2018 is a key year for the people of what is now Slovakia and the Czech Republic. For one hundred years ago, on the 28th of October 1918, a new state arose from the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. It was on that day, in its capital Prague, that the independence of the Republic of Czechoslovakia was declared.
Although Dvořák of course never knew his homeland as Czechoslovakia: in 1841 he was born in what was then the region of Bohemia within the Austrian Empire and he died some fourteen years before Bohemia, with all the Czech and Slovak lands of central Europe, became part of a fully autonomous nation.
You have to go back to medieval days for a time when Bohemia last enjoyed independence, as a self-governing Kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire. To us perhaps its most familiar kings were Wenceslas of Christmas carol fame (although in fact he was a 10th century Duke of Bohemia rather than a king!), and the brave 14th century King John the Blind – slain at the Battle of Crécy – whose badge of three feathers and motto of Ich dien were said to have been adopted by the Black Prince and his successors as Princes of Wales. But the story is no more than a legend, it would now seem…
In the intervening centuries the nation was for many years under the yoke of the vast Austrian Empire. Dvořák, although forced to learn German as a boy, remained very proud of his Bohemian or Czech heritage: “I am a simple Czech musician”, he said.
Bohemia and bohemianism became more of a romantic concept than a political reality. The word bohemian with a small ‘b’ began in early 19th century France to signify a non-traditional, often itinerant, artistic lifestyle or anti-establishment viewpoint. This interpretation probably dates from the days when the Protestant views predominant in Bohemia were considered heretical by Roman Catholics.
Even after the 1918 declaration of independence, true autonomy was denied to Czechoslovakia for many years through invasion by first the Nazis and then the Soviets. Today of course the Czech Republic and Slovakia are separate but friendly neighbour nations within the European Union.
And Antonín Dvořák’s music lives on!