Prague might be best known for its beguiling combination of Pilsner and fairytale architecture, but the city’s lifeblood is music, not beer.
Passersby haul tubas, violins and trumpets around the streets; churches double as classical concert halls; and as evening falls, strains of jazz sashay slinkily out of bars and restaurants.
A bit of history
Musical talent has long flourished in the Czech capital, and in the 17th and 18th Centuries it was known as the conservatory of Europe. After leaving Vienna, Mozart found a receptive audience here, and wrote a symphony for his adopted home (Symphony No 38). He premiered and conducted Don Giovanni at the Prague Estates Theatre Opera, and the house where he stayed is now a museum. Prague is also the birthplace of the great composers Antoní Dvořák, Leoš Janáček and Bedřich Smetana.
Prague's music-themed Hotel Aria is perhaps the only hotel in the world with a musical director. Dr Ivana Stehlikova will advise on which concerts to go to and help navigate the hotel's CD collection. "Music is a very important part of Prague's past," she explained. "Many composers had to leave the county because the regime made their lives so difficult. But you can't kill the musicality of the nation. Every child was able to go to music lessons after normal school and this was not so expensive. The tradition was so strong and the conservatories were something that the Communists decided to keep."
German occupation, then decades of Communist rule, gave music an even greater significance. In a society silenced by censorship, music was a means of expression - not that it was permitted to be so. Veteran broadcaster and writer Lubomir Doruzka tells how a guitar player was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp for singing a chorus of Louis Armstrong's "Super Tiger Rag".
An alternative musical culture also emerged. Here, rock 'n' roll went hand in hand with revolution. Karel Kryl, the Czech Bob Dylan, had to leave the country after the release of his album Bratříčku zavírej vrátka (Close the Gate, Little Brother), which criticised the regime. Today you can visit the John Lennon Wall in Malá Strana, covered in graffiti tributes to the Beatle who wanted to give peace a chance. During the Communist period, writers and artists risked imprisonment by the secret police for decorating the wall, but each time it was painted over, the graffiti reappeared overnight.
Plastic People of the Universe is the seminal Prague rock band, founded in 1968. In 1976 they were arrested for performing in public. Partly in response to this, playwright Václav Havel and others wrote the manifesto Charter 77, which criticised the government's attitude to human rights, and was a step towards the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
When Havel became the Czech Republic's first president, one of his first acts was to invite Frank Zappa to play there. He wanted to appoint him special ambassador to the US, but Zappa became a cultural attaché instead. Havel is also a big Velvet Underground fan, and invited Lou Reed to visit in 1990. Reed says that Havel showed him a book of Velvet Underground lyrics translated into Czech and told him, "If you were caught with this book, you went to jail."
Life is a cabaret, old chum
Today, walking in the city centre, evidence of the city's passion for a good tune is everywhere. Walls are plastered with flyposters for classical, jazz and rock concerts, recitals, operas and salsa evenings. There are classical concerts in Prague Castle's Lobkowicz Palace and the neo-Renaissance Rudolfinum is home to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. You can hear Gershwin in the Spanish Synagogue, and the renowned Prague Chamber Orchestra, Prague Symphony Orchestra and Prague Philharmonia play throughout the year.
Jazz has a special place in Prague's heart, and has been shaking its money maker here since the 1930s, surviving repression to re-emerge all the stronger. You can find jazz (or soul-wringing blues) at Agharta Jazz Centrum or U Malého Glena. The Reduta Jazz Club is the city's most "muso" jazz club, hosting huge stars in a function-hall atmosphere. It was here that, in a moment as cool as a dancing dad, Bill Clinton jammed in 1994 on a saxophone presented to him by the then President Havel.
For Czech garage and the sound of the 21st-century underground, try Lucerna Music Bar, a back-in-time dive built by Havel's father.
Prague Spring is the big one, running from 12 May (the anniversary of Bedřich Smetana's death) to 13 June. It traditionally opens with a performance of Smetana's orchestral cycle Má Vlast (My Country), and attracts international virtuoso performers from Nigel Kennedy to Herbie Hancock.
Its Autumnal counterpoint is Prague Autumn, where rousing classical concerts take place at the Rudolfinum. In Summer there is the baroque Collegium Marianum, while in August there is a festival devoted to the French Horn. At the tail end of Summer, the Czech State Opera celebrates Verdi for three weeks, then there are St Wenceslas Sacred Music and International Brass Band festivals in September.
In October don your polo neck for the International Jazz Festival, which has taken place annually at the Reduta Jazz Club since 1964.
The article 'Prague’s musical past and present' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.