Revolution in D Minor: How the Czech Philharmonic Toppled Communism
June 19, 1990
On December 14, 1989, the leading symphony orchestra of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Philharmonic, gave a concert at Smetana Hall in Prague. It was probably the most famous concert in the history of that country. The orchestra played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Václav Neumann, the Philharmonic’s principal conductor, was at the podium.
People in the hall were delirious with happiness. The overthrow of communism was halfway completed, already the communists were vacating seats in the government, and leaders of the prodemocracy Civic Forum were taking over one post after another.
Mr. Neumann wore a big Civic Forum pin in his lapel. The last notes of Beethoven’s final movement, the “Ode to Joy,” with its parts for chorus and solo singers, died away, and Václav Havel came on stage. Mr. Havel was not yet the president of his country; a communist still occupied that office. But everyone knew that Mr. Havel was the leader of the Civic Forum and ought to be president, and probably would be soon enough, once the last of the communists were finally pushed out.
Mr. Havel introduced the new Civic Forum members of the government, who were sitting in the audience. He introduced the new foreign minister, Jirí Dienstbier, an old jail-mate of Mr. Havel’s and a famous dissident. Mr. Dienstbier was sitting in the box of honor. And at the sight of the victorious dissidents sitting in the hall, the audience, the musicians, the chorus, the solo singers — everyone, thrilled, applauded ecstatically.
Three tiny paragraphs about this concert appeared in The New York Times the next day. Naturally the Times concentrated on the important political leaders like Mr. Havel and Mr. Dienstbier. But in the last of the paragraphs the article turned to the orchestra.
In the reporter’s stony prose: “The members of the Czech Philharmonic are among the heroes of what Czechoslovaks have taken to refer to matter of factly as ‘our revolution.’ They were the first artistic ensemble to go on strike and have played several concerts as benefits for striking students.”
That was the orchestra’s entire mention. Then the Times went on to other things. The concert, the conductor’s Civic Forum pin, Mr. Havel’s introductions from the Smetana Hall stage, the “exuberant” applause from a “jubilant house” — these details sparkled for an instant and disappeared into the waterfall of amazing information that has come pouring out of the countries of Eastern Europe.
Historical events as vast as the overthrow of world communism can be analyzed on a cosmic scale, the way astronomers study the universe by peering at whole galaxies. Or they can be analyzed in miniature, by focusing on a molecule.
Here is an analysis of the fall of communism that examines one droplet of information: the exuberant applause at Smetana Hall on December 14, 1989, and why it was directed not only at the dissident leaders and the new democratic government, but also at the people seated in concentric rows to Vaclav Havel’s rear — those other “heroes” of “our revolution,” the symphony musicians of Prague.
The Communist Cell
The Soviet Army, as is sometimes forgotten, cannot be blamed for every black shadow that has fallen across the countries of the Warsaw Pact. Communism was exported to Eastern Europe from across the Soviet border, but it was a local product, too. A bright inner core of the big-city intelligentsia, the writers and artists, the concertgoers, readers of literary and philosophical reviews, student intellectuals — these people, in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation, showed no little enthusiasm for the communist idea.
Bolshevik habits like ferocity and discipline struck them as practical virtues, nicely adapted to an age of fascism. And they saw in communism what seems impossible to remember today — a cultural ideal, not just an economic program. For these people were the partisans of civilization against barbarism, they upheld the old notions of the enlightened European intelligentsia, they were the champions of ever-expanding liberations in every field of life — except that civilization and barbarism had exchanged their customary geographies, and the Paris and Vienna of the golden future were going to be, in the postwar imagination, Moscow and Leningrad.
These communist sympathizers, circa 1945, were not exactly well-informed about the Moscow and Leningrad that really existed. Or possibly they did have an idea of Soviet reality and were not especially disturbed. Their revolutionary project was always faintly ambiguous. Were communism’s sympathizers anti-obscurantists in the great liberal tradition? Or were they obscurantists like their leader, Stalin? Were they fascism’s bitter enemy, or its twin? Progressives or reactionaries?
It was impossible to say. The communist intelligentsia was a new twist in the history of ideas. Yet in the atmosphere of the 1940s, in the institutional rubble left behind by the defeated Nazis, these people — communism’s most important social base — found themselves with a good deal of power. And with a helpful shove from the Soviet army, one country after another followed them into the radiant future, and a whiff of uncertainty about communism’s meaning and intent always lingered behind, like exhaust fumes.
The communist experience of the Czech Philharmonic began in something of that spirit. The young Václav Neumann, the same musician who later became world famous as the Philharmonic’s principal conductor, organized the orchestra’s original party cell in 1946 by saying: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are forming the first communist organization in the Czech Philharmonic.” That was an odd way to usher in the new era, given that true Bolsheviks, enemies of the bourgeoisie, address one another as comrades, not as “ladies and gentlemen.”
Mr. Neumann was a true enough Bolshevik to put together a cell. But he managed not to be a comrade. The works he performed were those of the grand masters of the past, and he continued to wear the tails and starched shirts of ancient custom, and he would never abandon the Czech stuffiness that insists on “Mr., Mrs., Miss, ladies and gentlemen.” He was, everything considered, bourgeois tradition’s stout defender — as well as Moscow’s. And in that same ambiguous way, the communist movement built popular cells all over post-Nazi Czechoslovakia.
A great bulk of the population leaned instinctively toward social democracy. And since the communists were not without a clever tactical sense, the party described itself as a sort of social-democracy-without-bourgeois-illusions. The comrades spoke of a “Czechoslovak Road to Socialism,” something smoother and more civilized than the barbarous Bolshevism of the uncouth Soviet Union. By appearing to be democratic yet allied with Stalin, authentically Czechoslovak yet pro-Soviet, refined yet tough, by cultivating the kind of ambiguity that could prompt an earnest maestro into addressing his comrades as ladies and gentlemen, the communists managed to entice all but the shrewdest corners of the social democratic movement into a fatefully disastrous popular front. Large sectors of the working class joined with large sectors of the intelligentsia under communist auspices, and in a free election in 1946, the party managed to come away with no less than 38 per cent of the popular vote.
Had there been a second election a couple of years later, communism would probably have accumulated an absolute majority. Except that 38 per cent was quite sufficient, and soon enough the communists did away with the bourgeois custom of free elections, and by 1948 the deed was done, not because of the Red Army. The Republic of Czechoslovakia metamorphosed into the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, member in good standing of the world communist movement.
The meaning of communism’s rise to power was not immediately obvious to most people (though there were a clear-eyed few who instantly fled into exile). The new government expropriated the country homes of rich bourgeois and turned them into vacation resorts for poor workers, which seemed, from a solidly progressive point of view, exactly what any decent person would have advocated. The communist notion of how to build an economy, the army-like system of administrative fiat, unwavering obedience, central planning, and mass effort, worked well enough, so long as economic growth meant new steel plants and weapons factories. The economy under these principles expanded for a decade and a half even without the economists faking the figures.
Yet in the first years alone, the Czechoslovak Road to Socialism — less smooth than anticipated — managed to execute 8000 people, according to literature put out by dissidents later on. The very first of the communist show-trials in Prague did away with the leaders of the duped and manipulated factions of democratic socialism. As many as 150,000 unfortunates ended up in prison, and the rest of the population found themselves dwelling among party cells and secret police informers and subject to less than civilized demands for conformity in every sphere of life and thought.
By the mid-1960s, the party’s own economists began to notice that economic growth wasn’t what it seemed either (as one of those economists, the present ambassador to the U.S., Rita Klímová, has told me). The brute-force approach worked well enough at building steel plants, if you didn’t mind executing a lot of people, but was not so good at tuning the economy to any finer pitch.
The economy, having climbed upward for 15 years, began to climb back down. And when some of the top political leaders, not just the economists and technocrats, noticed the sorry effects of their own rule and tried to institute reforms — when Alexander Dubcek and his party comrades launched the “Prague Spring” of 1968 in order to liberalize their own system (though not so much as to permit opposition parties or normal democratic procedures) — in came the tanks and troops of “fraternal aid” from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, and self-deception about communism’s liberating potential became that much harder to maintain. The situation, as the Party leaders said, “normalized.” Normalization meant, after August 1968, that Czechoslovakia’s Road to Socialism was barely even Czechoslovak.
The Leonore Overture
The Czech Philharmonic, being a jewel of the national culture, not to mention a dependable source of six million crowns a year in hard currency, never had to endure the worst of these bleak developments. The party maintained its cell in the orchestra and ran the unions and controlled the concert halls, and by manipulating the different levers of power, had the musicians under firm control. Yet the Czech Philharmonic, like all the great orchestras in Europe, was by tradition a self-governing institution, and this tradition never entirely disappeared.
The communists asserted the right to veto any proposal made by the orchestra. But the orchestra retained a countervailing power of veto over the communists, which made for a bit of check and balance. Most of the elected positions in the orchestra fell into communist hands. But the musicians somehow kept the right to vote freely on one of the important jobs, the Representative for Secondary Activities.
In most of the Czechoslovak orchestras, the secret police supervised the hiring of musicians in order to prevent anyone suspected of anticommunist sentiment from infiltrating, say, an important flute section. At the Czech Philharmonic, for instance, the police intervened to prevent the young winner of a cello competition in 1983 from taking a seat in the orchestra, due to the inconvenient fact that the cellist’s father had signed a notorious dissident manifesto, Charter 77, calling for human rights. Generally, though, the Philharmonic retained the power to pick its own members, and the secret police didn’t interfere.
In that way, the Philharmonic never lost control over what was, after all, the main thing — its own musical quality. Yet it could hardly be said that members of the orchestra were free citizens. Over the years, the party cell in the orchestra hovered between 10 and 20 people and was always active and strong, either because some musicians honestly upheld communist principles, or because the pressure to join the party was too great to resist. Mr. Václav Junek, the principal trumpeter (until he went on half-time, due to age), was a communist of the first type, a man of stalwart Leninist principles who kept the cell in good repair as a matter of political commitment.
In recent times, the cell — or the “swine,” as I have heard them called (“There’s always the chance of one of those swine recognizing your voice,” Julia tells Winston in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four) — consisted of one flutist, one double-bassist, three cellists, five first violinists, and one second violinist, plus Comrade Junek. Strictly under the discipline of their own higher-ups in the party ranks, these 12 musicians dominated the orchestra, mostly by keeping tabs on their fellow musicians.
The orchestra might travel to faraway concert halls in Switzerland, or further still, to remote New York, but not even distance offered relief. The Czech violinists or clarinetists who could be seen hurrying along Seventh Avenue or 57th Street on their way from the Wellington Hotel or the Holiday Inn to Carnegie Hall, canvas-covered cases beneath their arms, looking for all the world like free musicians from a free republic, were under precise instructions not to engage in random conversation with strangers.
The bitterest injunction of all was not to converse with their own most fervent fans, the Czechoslovak exiles who flocked to Carnegie Hall in the hope of bathing their ears in Dvorák or Smetana, and who afterward might want to stop by the dressing room for a nostalgic chat about the old country. Or, if such forbidden conversations did take place, the musicians’ obligation was to report on them right away. Perhaps to Comrade Junek in the trumpet section or to someone else in authority. Apart from the well-known members of the party cell, there must have been, as everyone knew, members of the secret police in the orchestra’s entourage, though possibly not among the musicians themselves.
It was not that if a musician fell out of favor with the party or showed a lack of enthusiasm for party projects, anything drastic was likely to happen. Repression was mostly a system of threats and inferences, like a color filter that could gradually make life a little darker. One of the orchestra’s two harpists, Renata Kodadová, was invited by party leaders to establish a chapter of the Union of Socialist Youth, a communist enterprise. But Mrs. Kodadová, who didn’t approve of communist enterprises, indignantly refused — and found that her career as soloist dribbled to a halt, without any word of a blacklist ever being uttered. Invitations to perform simply no longer arrived.
Ludvík Bortl, the bass trombonist (a bass trombone is a regular trombone with extra heft and an extra tube), had a different problem. Mr. Bortl’s error may have been his patent honesty, which made him less than shy at expressing his democratic convictions. One day an anonymous letter arrived accusing him of embezzling funds from a recording contract — and for two years afterward, the police kept hinting to the trombonist about advantages he could enjoy by making himself quietly useful to the authorities.
Even Maestro Neumann, though he was an old-time parlor communist, had his difficulties, just to show that no one stood above the party. Mr. Neumann’s error was to rush home to Czechoslovakia from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in East Germany at the time of the ’68 invasion — without fulfilling, according to the authorities, his contract with the same East Germans who, from another point of view, had just invaded his country. Afterward Mr. Neumann could no longer count on official sympathy. He was invited to conduct the Munich Philharmonic at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, but on the day before his planned departure, official permission evaporated and the famous conductor found himself stranded — “desperate,” he told me — in his own country.
In order to go on a foreign vacation, orchestra members had to avoid arousing the enmity of the 12 comrades of the party cell. There was the fear that someone who fell out of favor might not, in a medical emergency, receive the best health care. There were the worries that everyone in Czechoslovakia had to entertain about their children — whether they would be locked out of higher education, the way that Václav Havel was as a young man, because of the anticommunist politics of his parents.
How could orchestra musicians withstand a lifetime of pressures like that? They did it slyly, as Mr. Neumann now acknowledges, in musical code. Mr. Neumann and the orchestra became ever fonder of performing works by Beethoven, notably the Leonore overture No. 3, which Beethoven originally intended as the overture to an opera about liberals versus tyrants.
Did the authorities understand that reference? Perhaps not, or perhaps they didn’t mind. Musical codes are notoriously unreliable. Beethoven, the champion of freedom, was a favorite of the Czechoslovak dissidents, just as he was of the Allies in the Second World War, but then again he was a favorite of the Nazis, too. The conductor Herbert von Karajan conducted a Beethoven symphony back in 1938 to celebrate the Nazi takeover of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. Slippery Beethoven!
In any case, the Leonore overture kept turning up on the Czech Philharmonic’s program. Other resistance, if that word doesn’t overstate the reality, was merely social: when the orchestra traveled abroad, no one wanted to room with the 12 comrades. That was prudent, too, given that a fit of overly frank late-night soul-bearing might do your life no end of harm.
Overt political protests on the orchestra’s part were out of the question. But as disaffection with communism grew more acute in the Eastern bloc, some quiet or clandestine resistance was not altogether impossible. Mr. Bortl, the bass trombonist, was the key figure, joined by younger musicians like Jacob Waldman, a baby-faced double bassist, and a few others. This inner nucleus of activists gathered a secret list of 20 or 25 orchestra members who could be counted on to contribute money for the samizdat, or underground, publications that dissident intellectuals were putting out. Fundraising was a daring thing to do and had to be gone about conspiratorially, with no one but the top organizers knowing which of the musicians figured among the contributors.
A more public resistance, when it began, came strictly in the name of musical values, though the line between politics and music wasn’t always clear, given the communist predilection for politicizing the nonpolitical. The party had its musical demands, its preferred or proscribed performers and composers, about which, normally speaking, the orchestra had very little to say. Mr. Neumann was eager to perform a symphony by Miloslav Kabelác, but the censors pored over the score and discovered the irksome Babylonian inscription, “Mene, mene, tekel, ufarsin” — the Bible’s “writing on the wall” — and Kabelác’s symphony disappeared into the black hole of the unperformable.
Yet on other occasions the orchestra exercised its ancient prerogatives and refused to be manipulated. In 1986, the orchestra and the government decided to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Czech Philharmonic’s founding, a grand moment in the history of Czech music. The post office issued a stamp. The state television scheduled a concert. But what was to be performed at the concert? Commemorative concerts, by tradition, are supposed to re-perform whatever was played at the original event — in this case, Antonín Dvorák’s Biblical Songs, which the composer himself had led back in 1896.
Biblical Songs was not a happy title, though, in an age of official atheism. The communist authorities proposed some contemporary Czech and Soviet composers instead. Since the orchestra had a veto, it refused on grounds of strict tradition to perform anything but Dvorak’s songs and the rest of the 1896 program. This backed the government into a corner. But there was nothing to be done about it, and the cultural officials, furious, canceled the broadcast in spite of the postage stamp and the publicity.
The Bass Trombonist
It has to be asked why the difficulties between the Philharmonic and the communists tended to revolve around television and radio broadcasts. The answer has to do with the one important post that remained fully under orchestral control, the Representative for Secondary Activities, whose business was nothing other than to grant permission for radio and television broadcasts, along with recordings. In its wisdom the orchestra managed to elect to this responsible but not very fascinating job the capable bass trombonist, Mr. Ludvík Bortl, otherwise known for quietly tiptoeing among the musicians to collect secret funds for samizdat publications.
The bass trombonist saw to his duties as Representative for Secondary Activities with zeal. One day the Ministry of Culture, in its eagerness to impose politically reliable conductors for broadcast concerts, invited the Philharmonic to perform under the baton of Milosz Konvalinka, the conductor of Prague’s National Theater orchestra. Mr. Konvalinka was highly regarded by the cultural officials of the Communist Party, but less highly by the musicians of the Czech Philharmonic. Mr. Bortl, on the orchestra’s behalf, declined to permit the broadcast concert to go on with Mr. Konvalinka conducting.
The ministry was aghast. The orchestra declined? Mr. Bortl was called in for a discussion with the Central Committee of the Communist Party. He and the orchestra manager received threatening phone calls. But there was no backing down: In the opinion of the musicians of the Czech Philharmonic, as expressed through their freely elected Representative for Secondary Activities, the government’s preferred conductor was not up to standard, and the Philharmonic would not perform, and investigations by the police and threatening phone calls and requests to confer with the Central Committee simply had no influence on their decision.
In choosing the bass trombonist to be the Representative for Secondary Activities, the Philharmonic had selected the sort of man whom management never likes to see sitting across the negotiating table. Mr. Bortl’s big arms, when they weren’t holding his oversized American-made King trombone up to play, lay folded across a large chest in the gesture that communicates immovability. He sat in the back row at concerts and waited for the bass trombone part to turn up in the score, and from a place in the audience you could easily imagine, with a little knowledge of what he was like, that the Czech Philharmonic consisted of 95 or a hundred musicians made of flesh and blood — and one granite boulder.
At negotiations, he had a zest for driving other people crazy by repeating himself with stubborn inflexibility. The most infamous example came in February 1987, when the orchestra went on one of its tours to the Soviet Union. The musicians were scheduled to perform a concert commemorating the seizure of power by Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party in 1948, a festive holiday for all friends of the Czechoslovak Road to Socialism. The Soviet Union scheduled a television broadcast, and the musicians arrived in the hall and took out their instruments and the television crews completed their preparations, and the great revolutionary concert was set to beam onto the television screens of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Mr. Bortl, however, as the Representative for Secondary Activities, wondered why the Czech Philharmonic, on its Soviet tours, was expected to perform without pay. Nonpayment for Soviet concerts seemed to him an offense to the orchestra’s pride. He explained to the Soviet officials that when the Czech Philharmonic tours the United States, it never plays for free. So why should the Soviet Union be any different?
After many decades of communist rule, this may have been a foolish question on Mr. Bortl’s part. It was gloriously naive of him to raise such an issue, or rather, disingenuous, since every schoolchild in the Warsaw Pact knew perfectly well why the Czech Philharmonic was expected to play for free in the Soviet Union, namely because Czechoslovakia no longer figured as a sovereign nation and the orchestra no longer constituted an ensemble of free musicians.
Mr. Bortl nonetheless asked the question, and by doing so, posed a delicate problem. The true answer to his question could never quite be said aloud nor even whispered by a kindly Soviet concert impresario in a corridor conversation. Yet what was to be done? Mr. Bortl, declining to give final permission for the orchestra to perform, kept asking his disingenuous question. Some kind of response was required.
The Soviet authorities got angry. They threw up their hands: the concert was supposed to go on and there was no time for stupid bickering. But Mr. Bortl was immovable. In the United States, the damnable man kept saying, the Czech Philharmonic never performs for free. So why should the Soviet Union … and so forth through his idiotic but unanswerable argument until, with chaos in the concert hall and five minutes left to go, a Soviet official came dashing into the theater, contract in hand specifying payment to that most irritating of orchestras, the Czech Philharmonic.
In his own thinking, the struggles led by Mr. Bortl had a definite political dimension, which he described, in the case of the Soviet television concert, as “our own, personal, very little protest against totalitarianism.” But this, too, was never said out loud. His reasoning was always phrased either as a worker’s demand for pay, or as a musician’s insistence on tradition. And if Mr. Bortl’s mosquito attacks on totalitarianism were never stated in political terms, neither, on the other hand, did anything seem to be political in the difficulties that the orchestra began to encounter in its dealings with the Czechoslovak government.
To begin with, where was the orchestra going to perform? This question, which grew ever more pressing, seemed merely to reflect a government tendency toward bureaucratic inefficiency and poor planning, without political meaning. Bohemia (the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, where Prague is located) used to be called “the conservatorium of Europe,” as Mrs. Kodadová, the harpist, has told me. But in this century, nobody has bothered to erect any new halls in Prague. Nor has anyone repaired the old halls. The Czech Philharmonic traditionally performed in the Rudolfinum, named after the Emperor Rudolf, but in recent years the Rudolfinum had become so decrepit that nothing was left to do but pack up and move until grand-scale renovations could eventually be made.
The authorities, though, contrived these renovations in such a way that, when the work would someday be completed, computers and climate-control mechanisms would occupy crucial space in the cramped hall, which the orchestra would still have to share with the Prague Conservatory and the Academy of Musical Arts. The computerized, air-conditioned concert hall was going to be a cattle car. So there was, from the Philharmonic’s point of view, no concert space for the time being, and there was not going to be a suitable hall in the future, and there were no plans for anything better.
The orchestra meanwhile scheduled its performances for Smetana Hall, a big creamy cavern, gymnasium-shaped, with skylight panes stuck in the ceiling like a giant emerald. Smetana Hall wouldn’t have been a bad place, except that the Prague Symphony Orchestra and other groups performed there, too, which made for a lot of traffic and inconvenience. Sometimes the Philharmonic was shunted into still another hall, the Zofín, doubtless the world’s most romantic concert auditorium, grandly located on a tiny island in the Vltava River. Only the Zofín, too, was pretty much in disrepair. Broken glass gaped from windows, stucco dribbled onto the grounds, the heating could not be counted on.
The musicians lugged their instrument cases across the stone bridge to the island auditorium, and they wore sweaters and coats to rehearsal and had to clear out before a dance class got underway. Besides, the Zofín was too small for symphonic concerts. So the problem of a concert hall was severe, even a little ominous. And in case anyone still didn’t get the point, the orchestra office staff discovered, as the 1980s wore on, that the office, too, was less than securely housed.
An emergency eviction notice ordered the staff out of their own premises. The orchestra manager fought the eviction off. A second notice went out. Again the manager fought it off. He felt like he was “boxing” for the orchestra’s life.
The orchestra’s uneasiness was not, of course, confined merely to the practical difficulties of locating a decent hall and reliable office space. The musicians had a suspicion that musical quality in Czechoslovakia was slipping. The cultural grandeur promised by communism, the brilliance that was supposed to radiate from Moscow and Leningrad, the bright beam of communist civilization — this somehow cast a light that seemed to grow ever dimmer in the run-down concert halls of Prague. The Czech Philharmonic used to attract the greatest musicians of the world to perform as soloists or guest conductors. Was the orchestra imagining things, or were great musicians increasingly reluctant to perform in Prague? And if that was true, what was the explanation?
Different theories made the rounds. Some of the most influential orchestra members pointed, in their conversations with me, to Czechoslovakia’s foreign policy problems with Israel. In 1967, as part of the communist bloc’s anti-Zionist turn, the Czechoslovak government abandoned its historic sympathy for Zionism and came out in favor of Israel’s enemies, not just the peaceful ones. (It was Czechoslovakia that sent Semtex plastic explosives to Muammar Qaddafi for distribution to terrorist groups such as the Palestinian faction that apparently blew up the Pan Am jet at Lockerbie, Scotland.) And since people in Czechoslovakia never much approved of this anti-Zionist development, there was, at any rate among the musicians, a resentment of the consequences that filtered back to Prague.
Great musicians like Erich Leinsdorf and Gerd Albrecht still came to perform with the Philharmonic. But there were others who held Israeli passports and could no longer visit Czechoslovakia, and still others who chose, in that case, not to. And since some of the best musicians in the world figured among those who took Prague off their concert tours, the members of the Philharmonic regretted the loss keenly.
There were other explanations for the orchestra’s gloomy sense of its position in the world. Mr. Neumann told me (through the double medium of a telephone and an interpreter) that getting musicians to Prague was not, in his opinion, the problem. His own feeling about Czechoslovakia’s decline was vaguer, though more poignant. He was haunted by the worry that the Czech Philharmonic, in its appearances abroad, might be greeted with hostility.
He pictured an audience somewhere in the West welcoming the orchestra with whistles of disdain and contempt — not because of how it performed, but because of the country it represented. The fear was unreasonable; never once was the Czech Philharmonic greeted less than warmly. But the worry did express the feeling of isolation that overtook the Philharmonic, the sense that grand vistas of culture and quality lay elsewhere and that the conservatorium of Europe had become a pariah even in the world of music.
Then again, these plaintive feelings were merely the musicians’ version of what everyone in the Eastern bloc began to feel. Czechoslovakia under communism had become a country whose best writers were either in and out of jail, like Mr. Havel, or in exile, like Milan Kundera and Joseph Skvorecky. A full 500 authors, according to Mr. Skvorecky, came under a ban. The country’s best filmmaker, Milos Forman, emigrated to the United States. Its industrial economy, one of the strongest in the world, degenerated into the third or fourth rank.
Even life expectancy, due mostly to decades of cheap brown coal and dead rivers, shriveled to a level five years below that of Western Europe. The sense of musical mediocrity and isolation, the effort to intimidate the bass trombonist with secret police investigations, the blacklisting of the harpist from her solo career and of the cello-competition winner from his rightful seat, the canceled commemorative concert, the inability of Mr. Neumann to conduct at the Olympic festival in Japan, the chipping plaster, broken windows, shrinking space, the eviction notices — all this was nothing but the national predicament.
The move toward open politics, the progress that would make the Philharmonic the first important sector of Czech society to go into open opposition, came only last year, in fitful steps. In January 1989, Václav Havel was arrested yet again and condemned to four and a half months in prison, this time for laying flowers on the grave of Jan Palach, the student who immolated himself to protest the 1968 Soviet invasion. And with Mr. Havel once again in jail, a petition began to circulate, addressed to the communist prime minister, requesting the playwright’s release.
Naturally the bass trombonist, with his dissident connections, took his place in the ranks of secret petition-circulators. Together with Mrs. Kodadová and one of the bassoonists and certain of the others, he passed the document around to the more reliable musicians. But who would want to sign such a petition? A chair in the Czech Philharmonic was the best position any musician could dream of having. To play in a historic orchestra was an honor, not to mention a joy. Whereas to sign a petition, to court the wrath of the party and the government, to risk your hard-earned chair merely for a noble civic gesture — was that a sound idea?
The petition clandestinely circulated, and each little group of musicians quietly went into existential crisis. Some musicians did sign, not just the young militants either. The silver-haired veteran cellist, Mr. Jan Stros, added his name, and there were, finally, 30 signatures on the petition. The organizers figured that if enough people got up their courage, the numbers would reach a critical mass, the orchestra would be unassailable, and the petition could go public.
Mr. Bortl got along well with Maestro Neumann and hoped discreetly to ask him, too, for his signature, which would have heartened the timid. But Mr. Neumann who often toured abroad while guest conductors took over the orchestra, was in Vienna. Thirty turned out to be the upper limit. “Most of us,” as Mr. Stros recalled later on, “were afraid.”
Then the orchestra manager got wind of the document and brought it up at a general meeting. What was this idea of protesting, he wanted to know. Did the musicians understand that the Czech Philharmonic was still trying to find a hall and the manager’s job was not made any easier by people going around signing petitions? Did the musicians understand that, if the petition went through their own wages might be in danger?
Mr. Waldman, the double-bassist, and some of the more militant and sophisticated musicians regarded the manager as something of a bluffer. Wages were not, in spite of what he said, endangered; they came steadily from the state, no matter what. As for the hall, that particular sore point was not going to be resolved any time soon, no matter how cooperative the musicians became. The concert hall was a doomed issue, short of a Japanese investment.
But the manager’s statement had its effect. Wages! The hall! A good half of the musicians who had signed the Havel petition sneaked back to the organizers and asked to strike their names. Other signatories held firm, but the panic couldn’t be suppressed. The handful of remaining names was not enough to guarantee anyone’s safety, and the project of collectively signing the Havel petition in the name of the Philharmonic was shelved — a fiasco.
Mr. Bortl signed, in that case, on his own behalf, as a lone individual and not in any way as a representative of the orchestra. That was bad enough. From the City Committee of the Communist Party came an invitation to come in for a discussion. His brother heard a rumor about the trombonist getting thrown out of work. Mr. Bortl was not, lucky for him, a soloist, and he had no trombone students on the side, which made him less vulnerable to official pressure. He did play sometimes in a quintet and had to wonder if it might somehow be made to suffer — though nothing like that came to pass. But already some of his colleagues in the Philharmonic recognized him as a marked man and stopped returning his hellos.
The failed petition nonetheless stirred up a feeling in the orchestra. For the first time since the stormy days of the Warsaw Pact invasion, the orchestra had tried to take an independent public position that had nothing to do with self-interest or money or musical values but was strictly political. And while the controversy over the failed effort was still vivid in everyone’s mind, a second more momentous development occurred. The revolutions in East Germany, Hungary, and even Poland were still in the future. But the Soviet Union, that glacier, was already beginning to show a few signs of change.
Radicalism and Exhibitionism
In early 1989, as part of the Gorbachev reforms, the Soviets stopped jamming Radio Free Europe. People in Prague had always listened to other, less important shortwave stations, like the Voice of America and the BBC. VOA was especially popular; people called it “Prague 3,” meaning the capital’s third station. But VOA devoted only so many hours to the Czech language, and its stories were too often about the magnificence of the Rocky Mountains and the exotic customs of the American Indians, which was amusing and pleasant, but did nothing to inform the Czech people about their own circumstances.
Radio Free Europe, for all its origins in the CIA, was less of a propaganda station. Listeners could tune in a beloved Prague radio announcer who had fled Czechoslovakia after the ’68 invasion and hear him read translated clippings from American journals as far afield as The Village Voice and The Nation. RFE reported news of the dissident movement. People could learn what their own neighbors were doing, what arguments were being made, and whose famous or not-famous necks were being risked on the public behalf.
One day in June, Radio Free Europe’s Czech language broadcasts reported on a new dissident petition called “Several Sentences.” An announcer read the petition aloud — and more important, read some of the signatories’ names, along with their professions. Listeners sat by their radios, transfixed. The announcer droned on, “So-and-so, filmmaker; so-and-so, worker,” and as the names came sailing from the radio speaker, the listeners, each in the privacy of home, heard with astonishment the names of people they knew or respected, or at any rate the names of people from their own lines of work.
The kind of existential crisis that took place in the orchestra during the unsuccessful effort to gather names for the Havel petition now took place in society as a whole. Names floated from the radio, and individual souls sitting around living rooms wondered, “Should I, too, sign? Should my name, too, be broadcast over Radio Free Europe?”
No one doubted the risk in endorsing “Several Sentences.” In the performing arts, signatories of “Several Sentences” found themselves denounced over the official airwaves and blacklisted from Czechoslovak radio and television. Everyone knew that the basements of Prague were full of coal stokers who used to be well-known intellectuals. Yet here came the RFE’s next broadcast, and the announcer turned again to the topic of “Several Sentences,” and still more names floated from the radio speaker.
Among the listeners to Radio Free Europe were, of course, the members of the Czech Philharmonic. The musicians had gotten in the habit of tuning it in during their tours abroad, where they could receive the broadcasts without jamming, and they kept up the habit when Soviet interference miraculously disappeared. In October ’89, several months after “Several Sentences” ceased to be circulated, but while its signatories were still being singled out for punishment, the Philharmonic traveled to Neuchâtel, Switzerland, to perform under a guest conductor. The musicians tuned in the news — and caught an amazing item. The name of their own principal conductor, Mr. Václav Neumann, came floating from the radio speaker.
Mr. Neumann was not himself a signatory. But like everyone else he followed the controversy over “Several Sentences” and he was infuriated at the official denunciations of the very fine citizens whose signatures did go down on the civic manifesto. He was a little intimidated at the idea of making a protest of his own, since the retributions might endanger the orchestra and not just himself. Yet the itch was in him. He wanted to act; he only wondered how.
Czech television provided the answer. The television authorities invited him to give a telecast concert. Yet these were the very people, as he reflected, who kept broadcasting scurrilous slanders against the courageous signatories of “Several Sentences.” The television authorities had come to the wrong man at the wrong time. Mr. Neumann’s moment of moral courage had arrived. He informed the authorities — “with pleasure,” a delicious phrase — that he had no intention of accepting their invitation. Václav Neumann, principal conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, a National Artist by decree of the government, a world figure, was not going to perform, thank you.
His refusal was in every respect a solitary act. Kurt Masur, the Gewanthaus conductor from Leipzig, was not yet leading mass demonstrations in the East German streets. The violist who would soon enough become the secessionist president of democratic Lithuania, Vytautas Landsbergis, was still unknown to the world. The leading conductors and musicians of the Eastern bloc were holding no secret conspiratorial discussions arriong themselves. Mr. Neumann had simply, on his own, reached his personal limit. And by October, while the members of the Czech Philharmonic were resting in their rooms at the Neuchâtel hotel, the news of this personal stand was beaming across the waves of Radio Free Europe to everyone who tuned in to the Czech language broadcasts.
What! The members of the Philharmonic couldn’t believe their ears. Their own Maestro Neumann on a one-man boycott? Perhaps the report wasn’t true. The concert tour took the orchestra to Stuttgart, West Germany, and only there was someone able to reach the maestro by telephone and confirm the astounding broadcast. And at the news of this confirmation, a “fever” — that was the word Mr. Stros later used — broke out among the different circles of Philharmonic players.
It is customary before rehearsals, when the Philharmonic assembles onstage, for officers of the orchestra to address the ensemble on matters of practical business. At the rehearsal in Stuttgart, the Representative for Secondary Activities got up to say a few words. Staring up at him were the faces of his own friends and the secret donors to samizdat funds and the decent but frightened people who had discreetly begged him to remove their names from the Havel petition. But there were other faces, too: the dozen “swine,” the people who turned their glance to the wall when he waved hello, the people whose political attitudes and reserves of personal courage were, after years in the orchestra, still a mystery, perhaps even to themselves.
To get up and speak to an audience like that was not in every respect an easy thing. Mr. Bortl was alive to the unhappy fact that while Václav Neumann was a revered celebrity in the world of music, a figure of social weight, a person that Czechoslovakia’s government would never wish to offend, he himself, Bortl the trombonist, was not a celebrity, had no social weight, and was, on the contrary, the object of police persecution.
No matter. Mr. Bortl opened his mouth and began to speak. His talk was unprecedented. Mrs. Kodadová, the harpist, thinking about that speech several months later, after the revolution, considered it to have been an act of authentic heroism. Mr. Bortl reported Mr. Neumann’s boycott of television, which by then was no secret to anyone. He proposed that the orchestra should, in an act of solidarity with its principal conductor, join the television boycott. Not as individuals but all together, as an ensemble. And more: the orchestra should go further than Mr. Neumann and boycott radio, too, until the blacklist against the signatories of “Several Sentences” was lifted. Mr. Bortl was proposing, in effect, a protest strike on grounds that were explicitly political.
Did such a strike have any likelihood of success? The Representative for Secondary Activities was in no position to offer guarantees. Milan Kundera once wrote, in a polemic against Václav Havel, a cynical essay called “Radicalism and Exhibitionism,” about people with a fondness for glamorous gestures and lost causes. A Philharmonic protest might well be radical. But then again it might merely be spectacular, like some desperate East Berliner hurling himself over the wall. If the musicians adopted Mr. Bortl’s proposal, they would not only be, as The New York Times would later report, the single artistic ensemble in Czechoslovakia out on strike, they would be the only ensemble of any kind — artistic, industrial, academic, ethnic, religious, or political.
No great dissident movement was waiting to rally around the protesting orchestra. No one in Czechoslovakia was marching in the streets (though three days later, in Prague, the dissidents did get some 10,000 people out for a march — a paltry number compared to street protests elsewhere in the bloc at the time). And in that unpromising atmosphere, the orchestra proceeded to vote.
A full 97 musicians sat on the Stuttgart rehearsal stage, not counting the guest conductor and a soloist. Comrade Junek of the trumpet section set himself, of course, against the resolution. But where were the other members of the cell that Comrade Junek had done so much to consolidate, the cell whose history went back to Mr. Neumann’s fateful invitation to the ladies and gentlemen of 1946? Somehow this cell, in the aftermath of Mr. Bortl’s courageous speech, buckled and collapsed. (Later, after the revolution, with the Communist Party in disgrace and even considering changing its name, Junek himself, feeling betrayed by the Communist leaders, regretted his own vote against the resolution.)
Three of the musicians abstained. But the rest of the orchestra, all 93 of them, heroes, cowards, unknowns, voted — unbelievably! — with Mr. Bortl. The decision was just short of unanimous. And with the momentous vote behind them, the orchestra turned back to its rehearsal. The Stuttgart concert was performed, and the orchestra went about its Western European tour quite as if the meeting on the Stuttgart stage was nothing more than a business discussion like any other.
The musicians returned to Prague after three weeks in Western Europe and had reason to know that their boycott decision was not, in fact, a bit of ordinary business. The leaders of the Communist Party took the trouble to articulate the matter with exemplary clarity. The director of the state radio, an object of the strike, explained that missed performances by the Czech Philharmonic were nothing to regret since the orchestra was not very good anyway.
The Ideological Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Jan Fojtík, harrumphed and noted that the same Czech Philharmonic that was engaged in a protest was asking for a concert hall — and was going to get “shit.” That was a shocking thing to say. The word “shit” from a high official had an intimidating quality, like a cop giving the finger to a protest march. It was alarming. It convinced people that Czechoslovakia was, just as everyone feared, sinking into savagery under rulers who lacked culture and education and who could no longer even open their mouths without butchering the beautiful Czech language.
Comrade Fojtík’s vulgar comment appeared in Tvorba magazine. Meanwhile rumor reached the orchestra that Fojtík’s mentor, General Secretary Milos Jakes, the party’s highest official, had decided to disband the Czech Philharmonic altogether — which seemed conceivable. For the link between communism and the intelligentsia, the promise of communism’s cultural greatness, the coming brilliance of the proletarian order — these things were no longer even a ghost of a memory. The Ministry of Culture, in those last decadent days of communist rule, was planning to sell off some of Czechoslovakia’s greatest cultural assets for hard currency — the magnificent Prague Judaica collection, for example, even if the collection was a thousand years old. What was a world-renowned orchestra to people like that?
Maybe other musicians, or the same musicians in a less exalted state of rage, would have beaten a convenient retreat, figuring they had bravely made their point and had nothing more to win, except a reputation for “exhibitionism.” But by then, in those first days of November, the Berlin Wall had come down and the news spread across the eastern countries via American and British shortwave broadcasts, and the political air was electric. Or perhaps the explanation was that, among the musicians, Mr. Bortl’s speech on the Stuttgart stage had established him as the undisputed political leader of the Czech Philharmonic, democracy’s trombone.
In any case, the orchestra did not retreat. Messages went out to other orchestras around the world, appealing for solidarity — and statements of support promptly arrived, beginning with congratulations from the Kraków Philharmonic of Poland. The orchestra telephoned the press in Czechoslovakia to announce the boycott and explain its logic. The Czechoslovak press had no intention of publicizing the antigovernment actions of dissident organizations. The musicians followed up with letters, just so the reporters, those professional liars, could not pretend ignorance. Still, no announcement ran in the press.
So the musicians took a further step and prepared to communicate directly with their own audience, no longer in the sly code of the Leonore overture, but directly, and on the taboo theme of politics. The orchestra printed a special leaflet announcing the Philharmonic boycott, and the leaflet went straight into the concert program for the homecoming performance, November 16, 1989, at Smetana Hall.
The secret police, already suspicious, were lurking around the hall. But their information was perhaps a little vague and they made no effort to stop the crush of concertgoers from lining up on the marble stairway to buy, for one crown apiece, the evening’s program. Or possibly the rebel program wasn’t even needed. The Philharmonic’s audience, in the privacy of their own homes, had already heard the news over shortwave broadcasts from the West.
The musicians came marching from the wings onto the stage to take their seats beneath the giant medallion of Smetana and the organ pipes. And from the sea of wooden chairs on the unraked auditorium floor a huge, spontaneous ovation arose. Dr. Desidr Galski, Prague’s Jewish leader, who happened to be among the audience, recalled to me later how people jumped to their feet, which is a rare gesture at a Prague concert, merely at the sight of the musicians in their full-length black tails and starched white shirts.
“Thank you!” voices cried out. “Bravo!”
The next day’s concert was the first since the announcement of the boycott that was supposed to be broadcast over the official radio.
The 17th was also a day for student protest in Prague. The occasion was an official commemoration of a student who was killed by the Nazis. At least one of the musicians, Mrs. Kodadová, managed to attend. The harpist’s daughter, age 14, wanted to march with the students, and since Mrs. Kodadová was already up to her elbows in the Philharmonic boycott, she rather liked the idea of her daughter participating too, and gave permission.
But since 14 is a little young to be left to the mercy of events, the harpist chose to walk at her daughter’s side, and the two of them went together with the 25,000 young people on the fateful day when the students sang “We Shall Overcome” in Czech and even in English. The police shadowed the marchers like a black cloud. And when Mrs. Kodadová figured that her daughter’s taste of life and protest had lasted long enough, she plucked herself and daughter from the ranks and went to Smetana Hall to dress for the evening concert and tune her harp.
Naturally the Representative for Secondary Activities refused to permit the state radio to broadcast the concert. So the deed was done. Again there was tension and applause in the hall. And only afterward, when Mrs. Kodadová changed back into ordinary clothes and went out into the streets and saw that policemen and vehicles were prowling the downtown boulevards and the air was soggy with violence — only then did she have any idea that the student demonstration did not come to an end at the instant that she wisely guided her daughter away.
No, the students marched onward to Narodní Avenue, catty-corner to the House of Cuban Culture. The black cloud of policemen descended on them, plucking people from the ranks to be clubbed and kicked, and though later it was not clear if the beatings turned into killings, at the time, on the streets, the conviction arose that Prague had just undergone a Tiananmen Square assault and the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia had just committed a massacre on Narodní Avenue.
Only this belief did not, in Prague, send the people into a terrified retreat, the way repression did in China. Hardly! The fear and timidity that had stung Czechoslovak eyes for 40 years, like coal smog or tear gas, were somehow wafting away. The students were calling for a strike. No one quite knew it, but the revolution had just broken out. The next evening Mrs. Kodadová had tickets to the Realistic Theater, but instead of seeing a performance, she sat in the audience while the actors endorsed the students, and even the theater director got up to say that, although he was himself a member of the Communist Party, having a dialogue with communists was impossible.
Mr. Bortl, jolted by news of the massacre, went about calling on his various political contacts. These turned out to be usefully widespread, not just among musicians. An actress telephoned to keep him up on the theater front. And since Mr. Bortl happened to know the family of a student who was thought to have been killed, his contacts extended into the student milieu too. The trombonist hurried over to a high school to pick up the new student literature.
In this way, conferring with the actress, rushing over to the students, Mr. Bortl put together documents from one and another of the mobilizing groups, and by Monday, when the Philharmonic assembled for a meeting and rehearsal, the trombonist was ready with strike literature and proposals. A full 267 people, musicians and staff, turned up at the meeting. The trombonist introduced some students to the orchestra. The students said a few words about their strike. And Mr. Bortl launched into another of his speeches.
The Universe of Music
He read something that he called the “Declaration of the Czech Philharmonic,” which was the product of his weekend’s work. The declaration protested violence and lawlessness on the part of the government. It put the orchestra on the side of the students and the theater people in their strike. It demanded that the authorities who participated in violent repression step down from power. And it affiliated the orchestra with the committee that Václav Havel and the theater people and other dissidents had put together over the weekend, the new Civic Forum. The statement was not too radical, not too mild, and the whole of it was approved.
Jan Buble, one of the reliables in the first violin section, took the declaration and went to the telephone. He called the Vienna offices of “Prague 3,” the Voice of America, to read the declaration over the phone lines, even if the secret police might have been listening in. And having done their civic duty, the musicians headed out to Wenceslas Square to join the first of that epic week’s mass demonstrations. They chanted at the Communist Party, “We never wanted you” — an odd chant, perhaps not an entirely true one, given the long dialectic of Czechoslovak history, but sincerely felt. And as the musicians chanted, they glanced sideways at their own ranks, and they saw the orchestra’s communist collaborators, and the people, too, the defeated swine, chanted along with everyone else and wore Czechoslovak flags pinned to their coats, quite as if the flag had always been their symbol of choice.
The Czech Philharmonic’s Civic Forum committee consisted of several of the old crew of dissidents, namely Mr. Bortl, Mrs. Kodadová, Mr. Buble, and Mr. Waldman, to whom were added Maestro Neumann and representatives from the office staff, the choir, and the regular soloists. This committee set about painting posters and placards, establishing contacts, gathering documents, and publishing statements of the orchestra.
There was the crucial business of spreading the news to the larger Czechoslovakia that lay beyond Prague’s Oldtown center. For how was the rest of the population going to receive reliable reports about the amazing events going on among the students and their supporters? Apart from foreign bands on the shortwave dial, all media in Czechoslovakia were under Communist control, and if here and there a newspaper wrested a little independence (as the newspaper of the formerly puppet Socialist Party began to do), no system was in place to distribute the uncensored press runs outside of Prague. Information about the police attack and the strike, if it was going to circulate at all, would have to spread person to person. So there was the additional task of loading the protest literature into cars and driving out of central Prague to any place where the strikers had contacts.
Here again Mr. Bortl, by happy coincidence, managed to play a distinguished role. He had not always planned on becoming a professional musician. He played the trombone in dance bands when he was in school, but his studies focused on chemistry, and afterward he went to work as a chemical analyst at the giant CDK works in the Prague suburbs. CDK is a complex of a dozen foundries and electrical plants with 25,000 employees who manufacture locomotives, diesel engines, semiconductors and other industrial goods. The place is called “the workers’ heart of Prague.”
Naturally when the student strike began, the communists tried to prevent any sort of contact between the university rebels and CDK. The party brought out the People’s Militia to seal off the industrial center. But some of the workers were themselves active partisans of democracy, which meant that CDK was already, so to speak, infected. Besides, sealing off 25,000 people is not so easy. Workers, too, knew how to tune in a shortwave radio. They went home to families that included students. And among the active ties between CDK and the student strikers was, as it happened, the energetic former chemical analyst, Mr. Bortl.
He picked up the student strike literature in central Prague and drove out to CDK to deliver it to faces familiar from the longago days, before his knack at the slide trombone brought him to the Philharmonic. Wednesday night he was out at the plant. And every afternoon, he and the other activists joined the students in Wenceslas Square and gazed up at the balcony of the Socialist Party newspaper and listened to the speeches that Mr. Havel and his little group of intellectuals and theater personalities delivered according to the staging instructions of the country’s best theater directors, through sound equipment that was set up by the cleverest of rock band technicians.
Those of us who observed the Czechoslovak Revolution on television thousands of miles away saw those rallies grow ever bigger — 200,000 people on Monday, more on Tuesday, 300,000 by Wednesday — and we watched that progress with a too-easy satisfaction. We believed, because it was thrilling to believe, that the demonstrators in the square stood in no particular danger and were, on the contrary, destined to win. We had watched the events in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, and we saw the crowds in Prague as part of a European panorama, and the grandeur and vastness of that panorama seemed to speak of historical certainty.
But that was not how things appeared to the hundreds of thousands who stared up at the Prague balcony. Those people had some inkling of events in other countries and they felt themselves to be part of an international movement. Yet the panorama that seized their own attention was mostly one of repression and violence. What did we, who lived a continent away, know of the repressive mechanisms of Marxism-Leninism in Czechoslovakia? The empire of the secret police was so extensive that in Prague alone, the Ministry of the Interior maintained no fewer than 272 safe houses.
Friday’s police attack on the students promised to be, if events took a wrong turn, only a first step toward a larger “Chinese solution.” The people in the square shook their key chains in a tinkled mass exorcism of tyrants and demons, and they took encouragement from their own growing numbers, and their hearts pounded with indignation, patriotism, enlightenment, rebellion, rage — with revolution, in a word. But those people were also, most of them, in terror.
When they got home in the evening, the television preached to them not about international backing but about their own isolation. The country’s main institutions — the trade unions, political associations, farm groups, ethnic and religious organizations, the clubs and professional societies, the bearers of national legitimacy, the establishment, the official culture — all stood in adamant opposition to the subversive goings-on in the square.
Still, not every important national institution was the enemy of those daily demonstrations. The Czech Philharmonic, the movement’s friend, was as grand and national and above-ground an institution as Czechoslovakia could claim. It was the establishment by definition. So the musicians, together with the striking actors, took up the job of infusing those thousands of demonstrators with a feeling not just of courage and stalwartness but with something that could be called a sense of national legitimacy. After voting the strike resolution at the Monday rehearsal and adopting Mr. Bortl’s “Statement of the Czech Philharmonic,” the musicians put away their instruments in order to honor their own resolution. But on Wednesday morning the orchestra shifted course and the instrument cases opened again and the musicians tuned to the A above middle C and the orchestra prepared to play — not to undermine the strike but to bolster it.
The guest conductor that week was scheduled to be one of Maestro Neumann’s protegés, the Czech conductor Libor Pescek. He and the Philharmonic’s artistic council looked through the repertory for appropriate works and settled on Má Vlast or My Country, the Czech classic by Bedrich Smetana. The orchestra performed four of the six sections of that work on Wednesday for a student audience at the chilly Zofín on the Vltava island. Then they set out to play it again Thursday morning at Smetana Hall, where the auditorium was heated and the musicians didn’t have to bundle up in sweaters and coats and there was plenty of room.
Tense and agitated students filed inside until the hall, as the official report of the orchestra later put it, was “completely packed.” The musicians laid the score across the music stands. Mr. Pescek raised his baton. And from the moment that he silently indicated the rhythm, in that second of stillness before the first note sounded, the world of politics into which the Philharmonic should never have had to enter, the world of declarations and strikes and committees — that world came, so to speak, to an end. The baton flashed, and the orchestra stepped as if through a door into that other, higher place, its home, the seat of its authority, the universe of music.
Revolutions generate extreme and exalted emotions. But normally there is nothing in a revolution or in any other mass political event that can give voice to those emotions. If people march in the streets, they find that parades are inarticulate. They chant — and complicated ideas shrivel into jingles. Orators step to the mike — and grand philosophies turn into slogans. Something of the popular emotion may get expressed; not much. The whole experience is frustrating, like shouting through a muzzle.
Music, perfectly articulate, has none of those problems. Mr. Pescek’s baton came down, and the first notes of My Country leapt into life, and the dimunition or cheapening that happens to abstract ideas and principles at a scene of mass politics, the muzzling of emotion — none of that occurred.
Those first notes were a solo by Mrs. Kodadová and her fellow harpist, sitting in the last row to the left, behind the violins. Stately, luxurious harp arpeggios sprang heavenward, feathery and implacable, as if from sword-bearing angels. Nor was there any doubt about the specific significance of those opening declarations. Smetana, ever forethoughtful, dispelled all ambiguity by writing down a clear programmatic explanation, like a nail to keep the slippery meanings in place.
Did the student audience pay attention to that programmatic explanation? The musicians had it uppermost in mind. Mr. Stros, the silver-haired cellist, in reconstructing that concert for me, spoke of it almost entirely in terms of the composer’s careful annotations. These were on a strictly national theme. Smetana was once, in his own student days, a revolutionary in the streets of Prague: he participated in the 1848 uprising against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And though the 1848 revolt went down to defeat and Prague continued to languish under the rule of hated foreigners, the composer came away with his patriotic feelings intact, along with the revolutionary notion that one day, wrongs would be set right.
The opening harp solo represented, according to his specifications, the harp of the mythological Czech prophet, Lumir. The musical phrase in that solo, the implacable and stately melody, evoked the castle of Prague, symbol and center of Czech sovereignty. And those opening ideas — prophecy and sovereignty, gusts from the revolution of 1848 — blew like a wind through everything that followed.
The orchestra had only to play the work exactly as on every occasion in the past. In the version of the concert that was told to me by Mr. Waldman, that is precisely what they did. The Czech Philharmonic is, after all, a professional orchestra at the highest level of artistic competence and can be counted on to adhere to the strictest traditions and standards in even the most extraordinary of circumstances. The gorgeous melodies of My Country‘s early sections, “The High Castle” and “The Vltava” (better known by its German title “The Moldau”), the ecstatic surging scale that evokes Prague’s river, the Bohemian heartbreak — these were performed entirely as they have always been, with steadiness, nobility, and force.
Even so, the performance was not exactly ordinary, either. There was the question of where to put the intermission. In the countless performances of Smetana’s classic over the decades, the procedure was generally to follow “The High Castle” and “The Vltava” with Part Three, “Sarka” — then break, with parts Four, Five, and Six to come after the intermission.
But was that procedure appropriate for Thursday’s concert? The morning hour, the audience of edgy students, the street clothes worn by the musicians, the improvised nature of the scene, the nervousness that everyone felt, the attention to matters that had more to do with the crowd at Wenceslas Square than with music — everything indicated a less than formal approach. Besides, a technical crew was accompanying the orchestra to record its performances, and the crew’s requirements, too, had to be taken into consideration. Given those factors, the musicians expected to run through several excerpts, as at the previous morning’s concert, and not bother doing a complete version.
The decision, once they were out on stage, was up to Mr. Pescek. But at the end of the second section and again at the third, the conductor’s black baton once more rose up, and the orchestra went on playing straight through to the moment at “Sarka” ‘s climax that usually marks the break for intermission. Again the baton waved. The orchestra plunged into the fourth section too. “From Bohemia’s Fields and Groves” — and only when that was completed did the musicians get a chance to catch their breath and wander into the wings for a few minute’s rest.
Yes, every note was exactly as Smetana indicated. But already the piece was coming out in a slightly unusual form. Then they were back on stage and Mr. Pescek’s baton waved again and the first tones of the fifth section. “Tábor,” sounded, and something new cropped up in the performance, a sort of overtone never previously heard. In Mr. Stros’s estimation. Smetana’s program had everything to do with this. My Country, lush and mythological until that point, turns grim and militant with the opening notes of “Tábor.” There arc echoes from 500 years ago, from a medieval chorale sung by the 15th century followers of Prague’s most famous rebel, the religious reformer Jan Huss, who was burned as a heretic.
The chorale was “Ye Who Are God”s Warriors.” It was not unlike Martin Luther’s terrifying hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” except older and bleaker. Huss’s most fanatical followers, the soldiers of Tábor, sang it when they marched into battle against anti-Czech and anti-Huss oppressors, and their message seems to have been, if you listen strictly to the melody: “Abandon hope, anyone who opposes us.” The devil himself would quake at such a tune. Every note is a block of stone. No rippling ecstasies spring heavenward from the harps. There are boulders, one after another in rows and circles, like Stonehenge. “Stubborn inflexibility” was Smetana’s own phrasefor 1he messagein that Hussite hymn.
The initial tone in Smetana’s rendition was supposed to be a low, quiet, ominous D, played as if at a distance by the tympani, the bassoons, the cellos, and the double bass. Then the horns were supposed to sound a rhythm on a different note, the first stubborn rocks of the Hussite melody, repeated softly on a never-varying discordant C, like this:
“Ye who who ARE … GOD’S …
“Ye who who ARE … GOD’S … ”
Except that when Mr. Pescek gave the signal and the first group of musicians bent over their instruments to produce the low, quiet, ominous D, the note did not come out as quiet as always, not, at least in the estimation of Mr. Stros. The musicians were ever so slightly too intense. The note was a tiny bit too strong, too heavy, too militant. It came out like a challenge. Perhaps the difference in sound would have been inaudible to most people even to musicians. But Mr. Stros, who had performed those opening notes for decades, felt that ominous D like a jolt.
The low tone went on for two bars. Then the horns entered on the repeated discordant C of “Ye who ARE … GOD’S … ” But the horn players, too, were a little too intense.
Professionals, of course — some of the finest in the world. Yet those musicians were not, in fact, granite boulders, they were flesh and blood, and they were shaken. In a matter of weeks, those musicians had, on the advice of a handful of orchestra politicos, taken their lives into their own hands; they had embarked on what would ordinarily have been a suicidal strike; they had seen their suicidal strike spread to hundreds of thousands of people; they had found themselves at the center of God alone knew what — a national uprising? A worldwide birth of freedom? An impending calamity on the scale of the Nazi takeover of 1938 or the Soviet invasion of 1968? And through all of those terrifying events, they had kept their fears to themselves and had gone about their protests and then their strike concerts with splendid discipline and control.
To begin Part Five of My Country at that instant, to perform “Tábor” to an audience of the very students who had survived the police attack at Narodní Avenue and were now naïvely hurling themselves against the communist dictatorship, to perform the first ferocious notes of what was, after all their nation’s most historic and solemn call to arms — that was too much. In the experience of those musicians, the political events had been, until that instant, half-articulate. But Smetana was perfectly expressive, and in bar three of Part Five, when the Hussite hymn began in a grim D-minor, he unleashed the deepest feelings of those disciplined symphony musicians.
So the horn players, too, pressing their mouthpieces to their lips, produced sounds that, at least in the veteran cellist’s estimation, were a little too determined, a little too much like a grim Hussite grunt. Those first musicians to begin “Tábor” had suddenly, inadvertently, broken into a cry — though to be sure the cry was, in a technical sense, exactly what Bedrich Smetana had specified in his score.
Mr. Stros couldn’t believe his ears. And while still in shock over those strangely fervent first three bars, he heard a second sound, a rumble really, an indistinct loudness, huge and not at all musical. He tore his eyes from the conductor and the score and looked out into the audience. That single, piercing. anguished “Ye who ARE … GOD’S … ” from the orchestra passed through the hall like an electric boll. The noisy rumble was the audience’s response. The 1500 students, row after row, were shooting to their feet.
The students did, as it turned out, understand Smetana’s program notes. Nothing about that concert was a mystery to them. They shot to their feet to acknowledge the 500-year-old sacred battle song. And facing straight at the orchestra, row after row of solemn, frightened, determined students raised a hand above their heads and spread their fingers in the V-sign salute of the democratic revolution of 1989.
That single phrase from the agitated musicians of their nation’s greatest orchestra made those students recognize that they themselves, in the circumstances of modem Prague, were God’s Warriors, and they stood at attention because they were accepting their role, whatever the cost might be. For no one could imagine that a V-sign in November ’89 necessarily signaled victory’s approach. The history of Czechoslovakia has not been such as to permit confident eitpectations. The Táborite army of the 15th century went down to bitter defeat, just as Smetana and the insurrectionists of 1848 went down, and just as did every effort against the Nazis, too, then against the Communists — until that moment.
Smetana’s program, faithful to his opening theme of prophecy and sovereignty, nonetheless offered a prophecy that the defeated Hussites, having retreated for eternity to Blaník Mountain, would someday awaken and achieve the final redemption of their country. The last section of My Country evokes, as the composer explained, national resurgence: God’s warriors, singing the Hussite hymn, return at last for triumph and redemption. And with the students still on their feet, still saluting, the orchestra went from “Tábor” to begin My Country‘s sixth and final section, “Blaník.”
The same Hussite phrase, sounding this time almost like a march, introduced the section — loud at first, then tense and quiet, steadily advancing. Only to play those notes quietly, to control one’s instrument with unwavering precision — that was more than a human being could do in the face of an audience like those 1500 magnificent students. The violinists, when they went to bow a soft passage, found that their hands were shaking and the bows trembled on the strings. The windplayers put their instruments to their mouths, but their lip muscles were quivering.
The Czech Philharmonic was weeping. Yet it was playing. And at last the great symphonic poem that bad begun with implacable arpeggios from the courageous Mrs. Kodadová and her fellow harpist gave way, in the concluding passages, to Smetana’s final burst of national passion, and the rows of brass players raised their instruments to play, the trombonists lifted their golden horns, an oversized bell of a bass trombone pointed like a cannon out at the trembling, upright, saluting audience — and “Ye Who Are God’s Warriors” boomed with the spectacular solemnity of the Hussite army rushing into battle. A million strands of tone and overtone, fireworks of sound, soared from the crowded weeping stage. “Glory Returns to Bohemia,” was the name that Smetana gave to these final explosive passages.
Mr. Stros, from the perspective of a couple of months later, regarded that performance as the greatest experience of his life. “In such moments,” the cellist told me, “the nation realizes that it still exists.” Smetana himself had predicted exactly such a discovery, incredibly. “On the basis of this melody,” the composer wrote, referring to the motifs from “Ye Who Are God’s Warriors” in the sixth and final section, “will develop the resurrection and the future happiness and glory of the Czech nation!” How ridiculous those words must have seemed to anyone who bothered reading them during the century after Smetana set them down — how foolish of a composer to believe that melody could resurrect a nation.
Yet something like Smetana’s prediction did occur in the auditorium that bore his name. It was as if the great 19th century musician had written his masterpiece expressly for the single concert that eventually took place on the morning of November 23, 1989. Or perhaps there was another way to interpret the morning’s events. Mr. Waldman, when he spoke of that amazing morning, recalled how, according to Hussite legend, merely the sound of that terrible hymn was enough to drive enemies from the field — a not unreasonable explanation for what turned out to have occurred. “We all understood the power of music,” Mr. Waldman told me.
The CDK Workers
The stunned musicians and their audience, at the end of the performance, walked over to Wenceslas Square for another of the afternoon rallies that Mr. Havel and the dissident intellectuals were stubbornly running from their balcony at the Socialist Party newspaper. But the rally that afternoon proved to be a little different from the ones on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
During the morning, the atmosphere in Prague had somehow altered. The news spread that General Secretary Jakes, the Communist leader, that barbarian, the most hated man in Czechoslovakia, had resigned: the revolution’s first important victory. And the social composition of the revolutionary movement visibly changed. On previous days, the crowd at Wenceslas Square consisted mostly of Prague’s students, joined by actors and musicians and, generally, the intelligentsia.
But the agitation by some of the workers at the giant CDK works in the suburbs had continued; the leaflets smuggled in by Mr. Bortl and others had evidently begun to circulate, in spite of the People’s Militia; and on Thursday morning, while the concert went on at Smetana Hall, the political tensions at CDK finally overflowed. Leaders of the Communist Party went out to the plant, thinking to get up a progovernment demonstration.
Comrade Miroslav Stepan, the party boss of Prague, stood up to address the workers. It was an incredible moment in the annals of communism. Marxism-Leninism is, to make the most obvious judgment about it, a philosophy of oppression aimed against workers (though it didn’t begin that way) — but its special peculiarity is to blind its own proponents from ever quite recognizing that simple truth. “False consciousness” is Mr. Havel’s apt term.
Prague’s leading Communist visited the country’s largest factory complex believing that there, among the foundries and furnaces and the chemical tubing, were his stalwart supporters, his proletarian base, his legitimacy. Instead, one of the data processors and a couple of his friends went leaping through the corridors calling out to their fellows, and three or four hundred angry workers showed up at the Communist meeting and broke it up with heckles and shouts.
The workers of CDK were not, as it turned out, the supporters of Comrade Stepan, an alarming fact, undetected by decades of Marxist-Leninist scientific analysis, as one of the Western reporters cheerfully noted. The three or four hundred hecklers swelled into two or three thousand, and the thousands headed out from the factory complex to the place where the national fate was being decided, Wenceslas Square.
The distance was 10 kilometers, but instead of taking the subway, which would have been the normal way to go, they went on foot. Other people fell in with the line of march, which swelled the CDK delegation still more until, by the time the crowd reached Wenceslas Square, the outpouring onto the mall was immense. It was the Hussite army for real, as it seemed, not the student advance guard but the main corps, returning from Mount Blanik to redeem the nation. It was the working class of Prague.
Until that afternoon, the balance of power in Czechoslovakia was far from clear, since no one knew what position the working class was going to take, whether the traditional chasm between workers and the intelligentsia could be bridged, whether the Communists perhaps did retain support in the industrial zones.
It was not as if anybody had ever taken a proper poll to find out what if anything in the Communist propaganda was true. Since 1946, not a single free election had been held. There was not a single free trade union, answerable to its members. The actual opinions of Prague’s labor force were a mystery even to the workers themselves. Or perhaps the mystery can be stated a little more grandly. What exactly was the state of modem culture? The emancipatory impulse that ran like a current from Beethoven’s Leonore overture to the 1848 uprisings to My Country and beyond — did that impulse still exist? Is freedom merely a “Western” custom, unfit for the Slavic mentality or for people in other regions, something lacking in universality?
What evidence did anyone have that people in the eastern countries, Poland excepted, despised their own totalitarian systems? Who can honestly claim to have seen the revolution coming? Any number of cataclysmic possibilities seemed far likelier than a democratic upsurge in Eastern Europe. Nuclear war, if it had broken out, would have surprised no one. Doomsday books on that very theme have lined the bookstores for years. But where were the volumes that predicted the antitotalitarian revolution? Who can claim to have anticipated a spontaneous march from the industrial suburbs into Wenceslas Square to support a revolutionary movement led by a persecuted playwright?
The Praguers themselves, witnessing that huge congregation on the square, hardly knew what to make of it. Their own success seemed too incredible to believe. One triumph rose above of the last, like the climbing scale that Smetana used for his “Vltava” theme — the first demonstrations at the square, Thursday’s march of the CDK workers, the arrival Friday of the old reform leader of 1968, Alexander Dubcek, the national two-hour general strike by labor on the following Monday. But afterward the scale began to climb back down, and the successes seemed to ripple away into the past — at least they seemed to in the eyes of the principal militants in the Philharmonic. And in that gloomy atmosphere, Mr. Bortl and a few others, sitting in one of the wine bars that are spread through central Prague, came up with the idea of appealing once again to music by holding a further concert — the Philharmonic performance on December 14, the one that was finally reported in The New York Times — though not as a victory celebration. On the contrary, the idea was to fend off defeat by reviving some of the revolutionary spirit.
The musicians put their idea to the main Civic Forum leaders, the leaders approved — and only when the plans for the “Concert for the Civic Forum” were already going into effect did the deeper reality of what had already occurred in the week after the Massacre on Narodní Avenue become clear. The Communist Party, stalwart until that point, suddenly began to wobble, like a boxer who has been knocked out but stays on his feet for another few seconds. The Communists in the government one by one began to withdraw, the balance of seats passed to the Civic Forum, the talk of Mr. Havel becoming president got louder — and by then the concert, even before its first note was played, had changed meaning.
It was a victory concert. In token of that victory, the orchestra decided, through its Representative for Secondary Rights, to cancel the fateful boycott of state television and radio that had been approved on the long-ago Stuttgart stage. For what was the point in refusing to collaborate with a communist government when communism was already halfway gone? Why not invite the state television to come and record the impending triumphal concert? So the cameramen and the recording technicians took their place in the hall along with the faithful admiring audience.
The choice to perform Beethoven’s Ninth instead of Smetana again or Dvorak or some other Czech composer may seem a little odd, from a nationalist perspective. But nationalism, always significant, was never exactly dominant in the Czechoslovak revolution. My Country was a splendid and historic call to arms, the appropriate piece for a moment of crisis when everyone had to gird themselves against the possibility of being swiftly massacred by the People’s Militia. But exactly what did the musicians mean when they invoked Smetana’s call for “the resurrection and the future happiness and glory of the Czech nation?”
Everyone had a meaning of choice, and the meanings tended to stress themes and goals that went beyond mere nationalism. Mr. Stros, when he talked about politics, favored a Christian Democratic orientation and looked forward to the growth of a good solid Czechoslovak Christian Democratic party. Mr. Bortl, more in tune with the “antipolitical politics” of Václav Havel, felt himself to have gone beyond the conventional political ideologies — Christian democratic, social democratic, conservative, or liberal, not to mention communist. He was postideological. His historical heroes were “humanitarian personalities” like Dvorak and Smetana, or like Czechoslovakia’s president from earlier in the century, Tomas Masaryk. “Higher spiritual values” was the phrase that sprang from his lips.
Maestro Neumann, the conductor of that triumphant performance, stressed values that were cultural above all — the ability to speak Czech properly, a knowledge of music, the sort of education and cultivation that communism had never been able to provide, despite the seductive promises of 40 years ago. And for people whose revolutionary thoughts wandered along paths like those, Beethoven — even granted the awkward slipperiness in matters of politics — was an obvious choice. Beethoven was above nationality or party. He was the composer of freedom, of pure idealism, of the transcendental sublime. Plus Beethoven was victory’s natural favorite, and never more than in the last choral movement of the Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy.”
The applause that rose up in response to that performance, the ovation whose exuberance was so great as to echo in the distant columns of the Times, the ebullient noise of the “jubilant house” — that applause was nothing if not Prague’s shout of victory. It was an ovation for civilization and spiritual values, for freedom, for the notions that sound silly and abstract if someone extols them at a mass rally but are wonderfully lucid at a Beethoven concert.
Of course the ovation was also for the individuals who had managed to embody and express those philosophies and aspirations. It was for the celebrated conductor who had mounted a one-man boycott of state radio. Czechoslovakia’s leading playwright came on stage. The ovation was for him, too, and for the years he had spent in prison, and for his ad hoc Civic Forum, whose nonideological doctrine of gentleness and tolerance had translated the spiritual impulse into practical action.
The playwright introduced the Civic Forum’s new Foreign Minister, Mr. Dienstbier, the veteran dissident, who sat in the box of honor. Vigorous applause greeted Mr. Dienstbier and honored him for his own time in jail, and for the new, non-Soviet foreign policy he would conduct. Well-known émigrés, just back from exile, were introduced to the house. They, too, received a grand ovation.
The ovation was for the audience itself, the faithful music lovers, citizens of the conservatorium of Europe. It was for the chorus. And the ovation was, not least, for the people who sat in concentric rows to the rear of Maestro Neumann under the huge medallion of Hedrich Smetana — the anonymous members of Czechoslovakia’s leading symphony orchestra.
Nearly a hundred musicians gazed outward from the stage into the cream-colored cavern of Smetana Hall. Then the Czech Philharmonic, too, “heroes” of “our revolution,” the first ensemble in Czechoslovakia to go on strike, the vanguard of the vanguard — they, too, an orchestra of free musicians, burst into applause. ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 9, 2020