The Prague Spring International Music Festival has, for more than 60 years, been a showcase for many of the world’s leading orchestras and performers. With performances taking place in many of the city’s leading venues – including the Prague State Opera House and the National Theatre – this annual celebration of music has become a major attraction for both music loving tourists and musicians themselves.
The origins of the Prague Festival can be traced back to the late 19th Century, although the May Festival began in 1900, with a series of concerts each year. In 1946, however, to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, the Spring Festival was officially launched. Whilst initially focussing on the work of leading Czech composers and musicians, there was, from the very beginning, a substantial international aspect to the Spring Festival. Leonard Bernstein, for example, performed in the Festival’s first two years. When the Budapest Symphony Orchestra visited in 1949, it began the tradition of leading orchestras from all over the world attending.
The Spring Festival traditionally is opened by a performance of Smetana’s ‘My Country’ and closes with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Between these two events, however, is a programme of tremendous variety. Many leading orchestras, conductors and soloists will feature each year – the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Hallé are amongst the many celebrated orchestras to have appeared here during at least one Festival.
An additional essential element of the festival programme is the inclusion of spectacular guest operatic and ballet productions. The Moscow Bolshoi Theatre, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and many other world famous companies have appeared.
The Spring Festival has always specifically attempted to promote and develop young, talented musicians and, consequently, each year a competition is held in various instrumental sections. Sviatoslav Richter, the celebrated Russian pianist, gave his first concerts outside his homeland here and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was awarded the Gold Medal in 1947. A founding member of the Federation of International Music Competitions, the Prague Spring festival has helped launch the careers of countless talented young musicians.
Lasting for most of the month of May each year and finishing at the beginning of June, the events in the festival range from large scale concerts to much smaller, more intimate chamber music ensembles. In addition to the main venues of the city, performances are also held in places such as St Anne’s Monastery, the Municipal House and various churches. In 2009, there were 70 events – categorised as Orchestral, Chamber Music, Recitals, Early Music, Popular Series, Theatre and Opera and Accompanying Events – which included a musicological conference and the Prize Giving.
Details of the next Prague Spring International Music Festival appear on the official website which will also have details about how to obtain tickets. This festival is especially noteworthy because of the discounts it is possible to obtain on many of the ticket prices. For example, concert-goers who are 60 or more years old, children under 15 and students can receive a discount of 20% for any concert.
It is only in recent years that many people have come to realise that Prague has much to offer visitors; rising in 2006 to Europe’s sixth most visited city destination. In addition to some amazing architecture it has some elements that are rather less common – the Lennon Wall, for example, which attracts many visitors, as does the Franz Kafka Museum. Often referred to as the ‘city of a thousand spires’ it is equally as famous for the quality of its beer and it has developed the reputation of being Central Europe’s most exciting city in terms of its nightlife. The public transport system in the city has made great strides in recent years – although visitors are always warned to be wary of unlicensed taxi drivers, who can charge as much as twice the official fare.
There are now over 50,000 hotel beds in the city – most of which are in accommodation built since the 1990s – and so far it has managed to maintain a good balance between being heavily dependent on tourism for its economy and maintaining its own cultural identity. Certainly, the Spring International Music Festival is a major part of Prague’s cultural year and is certainly a good excuse to visit this gem of a city.