Reading Flaubert in Prague

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HarpingOn

Prague is nuts. The old city is one of a thousand spires, sure, but also a city of a thousand hen parties and stag do’s. The outlandish and garish ornamentation of the baroque churches and classical buildings is ironically matched by the alcoholic behavior of several dozen British and German grooms-to-be, staggering with their groupies from restaurant to bar, strip club to sex shop, gafawing at the resilience of their livers. It’s perhaps the trashiest, most beautiful tourist trap I’ve ever seen.

My vacation is nearly over. Sunday is Pentecost, one of the major feasts in the Church’s calendar. As such, I’m leaving early so I can head home and be present on Sunday morning. Though I only have 18 hours to be a tourist in Prague, I’ve managed to cram in the big important sites in a few hours. Like Paris or London, every location seemed to have inspired or be associated with some great work I had encountered. Walking from Wenceslas Square I remembered Milan Kundera’s reflections on 1968. As I crossed the old town center and over to the Charles Bridge, lined with the huge creepy statues, I thought of all the kitschy vampire films of the 1920s set in Central Europe. I saw the castle, which is in fact a not just a single structure, but a complex of palaces, churches and administrative buildings surrounded by a wall, much of it used for sets in Amadeus. I took a detour over to the Vyšehrad, finally seeing the inspiration for the famous harp cadenza in Smetana’s Ma Vlast. 

But as usual, I wore out after a few hours and decided just to wander until I found coffee and a place to read. I usually take books with me, and upon leaving NYC a week ago was in the mood to take something French and nihilistic about the human experience (after all, I had just finished a degree Juilliard). On the recommendation of a friend, I had picked up a copy of Flaubert’s Salammbo to take on the trip. It’s not what I signed up for in the least. Contrary to realist novels like Madame Bovary, Salammbo is an exercise in lavish ancient historical romanticism – think “sex and violence in ancient Carthage.” I made it only about 10 pages in, when the heroine appears, flanked by 12 eunuchs armed with harps. She sings a lament for Carthage, in all languages and none, conveying to the belligerent foreigners the desolation of her home, a sort of morbid Pentecostal episode. But she finishes her song and drops her harp. All falls silent. 

I admit I still haven’t touched my harp since my graduation recital a few weeks ago. It’s been almost a month, but harp-overload kind of set in towards the end of semester. I suppose I went on vacation to get away, but instead got a fresh perspective. Seeing the Vyšehrad gave a new context to my recital, having played a transcription of the Smetana’s Moldau, the culminating episode in Ma Vlast. Though supposedly about the river itself, at the end of the movement the harp’s theme returns: an apparent reminder of the greatness that lies not just with rivers, but with the cities and fortresses that line them. Smetana’s harp theme illustrating the Vyšehrad is inescapable, a constant in the work. Unlike Salammbo’s harp, it can’t be dropped or silenced. 

I’m at the train station now, waiting for my boyrfriend to join me for our last night together on vacation. I should be sad that vacation is over, but really Prague has made me want to start practicing again. The city is saturated with music, from the constant stream of concerts of Mozart to the names of the train lines in and out of the city. Richard will be arriving on the “Mozart” train from Vienna, and will be heading out on the “Brahms” train to Berlin in the morning. The train is arriving is arriving now, heralded by several bell chime arpeggios and the melody sol-do-si-sol. No, it’s not Mozart. It’s the Vyšehrad, naturally. 

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