Bust of Beethoven © David Karlin
Bust of Beethoven
© David Karlin
In Prague, every street corner has a story. In one palace, Beethoven would tout for sponsorship with the nobility: across the square, a bronze relief of the young Beethoven glares at you, rather grumpily. In the old town square stands a building which once housed the café where Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka would drink coffee together and Einstein would play the violin (clearing the café, so the story goes). On the opposite side of the square, the music shop where you can buy CDs of Dvořák and Smetana turns out to be a former haberdashery belonging to Kafka’s domineering father. From the House of Three Golden Lions, Mozart, in town for the première of Don Giovanni, would shout abuse at his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. In the old town on the edge of the Jewish quarter, a statue of Rabbi Loew, the 17th century creator of the golem legend, gazes at you benevolently, apparently oblivious to his disconcertingly nubile granddaughter seeming to climb up one of his legs. Another building once housed the brothel visited by Mahler on trips to the city.

Bronze of Rabbi Loew © David Karlin
Bronze of Rabbi Loew
© David Karlin
Many of the stories aren't exactly at the highest level of reliability. The tale of Einstein's violin clearing the café, for example, is almost certainly apocryphal, and hard evidence is extremely scant as to Mozart's exact location during his two documented trips to Prague. But the city's history is undoubtedly steeped in music, and there are plenty of harder facts. For example, the Church of Our Lady before Týn boasts a fine and rare example of an early baroque organ, and it's solid historical fact that Josef František Maximilian, the 7th Prince Lobkowicz, sponsored Beethoven with an annuity and was the dedicatee of the third, fifth and sixth symphonies. Original orchestral parts for the fourth and fifth can be seen in the Lobkowicz Palace, just inside Prague Castle, together with a first edition of the Eroica and an original manuscript of Mozart's reorchestration of Handel's Messiah, with amendments in Mozart’s hand clearly visible.

You won’t find most of these without help. The city tourist board has a microsite dedicated to music in the city which includes a map of Prague sites with musical associations. They publish a similar map in print form, and also make available a variety of guided tours.

Inside the National Theatre © David Karlin
Inside the National Theatre
© David Karlin
Of course, you will want to take in performances at one of the city’s many venues. As you cross the Charles Bridge from Prague Castle into the old city, your view is flanked by two of the most important: on your left, next bridge along, is the Rudolfinum, home of the Czech Philharmonic; on your right is the National Theatre, which stages opera and ballet as well as straight theatre in Czech language. Prague actually boasts three theatre/opera houses, which have recently been brought under common management. What goes where hasn’t quite settled down yet, but broadly speaking, Czech opera is likely to be at the impossibly ornate National Theatre, international opera is more likely to be at the State Opera near Wenceslas Square, while the smaller Estates Theatre stages Mozart opera. The Estates is a particularly lovely hall and was the venue of Don Giovanni’s 1787 première. In the suburbs, the Karlín Musical Theatre (no relation) stages operetta.

Inside the Estates Theatre © Alison Karlin
Inside the Estates Theatre
© Alison Karlin
Dvořák Hall at the Rudolfinum seats 1,009, which is relatively small for a major symphony hall. This, together with it being rather wider than it is long, means that you’re pretty intimately connected to the orchestra. The acoustic is very clear and very lively, so a full orchestra sounds seriously loud. I imagine that it must be very difficult for a conductor there to keep pianissimi under control, but you certainly get high excitement levels if the orchestra gets a sforzando right. The Rudolfinum also contains a major art gallery specialising in contemporary exhibitions, and a chamber music hall named after Josef Suk.

The other major orchestral venue is Smetana Hall at Municipal House, home of the Prague Philharmonic. This has a grander, less intimate feel and a larger stage which makes it more suitable for works requiring an extended orchestra. The acoustic, while still lively, is more forgiving for large scale works than that in the Rudolfinum. The building's architecture is spectacular, including a coffee house and restaurant in glorious arts and crafts décor.

Ballet or dance performances can also be found at any of the three houses mentioned above, and there’s also some ballet opposite Municipal House at the Divadlo Hybernia, which mainly stages musicals. The building is the former home of Irish monks who, amongst other things, introduced the potato to Bohemia.

The Rudolfinum © David Karlin
The Rudolfinum
© David Karlin
Prague is home to many great classical music festivals (Prague Spring, Prague Proms, the Dvořák Festival and Prague Autumn Strings, to name just four). As well as these and the concerts in the major orchestral and chamber seasons, the city has several promoters who heavily market classical concerts mass-produced for the tourist market.  Every day of the year, you’ll find concerts with popular favourites (Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Brahms’s Hungarian Dances and suites from Bizet’s Carmen are typical items), some of them at major venues like Smetana Hall. While many serious music fans will turn their noses up at these, they may suit your inclination: just be aware that they can be considerably more expensive than a performance by the Czech Philharmonic, Prague Philharmonia or Prague Symphony, which is likely to be of considerably higher quality.

Vodník © David Karlin
© David Karlin
If history and memorabilia are your thing, you will be interested in the Czech National Museum, which has several collections in different locations across the city. There are museums dedicated to Dvořák and Smetana, the latter set an impressive location by Charles Bridge with a fine statue of Smetana overlooking the Vltava: the movement of Ma Vlást of that name (also known by its German name Moldau) seems to serve as a kind of unofficial second Czech national anthem. A former Carmelite monastery on the slopes below Prague Castle is home to the main Czech Museum of Music, which has an extensive collection of musical instruments. As well as many relatively normal instruments including its "so-called Mozart piano", the collection includes such rarities as euphoniums, giraffe pianos, an arpeggione, a giant bass crumhorn and several experimental quarter tone instruments from the early 20th century. The brass room has a particularly weird and wonderful selection, while rock fans will be intrigued to see a twin necked guitar which predates Jimmy Page by at least a century.

But all these set piece activities aside, Prague is a spectacularly beautiful city to walk around. Historically, Bohemia was a huge centre of arts and crafts in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Prague boasts a dazzling array of architectural styles, often highly decorated, often abounding with sculpture from all ages, and always riotously mixed up together. Everyone will find their favourite spot: as a lover of opera and folklore, mine is to be found in a quiet backwater in Malá Strana. Behind a large mill-wheel, out on a wooden spar over the river, a frog-eyed, leather-jerkined bronze figure fixes you with a discombobulating stare: he is Vodník the water goblin, from Dvořák’s magical opera Rusalka. But if opera isn’t your thing, on a fine day, you can do worse than stand on Charles Bridge with a pair of earphones listening to Smetana’s Vltava as you gaze at the mighty river flowing by. Like the Vltava, music runs through the heart of Prague.

The Vltava © David Karlin
The Vltava
© David Karlin