Of knights, Medieval castles and traffic jams

Stuck. © Charles Thibo

Anton Dvorak’s 3 Slavonic Rhapsodies (Op. 45) remind me like Rossini’s Overtures of the time where I started to get hooked by classical music. Tchaikovsky, Rossini, Smetana, Dvorak – those were the beginnings of my forays into this wonderful world that I haven’t left since. The Slavonic Rhapsodies immediately spoke to me, I could trace the style back to Bedrich Smetana’s “Ma vlast” which I simply loved and still listen to with much pleasure. Though Dvorak did not intend to write program music, that is music expressing specific ideas, pictures, emotions, moods, the three pieces evoke images connected to what was to become a country of its own after the end of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire: The Czech Republic.

Dvorak completed the first rhapsody in March 1878. It is written in D major and takes the form of a rondo with two themes. Its idyllic and pastoral mood sketches the legendary origin of the Czech nation, Queen Libuse, the founder of the Premyslid dynasty. Dvorak wrote the second rhapsody within a few weeks in September 1878, in A major this time. It is a lot more dramatic and darker than the first one, but marked by powerful rhythms. The third rhapsody is probably the best known. It saw the light in December 1878 and the opening bars played by the harp alone certainly explain its popularity. Its tonality is B flat major and it alludes to the glorious times when knights fought in tournaments, villages celebrated a good harvest with exuberant celebrations.

I clearly remember when I decided to write this post. It must have been a little over a year ago, on a grey and rainy morning. I was driving to work or rather I was stuck in a seemingly endless traffic jam at the outskirt of Luxembourg. And while Dvorak’s music managed to sublime that frustrating experience into an enjoyable time, my eyes fell on the ruins of a castle on the opposite side of the street, behind the traffic lights.  The strategic importance of Luxembourg during the Middle Ages and up to the middle of the 19th century was due to the fortress, surrounding the city with a triple ring of walls and an impressive number of watch-towers, forts and counter-forts. It was built to let no one in. It often occurs to me that the city’s position on top of a rock, once a military advantage, is the curse of every commuter nowadays.

To prevent Germany and France from going to war over the question of who would possess the fortress of Luxembourg, wise statesmen decided to remove it completely. You will find a park where once the walls stood and when the walls were gone, the settlement expanded and developed into a flourishing city attracting industry, traders and, in the 20th century, many foreign banks. So here I am, unarmed and with no hostile intention, traveling with a recording by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra into the times of Medieval castles and trying in vain to enter my capital city. How ironic!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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