Music in the Air: Great European Cities for Classical Music Lovers (Part 2)
Posted by Rich Mancini
Posted in: Tauck’s Travelogue
Tags: Travel, Europe
Welcome back to our journey to some of Europe’s greatest destinations for lovers of classical music – places where many legendary composers lived and worked, and where some of the world’s finest orchestras and opera companies continue to feature their music today. Last time, we featured the Austrian cities of Vienna and Salzburg… and now we’ll cross a few borders to Budapest, Hungary and Prague, capital of the Czech Republic.
Once the independent cities of Buda and Pest on the Danube, both sections of Hungary’s capital enjoy a rich musical legacy drawn from traditional Hungarian folk music and influences from the Habsburg Empire it was once a part of, carried on by institutions like the Budapest Symphony and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, often ranked among the world’s best, as well as the Hungarian National Philharmonic. But nothing brings this across more than a visit to the 1880s opera house in Pest, built by Emperor Franz Joseph and now home to the Hungarian State Opera – a truly amazing place to take in a performance if you have the chance. Even before stepping inside this neo-Classical wonder, I remember being wowed by the imposing statues of musical masters dominating its façade.
Prominent among them is the figure whose legacy as a pianist and Hungarian national composer pretty much owns this town – Franz Liszt. Not far from the opera house, you can visit Liszt’s reconstructed 1880s flat for a glimpse of his life and work, including a custom-built desk with a built-in Bösendorfer keyboard. And one of his most lasting legacies to his homeland is the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, Hungary’s most prestigious music conservatory, which he founded as the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music in 1875; this musical education center and concert hall resides in a grand 1907 Art Nouveau building facing Ferenc Liszt Square on Király Street in Pest.
Across the river in Buda, you’ll find the home of another homegrown musical legend, Béla Bartók; built in 1924, it’s now a museum and memorial to the beloved Hungarian composer and musicologist, who emigrated to the U.S. during World War II and spent his final years in New York. And we haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to traditional Hungarian music, and the musical traditions of the Romany (“Gypsy”) people… it’s all part of the musical fabric of this remarkable “dual” city which you can explore on Tauck’s Danube Cruise.
Prague, Czech Republic
Home to nine principal professional orchestras – and that’s not counting its opera companies – this ancient Bohemian city enjoys a proud musical tradition that has seen a parade of great musicians and composers of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries who often performed or debuted their works here, including Mozart (who earned lasting fame through his work in Prague), Beethoven, Carl Maria von Weber, Chopin, Liszt, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, the Schumanns and more. But it is two Czech native sons – Bedrich Smetana and Antonín Dvorák – who have captured the musical imagination of the Czech nation and left their mark on its capital city. Revered as the father of Czech national music in the 19th century, Smetana created a body of work ranging from symphonic poems to operas to chamber music. His masterpiece, The Moldau, portrays the Vltava River as it flows through the Czech countryside into Prague – so it’s fitting that the Smetana Museum occupies a former waterworks on the Vltava, adjacent to the iconic Charles Bridge. And there’s also Smetana Hall, Prague’s largest concert space, tucked within one of its most beautiful Art Nouveau buildings, the Municipal House; I once stumbled upon a jazz concert in that incredible building, and it became one of the fondest memories of my visit.
Prague is also a treasure-trove of sites associated with Dvorák, who spent most of his life in the city; the most prominent of his homes here has become the Dvorák Museum, dedicated to his life, work and music. It’s also not unusual to see plaques or statues of the composer scattered throughout the city, commemorating some of the many apartments he occupied throughout his life. And his final resting place – along with Smetana’s – can be visited in the cemetery on the grounds of Vysehrad Castle. But, like Smetana, his name also lives on in one of Prague’s premier performance spaces, Dvorák Hall, in the city’s main concert hall, the Rudolfinium, home to the esteemed Czech Philharmonic. If you love music of any kind, you’ll want to check it out – along with the impressive Prague State Opera; Lobkowicz Palace at Prague Castle, which houses collections including historic instruments and some of Beethoven’s original scores; the wonderful Czech Museum of Music, displaying some of its collection of over half a million pieces in a former Baroque church (and they hold concerts there, too).
And then there’s the 18th-century Estates Theatre in Old Town, the city’s most exquisite neo-classical structure, and one of Europe’s most historic theatres. For both Mozart and opera buffs, this place is the Holy Grail; his Marriage of Figaro debuted in this space in 1786, and Wolfgang himself conducted the world premiere of his Don Giovanni right here… where it is still frequently produced. If you’re in town when it’s running, catch a performance and go back to Mozart’s days… after all, it’s all about the music! You can explore these places and more on Tauck’s Danube River Cruise.