PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC – The only thing standing between me and classical music heaven is a crowd of soccer fans – over 2,000 drunken Scottish soccer fans to be exact.
“Incoming!” shouts a man with a deep brogue as people cover their heads hoping the projectile soccer ball kicked blindly by a drunken fan on the opposite side of Prague’s historic Old Town Square doesn’t hit them.
From my vantage point, I can see lovely St. Nicholas Old Town Church across the square, where the nightly classical music concert, which I’ve purchased a $10 ticket to see, is about to begin.
However, instead of listening to the heavenly sounds of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and great Czech composers like Antonin Dvorak, all I’m hearing is the haunting lament of an off-key bagpipe.
The Scots, most decked out in kilts, have commandeered Prague’s most famous square this October afternoon and are holding a pep rally prior to their national team’s match later that evening against the Czech Republic in a European Cup qualifier.
The beautiful square, which has witnessed everything from royal coronations to public executions, has never seen anything like this. The area beneath the medieval churches and 12th century buildings that make up Prague’s defining landmark is littered with beer cans and unconscious Scots.
Getting through this sea of chaos won’t be easy.
Above: While the Scots like to bring their own music to Prague, people have lots of places to hear classical music as well.
Just then, I see a group of locals retreating down a small street off the square and decide to follow. They lead me through a labyrinth of narrow streets, past neighbourhood churches where other music concerts are about to begin, and soon we emerge onto Parizska Street (Paris Street), home to Prague’s high-end fashion shops and where St. Nicholas Church stands.
The concert has just begun so I quietly squeeze into a pew at the back of the overcrowded church; one of two prominent churches in Prague named St. Nicholas – the other, where Mozart gave free organ concerts for his beloved Czech fans, is in Prague’s Lesser Town, a short walk from where the Old Town St. Nicholas stands.
The interior of the Old Town church is spectacular and the music is divine.
At intermission, a Czech woman named Martina sitting next to me asks how I like the concert.
What’s not to like about hearing classical music played by a symphony orchestra in a place where the acoustics are electrifying – for just $10!
The charming lady says music is the soul of Prague and that people here elevate composers and artists to rock star status. Czechs truly appreciate classical music and no one knew that better than the Austrian-born Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who lived in Prague on five occasions during his life and composed one of his most important works, Don Giovanni, here.
“Mozart liked staying here because he often said ‘people from Prague understand me.’ The rich and poor of Prague would even whistle his arias in the street on their way to work,” Martina tells me.
However, Prague also offered many temptations for the playful Mozart, who often neglected his work while here in favour of carousing the bars to the wee hours of the morning.
Martina, a classical music historian, shares an interesting tidbit about Mozart’s Don Giovanni composition.
“With the deadline fast approaching for the completion of Don Giovanni, Mozart’s friends became increasingly concerned that he would not finish the piece in time. So they invited him to a fake party and once inside the party room, they closed and locked the door behind him and refused to let him out until the work was completed,” smiles Martina.
As the orchestra reassembles for the second half of the concert, Martina looks around the Old Town St. Nicholas and says that only music can attract people into Czech churches these days. In actual fact, only about 4 per cent of Czechs attend church on a regular basis and over 50 per cent consider themselves atheists.
Besides churches, nightly concerts are also held in the many music halls scattered about this lovely city, which boasts two philharmonic orchestras – the world-renowned Czech Philharmonic and the equally famous Prague Philharmonic.
“Because the Czech Philharmonic is always touring, it’s very important that we have the Prague Philharmonic to listen to,” says Martina.
When not touring the world, the Czech Philharmonic plays out of the ornately decorated Orchestra House near the Charles Bridge, while the Prague symphony calls the city’s charming Municipal House, once the seat of power for former Czech kings, its home.
Municipal House, which stands next to Prague’s 15th century gate in the Old Town, is one of the most delightful buildings in the Czech capital – an Art Nouveau masterpiece that can seat up to 1,200 for performances. Its oval chandeliers, 5,000-pipe organ and charming parlours can be visited during daily tours. They are best appreciated, however, on concert nights.
To show their love of music, Prague residents in the historic Old and Lesser towns decorate their homes with musical instruments – the House of the Three Fiddles in Neruda Street is a great example. And the homes where Mozart stayed when visiting Prague, like the Villa Bertramka, where he completed Don Giovanni in 1787, are now part of most city tours.
The Antonin Dvorak Museum, located in the Baroque Amerika Pavilion, is another must visit when in Prague, Martina tells me.
Not surprisingly, the Czech capital hosts many important music festivals each year, the most famous of which is the Prague Spring Festival; an event that the music-loving Czechs plan their vacations around.
As the orchestra winds down its Old Town St. Nicholas concert with a stirring rendition of Dvorak’s “The New World”, the audience stands as one and applauds until hands begin to hurt.
Martina and I say our goodbyes and I gingerly poke my head out into the Old Town Square.
To my surprise, there’s not a kilt in sight. (The Scots lost to the Czechs 1-0 and fans were crying in their beer at bars outside the suburban national stadium – a long way away from the Old Town Square.)
The great square is engulfed in silence – and it’s music to my ears.