Prague in Music & the Arts
Prague is the Czech Republic's undisputed centre of music, arts and culture. The city's musical roots trace back to the early Christian hymns of nearly 1000 years ago and run through the rise of classical music to more modern forms like jazz and rock. A beautiful city built on the banks of a winding river, unsurprisingly, has inspired generations of visual artists, including painters, photographers and sculptors.
The Sound of Prague
If it's true that architecture is 'frozen music', then it should come as no surprise that for a city so endowed in beautiful buildings there would be beautiful music to match. From the early Vienna-inspired baroque sounds to more Czech-inflected modern classical music and on to jazz and contemporary rock, Prague has embraced many forms of music, giving international trends a home-grown inflection.
Classical music has a long tradition in Prague, and city residents have basked for centuries in the reputation that they know good music when they hear it. It was audiences in Prague, after all, who first ‘discovered’ the genius of Mozart long before the listening public in Mozart’s home country of Austria warmed to the composer.
From the 16th through the 18th centuries, classical music was heavily influenced by Austrian composers. Prague was a key part of the Habsburg empire, and Vienna was the seat of power. As Vienna’s grip loosened in the 19th century, a distinctly Czech sound in classical music began to emerge in step with the Czech National Revival. The best-known composer to emerge from this period was Bedřich Smetana (1824–84), author of the Moldau symphony.
Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904), a world-class composer who was born north of Prague, was also heavily influenced by the Czech National Revival. Czech motifs inspired his two Slavonic Dances (1878 and 1881), the operas Rusalka and Čert a Kača (The Devil and Kate), and his religious masterpiece, Stabat Mater. The Dvořák Museum in Nové Město holds special concerts from May to October.
In the 20th century, modern musical forms such as jazz made a strong imprint. Jazz clubs first emerged on Wenceslas Square in the 1920s and ‘30s. Prague’s jazz scene was pushed underground by the communist authorities as too decadent in the 1950s, but reemerged in the 1960s.
One of the top bands of this period was SH Quartet, which played for years at Reduta Jazz Club in Nové Město, the city’s first professional jazz club. The club is still going strong (though it's no longer quite the centre of the jazz scene). Another leading band from this period was Junior Trio, with Jan Hamr (1948–) and brothers Miroslav and Allan Vitouš, all of whom left for the US after 1968.
Today the scene feels no less relevant, and on any given night in Prague you can catch a number of decent shows. One of the best clubs is Jazz Dock, which brings together excellent music, cocktails and vistas over the Vltava River.
In looking for clues to the origins of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the influence of Western-style rock ‘n' roll cannot be exaggerated. Though rock was discouraged by the communists in the 1950s and ‘60s, strains of Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones and hundreds of others crossed the border via Western radio waves and smuggled albums. It was the sound of freedom, and the regime could not compete.
In the political thaw of the mid-1960s, the authorities gradually relaxed restrictions on Western music and rock blossomed. The 1967 hit single 'Želva' (Turtle), by the Prague-based band Olympic, bears the unmistakeable traces of mid-decade Beatles. One of the biggest stars of the time was pop singer Marta Kubišová (1942–). Kubišová was banned by the communists after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, though she was rehabilitated after 1989 and still occasionally performs.
The Warsaw Pact invasion silenced the city’s rock revolution. Many bands were prohibited from performing or recording. In their place, the authorities encouraged more anodyne singers such as Helena Vondráčková (1947–) and Karel Gott (1939–). Many popular songs from those days are simply Czech covers of the most innocuous Western music of the day.
Rock became heavily politicised in the 1980s in the run-up to the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Experimental bands such as the Plastic People of the Universe, echoing sounds of the US-based Velvet Undergound, were banned, though they developed large cult followings.
The Velvet Revolution opened the door to a flood of influences from around the world, and these days, Prague’s rock and indie scene is as vibrant and fragmented as any in Europe. A look at the list of top music acts for 2016 shows the charts still dominated by old-schoolers such as Gott and Bílá, but fresher faces have emerged, including teen idol, pop-rocker Tomáš Kluš, pop balladeer Kryštof, indie folk singer Lenka Dusilová, and hip retro-folk acts like Čechomor and Zrní.
Prague’s museums are stuffed with beautiful paintings, photographs and sculpture. Collections are particularly strong on the religious art of the early middle ages and modern art from the 19th and 20th centuries. The city was ransacked so often over the centuries that many works from the in-between years (the 15th to 18th centuries) were either destroyed or taken as war booty.
The Czech capital can look back on seven centuries of painting, starting with the luminously realistic 14th-century works of Magister Theodoricus (Master Theodorus). His paintings, which hang in the Chapel of St Wenceslas in Prague's St Vitus Cathedral, influenced art throughout Central Europe. Another gem of Czech Gothic art is a late-14th-century altar panel by an artist known only as the Master of the Třeboň Altar; what remains of it is at the Convent of St Agnes.
The baroque Šternberg Palace is home to the National Gallery’s collection of European masters from the 16th to 18th centuries. It may not be as impressive as galleries in other European capitals, but there are still several household names among the artists represented, including Goya, Rembrandt, Rubens and Breughels. Pride of the gallery is the glowing 'Feast of the Rosary' by Albrecht Dürer.
Jumping forward to the early 20th century, the capital of newly independent Czechoslokia emerged as a centre of trendy, avant-garde art. The capital was a focus for cubist painters, including Josef Čapek (1887–1945) and the aptly named Bohumil Kubišta (1884–1918).
The functionalist art movement flourished between WWI and WWII in a group called Devětsíl, led by the adaptable Karel Teige (1900–51). Surrealists followed, including Zdeněk Rykr (1900–40) and Josef Šima (1891–1971). Many of the best works from this period hang in the National Gallery's Modern and Contemporary Art Exhibition at Veletržní Palác.
The city's natural and man-made beauty has always proved irresistible to photographers. In step with developments in painting and the fine arts, the earliest photographers dabbled in early-modern styles like cubism, functionalism, Dadaism and surrealism. The jarring abstracts, many of which are on display at the Museum of Decorative Arts, still look fresh today. Two names to look out for include František Drtikol (1883–1961) and Jaroslav Rössler (1902–90).
During communism, the power of photographic imagery was enlisted to promote the workers’ state, and books from the time are littered with images of smokestacks and tractors. Serious photographers turned inward and intentionally chose subjects – such as landscapes and still lifes – that were, at least superficially, devoid of political content. Arguably, the best photographer from this time was Josef Sudek (1896–1976). During a career that spanned five decades, Sudek turned his lens on the city of Prague to absolutely stunning effect.
Image in Stone
Through the ages, the city's rulers – the Habsburgs, Czech Nationalists, the communists – have always respected the power of sculpture and statuary to drive emotion. The Austrians employed sculpture early on to cajole war-weary Czechs in the 16th and 17th centuries to accept Habsburg and Catholic rule.
In the 19th century, Czech nationalists used sculpture to raise public awareness of Czech culture. The best-known sculptor of this period was Josef Václav Myslbek, whose Wenceslas Statue dominates the upper end of Wenceslas Square.
The city's most famous sculpture is, ironically, no longer standing: Otakar Švec's monumental statue of Soviet leader Josef Stalin that once stood atop Letná. The 15.5m high statue was unveiled on 1 May 1955 and the timing could not have been worse. Stalin was rapidly being discredited in the Soviet Union, and the city was forced to blow up the work just seven years later.
Sculpture and public installations continue to provoke and cajole. Prague-based shock artist David Černý (1967–) has made a career out of amusing audiences with his public sculpture that both elicits laughter and makes deeper points about modern life and national myth. Many of Černý's works are on permanent display around the city.
Sidebar: Missing Paintings
Much of Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II’s legendary art collection from the 15th and 16th centuries wound up in the Habsburg family collections in Vienna or as war plunder in Sweden.
Sidebar: Dazzle the Masses
The baroque saints that line the parapets of Charles Bridge in the capital were used by the occupying Austrians in the 17th century to dazzle the peasants and sway them over to the Habsburg Empire and Catholic Church.
Sidebar: Havel & Lou Reed
Late former president Václav Havel was a big fan of underground rock in the 1980s, particularly the US-based band the Velvet Underground. Among Havel's closest friends was the band's late frontman Lou Reed.
Sidebar: Vltava Love Letter
Composer Bedřich Smetana drew consciously on Czech folk music and historical legends. His best-known symphony, the Moldau (Vltava), is a symphonic love poem to the river that runs through the capital's centre.
Sidebar: '90s Superstars
The 1990s were as popular in Prague as they were everywhere else, and hits from these days still get played over and over at clubs around town. Some local '90s stars to listen for include Lucie, Žlutý pes, Lucie Bílá, and Iva Bittová.
Feature: David Cerny's Provocative Street Art
David Černý’s sculpture and installations are often controversial, occasionally outrageous and always amusing. Although temporary Černý installations occasionally pop up here and there, the following are permanently on view in Prague:
Quo Vadis (1991) In the garden of the German Embassy, Malá Strana. A Trabant (an East German car) on four human legs serves as a monument to the thousands of East Germans who fled the communist regime in 1989 prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Viselec (1997) Above Husova street, Staré Město. A bearded, bespectacled chap with a passing resemblance to Sigmund Freud, casually dangling by one hand from a pole way above the street.
Kun (1999) In the Lucerna Palace shopping arcade, Nové Město. Amusing alternative version of the famous St Wenceslas Statue in Wenceslas Square, only on a dead horse that's upside down.
Miminka (2000) On the TV Tower, Žižkov. Creepy, giant, slot-faced babies crawling all over a TV transmitter tower – something to do with our attachment to media.
Brownnosers (2003) In the Futura Gallery, Smíchov. Stick your head up a statue’s backside and watch a video of the former Czech president and former director of the National Gallery feeding each other baby food.
Proudy (2004) In the courtyard of Hergetova Cíhelná, Malá Strana. Two guys pissing in a puddle (whose irregular outline, you’ll notice, is actually the map outline of the Czech Republic) and spelling out famous quotations from Czech literature with their pee.
K (2013) In the courtyard of the Quadrio shopping centre above the Národní třída metro station. This rotating bust of Franz Kafka, carved from 39 tons of mirrored stainless steel, plays on Kafka’s tortured personality and self doubt.
Prague is undeniably a city of beautiful old buildings, some as old as 1000 years, but each century over the past millennium has brought with it its own architectural fads and fashions, and learning the differences between them will help you decode the city's layered and fascinating history.
Prague's historic architecture, stretching back more than 1000 years, is a major drawcard. The backstreets of Staré Město and Malá Strana are living textbooks of the steady march of European architecture over the years. Thankfully, the city’s historic core escaped significant damage in WWII, so it records a millennium of continuous urban development, with baroque facades encasing Gothic houses perched on top of Romanesque cellars – all following a street plan that emerged in the 11th century.
Romanesque architecture, characterised by rounded facades, arched doorways and massive walls, was all the rage in Europe from the 10th to the 12th centuries, and was the reigning style during the rise of the early Bohemian kings. The oldest buildings in Prague date from this period, but, regrettably, not many original structures survived intact.
Prague's finest Romanesque building is the Basilica of St George at Prague Castle, but the style is perhaps best preserved in the handful of rotundas (circular churches) that are, amazingly, still standing. The finest examples include the Rotunda of St Longinus, from the early 12th century, in Nové Město and the late-11th-century Rotunda of St Martin in Vyšehrad.
Romanesque evolved into Gothic architecture in the 13th and 14th centuries. This is Prague's signature style and is characterised by tall, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, external flying buttresses, and tall, narrow windows with intricate tracery supporting massive stained glass. Gothic architecture flourished in the 14th century during the rule of Charles IV, especially in the hands of architect Peter Parler (Petr Parléř), who was best known for the eastern part of St Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle. Parler was also responsible for the Gothic design of Charles Bridge and the Old Town Bridge Tower.
Another master builder was Benedikt Rejt, whose finest legacy is the petal-shaped vaulting of Vladislav Hall (1493–1500) in the Old Royal Palace at Prague Castle. The Old Town Hall, with its Astronomical Clock, dates from this period as well.
Curiously, the golden spires that crown the many Gothic steeples around town, including the Church of Sts Peter & Paul at the Vyšehrad Citadel, were not part of the original design. Many of these were were added only in the 19th century, when the craze of neo-Gothic swept the city.
When the Habsburgs assumed the Bohemian throne in the early 16th century, they invited Italian architects to Prague to help create a royal city worthy of their status. The Italians brought a new enthusiasm for classical forms, an obsession with symmetry and a taste for exuberant decoration. The mix of local and Italian styles gave rise to a distinctive 'Bohemian Renaissance', featuring the technique of sgraffito – from the Italian word 'to scrape' – literally creating design patterns by scraping through an outer layer of pale plaster to reveal a darker surface underneath.
The Summer Palace (1538–60), or Belvedere, found in the gardens north of Prague Castle, was built for Queen Anna, the consort of Prague's first Habsburg ruler Ferdinand I. It is almost pure Italian Renaissance. The Schwarzenberg Palace (1546–67) in Hradčany and the House at the Minute (1546–1610) in Staré Město, just to the left of the Astronomical Clock, are good examples of sgraffito.
In the aftermath of the Thirty Years' War (1618–48), the Habsburg empire embarked on a campaign to rebuild and re-Catholicise the Czech lands. The ornate baroque style, with its marble columns, florid sculpture, frescoed ceilings and rich ornamentation, was used by the church as an instrument of persuasion.
The most impressive example of baroque style is St Nicholas Church (1704–55) in Malá Strana, the work of Bavarian father and son Kristof and Kilian Ignatz Dientzenhofer. Its massive green dome dominates Malá Strana in a fitting symbol of the Catholic Church's dominance over 18th-century Prague. The final flourish of late baroque was rococo, featuring even more-elaborate decoration. The Kinský Palace (1755–65), overlooking Old Town Square, has a gleaming rococo facade.
Neoclassical & other ‘Neos’
After the exuberance of the 17th and 18th centuries, the architecture of the 19th century was comparatively dull. There was a feeling among architects that baroque and rococo had taken pure decoration as far as it could go and there was a need to simplify styles. They looked to classical Greece and Rome for inspiration. Neoclassical and other 'historicist' styles (in other words, styles that consciously imitate earlier forms such as Gothic and Renaissance; usually given the prefix 'neo') are closely associated with the 19th-century Czech National Revival.
The Estates Theatre (1783) is a good example of neoclassical theatre design. The National Theatre (1888) and National Museum (1891) were built in neo-Renaissance style. The buildings are noteworthy not so much for the architecture, but for what they represented: the chance for Czechs to show they were the equals of their Viennese overlords. The flamboyant Spanish Synagogue (1868) in Josefov is another good example of neoclassicism, though here the style imitated is Moorish, recalling Jewish roots in Spain.
As the 19th century drew to a close, Czech architects began to tire of linear neoclassical facades and the pompous style of imperial Vienna. They were looking for something new and found inspiration in Paris with art nouveau and its flowing lines and emphasis on natural beauty.
The city's finest expression of art nouveau is the magnificent Municipal House (1906–12). Every aspect of the building's decoration was designed by leading Czech artists of the time, most famously Alfons Mucha, who decorated the Lord Mayor's Hall. Art nouveau was also frequently applied to upmarket hotels, including the Hotel Central (1899–1901) on Hybernská in Nové Město, and the Grand Hotel Evropa (1906) on Wenceslas Square.
In just one decade (from 1910 to 1920), barely half a dozen architects bequeathed to Prague a unique legacy of buildings that were influenced by the cubist art movement. The cubist style spurned the regular lines of traditional architecture and the sinuous forms of art nouveau in favour of triangular and pyramidal forms, emphasising diagonals rather than horizontals and verticals, and achieving a jagged, almost crystalline effect.
Some have likened the style to a Picasso painting in 3D, and in many ways that was the idea. Many of Prague's finest cubist houses can be seen in the neighbourhood below the Vyšehrad Citadel. Another appealing example is the House of the Black Madonna (1912) at Celetná 34 in Staré Město, which today fittingly houses the Museum of Czech Cubism. Prague also boasts a cubist lamp post (1915).
Best Historical Architecture In Prague
While it's true modern architecture (styles from the 1920s to the present) doesn't have the pedigree of the older styles, there are nevertheless several interesting buildings here. Czech modernism got off to a promising start in the 1920s and '30s with functionalism, which was heavily influenced by the German Bauhaus movement. Many of the functionalists' best ideas were co-opted – badly – by the communists from the 1950s to the '80s. The post-'89 period has been relatively disappointing and no single style has dominated.
The early-modern mantra that 'form follows function' found a receptive audience among a generation of new architects who came of age in the 1920s and '30s. Functionalism – similar to Germany's Bauhaus school – appealed to architects for its conscious rejection of superfluous ornamentation. Instead, functionalist architects tended to prefer natural lighting, clean lines and high-quality materials. Notable functionalist works in Prague include the Baťa shoe store (1929) on Wenceslas Square, Veletržní Palác (1928) in Holešovice, and Adolf Loos's Villa Müller (1930) in the suburb of Střešovice.
The communists, in power from 1948 to 1989, are usually derided for building ugly, nondescript buildings from cookie-cutter designs and using the cheapest materials available, but some critics are starting to soften their views. It's not that the buildings are good, but at least they're bad in an interesting way.
In the 1950s, architects were forced to design in the bombastic Stalinist, socialist-realist style, as seen in the Hotel International (1954) in Dejvice. In the 1970s, the 'brutalist' style was all the rage, where a building's innards – pipes and ducts and wires – were exposed on the exterior. The TV Tower (1987) in Žižkov dates from the end of the communist period. Its sheer scale dwarfs everything around.
Arguably the most interesting structure of the post–Velvet Revolution period is the so-called Dancing House (1992–96) in Nové Město, designed by Croatian architect Vlado Milunić and American Frank Gehry. The building's resemblance to a pair of dancers spurred the nickname 'Fred and Ginger', after the legendary dancing duo of Astaire and Rogers.
Some of the best new architecture is going up in former industrial districts, such as Smíchov, Karlín and Holešovice, including the refurbishment of a former factory to create a space for the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art (2008).
Best Modern Architecture in Prague
Sidebar: Best of Both
Charles Bridge is a good example of two opposing architectural styles – Gothic and baroque – coexisting and teasing out the best from each other. The structure is Gothic, while the statues, which give the bridge its life, are baroque.
Sidebar: Catchy House Names
Nerudova is the most atmospheric street in Malá Strana. Many houses here are still known by their names instead of their street addresses, including House at the Three Fiddles, House of the Golden Horseshoe and House of the Two Suns.
Sidebar: Seeing the Originals
Nearly all of the statues on Charles Bridge are copies. The originals are too valuable to be exposed to the elements. You can see some of the originals at the Lapidarium and the Brick Gate at the Vyšehrad Citadel.
Sidebar: 'Beauty' of Brutalism
Many people deride brutalist architecture as ugly and, well, 'brutal' to look at, but in the 1970s that style was king. The brutalist Kotva department store on central Náměstí Republiky was highly awarded at the time for its groundbreaking design.
Sidebar: Faint Praise
Veletržní Palác, a fabled functionalist building from the late 1920s, received only faint praise at the time from modern master Le Corbusier. On seeing the building, he commented it was interesting 'but not yet architecture'.