A Bohemian State of Mind

  • Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill 8855 Germantown Avenue Philadelphia, PA, 19118 United States

If you look for Bohemia on a map, you won’t find it. After World War I, the old Kingdom of Bohemia folded into the Czechoslovak Republic. Bohemia never came back as an independent entity. It’s now the westernmost area of the Czech Republic, with Bohemian Prague as the Czech capital.

So Bohemia is gone. The name “Bohemia” isn’t, though, at all. Due to an odd French 19th-century misnomer, colorful, creatively countercultural, free-spirited “gypsy” types have been dubbed Bohemians. They’re immortalized in music by the likes of Bizet (Carmen), Puccini (La Bohème), and Freddy Mercury (Bohemian Rhapsody).

It’s an amazing thing about Bohemia. The place exerts a powerful presence even in shadow. During the baroque era, Bohemia more or less disappeared from map of European culture. But invisibly, it made its presence known.

Bohemia was hit hard by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), one of the most devasting events of early modern history. Prague had been a cultural powerhouse just decades before as capital of the Holy Roman Empire under the arts connoisseur Rudolph II (ruled 1576–1612), who left us much of the gorgeous old city of Prague.

But during the war and its long, hard aftermath, cultural Bohemia struggled. The older generation of artists and musicians stayed but their students didn’t. Bohemia became the kind of place you came from but didn’t go back to.

The place exerts a powerful presence even in shadow. During the baroque era, Bohemia more or less disappeared from map of European culture. But invisibly, it made its presence known.

“It was a sort of brain trust in a place where it’s interesting and valuable to be a musician, but not a lot of opportunities for a career,” says Gwyn Roberts, Tempesta artistic co-director. “So musicians wound up leaving.” Tempesta is spotlighting these expat Bohemians in the program Summer: A Bohemian Rhapsody.

Many were terrific. Bohemians Jan Dismas Zelenka and Johann Gottlieb Janitsch, two composers exciting avid interest today, were leaders in Europe’s major music centers, Zelenka in Dresden, Janitsch in Berlin. Other figures from Bohemia launched careers elsewhere and were forgotten but are undergoing rediscovery today.

There’s gold there, according to Roberts. “I’d never heard of some these composers before I started researching Bohemia,” she says. “The Capricornus and the Rittler pieces we’re playing—both from the 17th century—are particularly fabulous.”

And we can’t forget the boosters who brought Bohemia back in the 18th-century. We don’t know much about this Bohemian Count Václav Morzin, but he kept a terrific private orchestra that Vivaldi knew and admired so much that he dedicated his whole opus 8, which opens with The Four Seasons, to him. It was probably due to efforts such as Morzin’s that Prague rebounded and famously premiered Mozart’s Don Giovanni in 1787.

Geographical boundaries in 18th-century Europe were porous, much more, perhaps, than we’ve previously appreciated. Those big European capitals of the baroque world—Dresden, Berlin, London, Paris—were well enriched by talent from the hinterlands.

We can understand what that’s like. Many of us come from places we love but would never go back to.

Granted, few of them are as drop-dead gorgeous as Prague or as romantic as an artistically-evoked Bohemian garret. But we can dream.

Anne Schuster Hunter is a writer and art historian in Philadelphia, www.anneschusterhunter.com. She teaches creative writing at Temple University Center City. Valuable assistance to this essay was provided by Emma Haviland-Blunk and Rachel Hottle through the Swarthmore College Extern Program. Many thanks to Molly Hemphill.