The modern music festival has its roots in eighteenth-century England in connection with the rich English tradition of performing oratorios and cantatas. From the end of the eighteenth century onwards these then spread to the Continent, organized by opera companies and theatre orchestras and, later, choirs. In the Bohemian Lands from the 1860s festivals of choral societies took place almost every year. Theatre festivals throughout Europe were given a major impetus by Richard Wagner, when, in 1876, he began at the Bayreuth summer theatre to introduce cycles of his own operatic work.
The idea of festivals focusing on the works of one composer was adopted by the head of the Leipzig opera, Angelo Neumann, and he organized cycles of works by Mozart in 1880, then Gluck and Wagner in 1882. In August 1885, Neumann took charge of the New German Theatre (Deutsches Landestheater) in Prague, and brought the idea of series of works by one composer with him. Up to the year 1898 he offered audiences at various times of the year a total of nine festivals, seven of which comprised dramatic works and two comprised musical compositions.
In 1899 Neumann decided to establish a fixed date in May for annual festival performances. Between 7 and 28 May 1899 he presented eleven operas by Wagner in the New German Theatre. At the end of the series, on 4 June, selected parts from Wagner’s Parsifal and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony were heard in a performance conducted by Gustav Mahler. They were still performed under the name of the “Wagner-Festspiele.” Not till the next series, in 1900, was it called the “Mai-Festspiele.” The festivals became a showcase of Italian seasonal opera, of outstanding interpreters and whole guest ensembles. They continued to be held until 1913.
The Czech National Theatre also adopted first the idea of series of opera by a single composer (the first of which was a Smetana series in the 1893–94 season). The large-scale Czech music festival first appeared with the Czecho-Slav Ethnographical Exhibition: 132 pieces by 42 Czech composers were performed by the Exhibition Orchestra conducted by Karel Kovařovic at the Prague Exhibition Grounds from 15 May to 20 October. The first “Czech Music Festival” of that name was held in April 1904. The principal orchestra was the Czech Philharmonic, but chamber ensembles and huge choruses were also heard. (The Opening Concert was a performance of Dvořák’s Saint Ludmila oratorio with 1,600 singers.)
After the First World War, the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), founded in Donaueschingen in 1922, left its mark on the history of Prague festivals. After the isolation of the war years, musicians from twenty countries sought to join forces, and, on an international scale, promoted the inclusion of contemporary compositions in the standard repertoires. The Czechoslovak section offered to organize a festival of contemporary orchestral music in 1924, not only as a platform for new music but also as a visiting-card of the new European state. May was chosen as the month in which to hold it, so that the Festival could follow on from the celebrations marking the Smetana anniversaries on 12 May.
The seventeen official concerts and theatre performances took place between 27 May and 7 June 1924. The key role was again played by the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Václav Talich, presenting several orchestral premières. An important part was also played by the New German Theatre in Prague with the world première of Schoenberg’s “monodrama” Erwartung, the German première of Ravel’s L’heure espagnole, described as a “comédie-musicale,” and the first performance of Alexander Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony. The third ISCM Festival was held in the tense atmosphere of Prague in September 1935, with a bellicose Hitler already in power for his second year in neighbouring Germany. By that point the Festival bore the hallmark of a political event, and was seen as such by Czechoslovak politicians who sought to maintain its prestige. Thanks to the self-sacrificing organizers and the ever-ready Czech Philharmonic, the Festival did indeed take place in Prague.
In subsequent years musical festivals took place in an increasingly tense political atmosphere owing to the looming possibility of a German invasion. In 1939, the Prague Musical May Festival (Pražský hudební máj) offered a series of nine concerts and opera performances in the National Theatre. Slovakia soon broke away from the country, becoming a puppet state of Nazi Germany, and after the German invasion in mid-March 1939, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was set up.
The Czech Philharmonic and the opera of the National Theatre, together with Václav Talich, performed Dvořák’s Rusalka and Slavonic Dances, Mozart’s Magic Flute, compositions by Suk, Smetana’s My Country, The Bartered Bride, The Secret, and Libuše, and closed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
The Prague Musical May Festival inspired the Czech Musical May Festival (Český hudební máj) and in 1940 acted as the umbrella organization for more than 2,300 events throughout the Protectorate. The Smetana anniversaries in 1944 were marked by several hundred concerts and performances throughout the country. The mission of the Prague festivals gradually changed from the original intention of presenting great works of music by superb interpreters into a political statement. In the post-war period they would long play both roles.
Translated from the Czech by Derek Paton
The Prague Spring festival was founded in 1946 by the Czech conductor Rafael Kubelík, who was indisputably one of the world’s leading figures of 20th-century music.
The very first annual festival already saw the participation of a number of distinguished Czech and foreign musicians, among whom the American composer, pianist, and conductor Leonard Bernstein would win the greatest fame in the course of the following decades. Bernstein’s appearance in Prague was his overseas debut, and it is listed in his official biography as one of the most important moments of his career: 1946, April 1, premiere of Blitzstein’s Airborne Symphony, NYCS. May 15, made his overseas debut with Czech Philharmonic at the International Music Festival Prague Spring. (Source: The Leonard Bernstein Official Website www.leonardbernstein.com)
From the very beginning, Prague Spring has had the profile of the most important cultural event of post-war Czechoslovakia (the patron of the first annual festival was the President of Czechoslovakia, Dr. Edvard Beneš), and the festival has maintained that standing in the Czech Republic to this day.
Prague Spring is a truly international event, and an appearance there has always been and still is regarded as a prestigious event by the greatest artists of the day. During more than seventy years of its existence, the festival has welcomed to its stages nearly all of the most important Czech and foreign performers, orchestras and other musical ensembles.
The festival has witnessed tempestuous times of both bad and good fortune in modern Czech history. The festival’s name inspired the term “Prague Spring” used in political science to characterize the attempts at liberalization in Czechoslovakia climaxing with the events of 1968. In spite of all of the vicissitudes of Czech and European history, the festival has always managed to maintain its high artistic standards, comparable with the world’s top festivals, combining the best of the Czech music scene with elite musicians from around the world.
With the return to democracy after 1989, Prague Spring has modernized its management, broadened its programming, established its own firm relations abroad, and become a member in good standing of international and national professional associations. The festival has become a member of the European Festivals Association (EFA) and of the International Artist Managers’ Association (IAMA). In 1996 Prague Spring was involved in the founding of the Czech Association of Music Festivals.
Prague Spring confirmed its ambitions by acquiring its own headquarters. In 2000 the festival took another important step towards independence by its transformation into a public benefit corporation founded by the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic with the assistance of the City of Prague, thereby reinforcing its independence and its character as a public institution. Thereby, the festival has definitively taken the path of multiple source funding from public, private, and corporate resources and from its own commercial activities.
Opening the festival in 1990 was a memorable performance of Má vlast conducted by the founder of Prague Spring, Rafael Kubelík, in celebration of comeback after many years in emigration. The closing concert was then held under the baton of Leonard Bernstein – another legendary figure connected with the first year of the festival.
The Prague Spring logo takes a place of honor among the one hundred 20th-century Czech icons. The author of the logo that has been the festival’s emblem since 1946 was the famed Czech painter, graphic artist, stage designer, and typesetter František Muzika (1900-1974).
During preparations of the project Czech 100 Design Icons, also selected to be among the one hundred Czech 20th-century icons (100 years, 100 icons) was Muzika’s Prague Spring logo. The festival logo thus finds itself in prestigious company, from among which we have chosen a few examples: Façade of the Baťa Department Store in Prague, 1927-29; Poster „Don Juan“, Liberated Theatre or Prague Free Theatre, 1931; JAWA 250 “PÉRÁK” motorcycle, 1946-53; ŠKODA FELICIA car, 1959-1964 etc.