CZECH MUSIC MUSEUM
On my way to visit friends in Brno, I stopped off in Prague and had a wonderful experience at the The Czech Museum of Music. The museum collection consists of over 3000 musical instruments, including rare items from around the world such as a violin built by Giuseppe Garneri (one was recently sold in the US for around $16m), a Stradivari violin, a piano played by Mozart, Hába's quartertone piano, and the Rosenberch Capella - a unique set of Renaissance wind instruments.
It also holds over 700,000 documents of musical history including manuscripts, printed scores, picture materials, audio documentation, librettos, books, concert programmes and posters, as well as items from the estates of the renowned Czech composers, Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák. Many of the musical instruments were donated by Czech instrument makers and collectors, whilst other valuable pieces were acquired from dissolved monasteries. More controversially, others were simply taken from their owners under the Beneš decrees - the legal framework for the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after WW2.
After buying my ticket, I was directed across the hall to a temporary exhibition telling the fascinating tale of black-market music in Communist Czechoslovakia. As I walked down the corridor, I learned about the importance of music in a world divided by the Iron Curtain, where the establishment in the East perceived Western culture as an ideological weapon. Aware that music had played a part in the social changes in the West in the early 60s, the Communist authorities thought it would corrupt the healthy development of their young people and so endeavoured to have it completely under their control.
However State censorship was somewhat undermined by the introduction of new technologies for home recording and sound reproduction. Over time, these technological inventions significantly contributed to the creation and distribution of illegal recordings within Czech society, but those who took part in 'samizdat' activities could find themselves imprisoned for spreading inappropriate content and being involved in illicit trading. The term 'samizdat' refers to the clandestine copying and distribution of music and literature which has been banned by the State. In addition to Western music, samizdat also allowed the distribution of the sort of domestic music which had no chance of coming out officially, and also involved organising secret concerts in village pubs and barns.
At the end of the exhibition area, there was a section dedicated to The Plastic People of the Universe, a Czech band who were one of the main players to have gone against Czechoslovakia's Communist regime. There were also displays showing a range of equipment and techniques used by people to copy music and smuggle it into the country. Visitors are given the opportunity to touch some of the machines and listen to tape recordings that were created during those times.
This exhibition really hit home how much we take for granted when it comes to being able to access the music that we love whenever we want to. It also highlighted how important music can be in a society - that people would risk being arrested and jailed for the chance to create their own music or to get their hands on the records from musicians they admired and identified with.
Leaving this section of the museum, I headed upstairs where the first set of doors led into a hall called "Music with voltage" which showcases the many ways of implementing electricity in musical instruments. I walked in to find a large room containing a Stratocaster leaning against an amp, inviting visitors to sit and have a go. Since there was no one else in the room, it would have been rude not to. I then spied the theremin in the middle of the room which came with instructions on how to play it. I tried to crank out a tune but failed miserably, although it was great just to mess about with it and create different sounds. A couple of other people entered the room so I left the music making to them and had a look round at the other exhibits, before making my way out the side door that leads into another room.
Here, there were a variety of different types of pianos and organs, each beautifully designed with their intricate details showcasing the stunning craftsmanship by the makers. The pièce de résistance is the piano played by Mozart during his first visit to Prague in 1787 which, remarkably, is still playable - although apparently it goes out of tune after 15 minutes due to the frail nature of the components. Then there was the musical staircase. There are only around eight stairs but it was fun to watch people try to make tunes as they ascended and descended them. In this section, there is also the opportunity to play a little mini-organ thing (can't remember the technical term). The female guard showed me how to pull out the levers to change the tone of the keys, and I'm pretty sure I blew her mind with my rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Heading into the stringed section, I spent time looking at the many beautiful violins, violas, and cellos before coming across another participation opportunity - a harp that is available for visitors to play. I sat down and plucked a few strings to hear the lovely tone but luckily, I could hear it being played properly by putting headphones on and listening to the recordings that can be accessed via the computer screen nearby. These screens are dotted around the museum and offer the chance to listen to all of the different instruments on display.
I passed through the final rooms dedicated to drums and other percussion and, after having a look at the 'glass armonica' invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, I found myself back at the stairs leading down to the main hall and the exit. Walking past the grand piano and rows of chairs laid out, I thought to myself how wonderful it would have been to attend a concert there but, alas, there were no events on that day. There was, however, a wonderful little record shop situated inside the cafe on the ground floor that is worth spending some time in.
The museum states on it's website that its aim is to 'present musical instruments to its visitors as examples of both craft and art, and as a fundamental mediator between human beings and music.' From what I experienced during my visit, it seems to fulfil this aim rather well.
Located in the former Baroque church of St. Mary Magdalene, the museum building - and the land it is situated on - also has a rich and interesting past. In 1420, the original Gothic-styled church that stood on the site was destroyed by the Hussites, a Czech Proto-Protestant Christian movement. Then, in 1574, the land was bought by the Metropolitan Chapter in Prague before it was passed on to the Dominicans in 1604 who procured donations from a wealthy family to help to build a new church. Leading Czech architect Francesco Caratti designed the church and the foundation stone was laid in 1654. After a few delays in the construction project it was eventually completed and in 1679 the largest organ in Prague was installed. The finished church was finally consecrated in 1709 however it didn't last long as the reforms of Joseph II led to the dissolution of the Dominican convent in 1783. After existing as a space for various industrial uses, the building was acquired by the Czech Governorate, serving firstly as a central post office and then as a Police barracks before becoming the Museum of Music after WW2. The front of the building still bears the image of the family crest of Karel Alexander Michna of Vacínov, the wealthy local who donated the funds that allowed the building to be constructed.
Location: Czech Museum of Music, Karmelitská 2/4, 118 00 Malá Strana, Czechia