many alterations have been made to the lyrics over time to accommodate changing attitudes. I remember Willard White singing it in recital and being terrified by the intensity of his rendition. The anger was palpable; and we all clapped. I have not been able to find anything approaching that intensity but here is a rather souped-up Willard White who gives some idea on YouTube.
And here is Roderick Williams at the proms who makes the river’s indifference to what is going on around it seem almost triumphant on YouTube.
And here is a set of lyrics, whose provenance I cannot find, which are quite a long way from Showboat:
Here we all work 'long the Mississippi
Here we all work while the white folk play
Pulling' them boats from the dawn till sunset
Getting no rest till the judgement day
Don't look up and don't look down
You don't dare make the white boss frown
Bend your knees and bow your head
And pull that rope until you're dead
Let me go 'way from the Mississippi
Let me go 'way from the white man boss
Show me that stream called the River Jordan
That's the old stream that I long to cross
Old Man River, that Old Man River
He must know something, but he don't say nothing
He just keeps rolling, he keeps on rolling along
He don't plant taters, and he don't plant cotton
And them what plants 'em is soon forgotten
But Old Man River, jest keeps rolling along
You and me, we sweat and strain
Bodies all aching and wracked with pain
Tote that barge and lift that bale
You get a little drunk and you land in jail
I get weary and so sick of trying
I'm tired of living, but I'm feared of dying
And Old Man River, he just keeps rolling along
by Jeremy Stuart-Smith