One need not look far to find the gods of Czech music in Prague. In front of the Rudolfinum, the magnificent neo-Renaissance concert hall and gallery on the western edge of Old Town, Antonín Dvořák stands like a bronze divinity. Inside, the Czech Philharmonic makes its home in Dvořák Hall and chamber music fills the intimate Suk Hall. On the other end of Old Town, in the Art Nouveau splendor of the Municipal House, Smetana Hall hosts the Prague Symphony Orchestra and a colourful array of visiting ensembles.

Rudolfinum with Dvořák outside © David Karlin
Rudolfinum with Dvořák outside
© David Karlin

The halls are living monuments to a legacy that reaches back 300 years, in a country blessed with great composers. The emergence of Bedřich Smetana as a world-class talent in the mid-1800s marked the birth of a national style and the beginning of a particularly fertile period that brought Dvořák and his son-in-law Josef Suk and in the 20th century, Leoš Janáček and Bohuslav Martinů. Their music sounds as fresh and vital now as it did when it was first written. And beyond the concert halls, Prague offers a wealth of opportunities to learn more about their lives and the times that produced their timeless music.

Bedřich Smetana statue overlooking Prague © Prague City Tourism
Bedřich Smetana statue overlooking Prague
© Prague City Tourism

A good starting point is the Smetana Museum, housed in a handsome sgraffito-decorated building on the east bank of the Vltava, near Charles Bridge. The composer sits solemnly outside, often unnoticed amidst the cafe tables, and the modest interior belies the special place he holds in Czech hearts. Dvořák may be the global star, but Smetana is the composer who captured Czechsʼ devotion to their homeland in works like Má vlast (My country), which opens the Prague Spring festival every year.

The museum offers a comprehensive background on Smetanaʼs family and career, supplemented by original manuscripts that demonstrate his versatility across multiple genres – symphonic music, chamber music and operas. An engaging exhibit on his most famous opera, Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride), reveals what a sensation it created throughout Europe after its premiere in 1866. Did you know that it's the only opera featuring a dispute over what makes one’s life better, love or beer?

The Dvořák Museum is a bit harder to find, tucked away in a lesser-travelled section of New Town. Once there, however, itʼs unforgettable, an elegant baroque summer house with gardens and statuary and a total immersion in the composerʼs life and work. From this remove, itʼs hard to imagine Dvořák as a penniless viola player in the Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra, chafing under the baton of its conductor, Bedřich Smetana. It was Johannes Brahms who discovered Dvořákʼs genius, in a composition competition in 1875. As the exhibits in the museum make clear, once Dvořákʼs work had a champion outside his country, it quickly grew in stature and influence.

Dvořák Museum © Prague City Tourism
Dvořák Museum
© Prague City Tourism

Throughout his life Dvořák took great inspiration from nature, reflected both in the setting of the museum and exhibitions inside, that include personal items like walking sticks, hats and bird guides. Devotees will find unparalleled serious scholarship in collections of autograph manuscripts, correspondence, photos and travelogues.

For many years Dvořák eked out a living as a music teacher, and one of his favourite pupils was Josef Suk, a talented violinist from Křečovice. The two men grew so close that Suk married Dvořákʼs daughter Otilie and by the early 1900s Suk had developed his own reputation as a noteworthy composer. A nationalist flavour runs through much of his music, which may explain why itʼs not performed more often outside his homeland. His more lasting influence may have been in forming the Czech Quartet, a seminal ensemble (originally called the Bohemian Quartet) that set the template for every Czech string quartet that has played ever since. Though itʼs less visible than a statue, the chamber music hall named for him at the Rudolfinum is a fitting tribute.

Polička Church, birthplace of Bohuslav Martinů © City of Polička
Polička Church, birthplace of Bohuslav Martinů
© City of Polička

If Josef Suk was a sterling pupil, Bohuslav Martinů was just the opposite. Born in the small town of Polička, where he grew up atop a church tower (his father was the church sexton), Martinů was a prodigy who started composing at the age of 13. The Polička Town Council awarded him a scholarship to study at Prague Conservatory, where he showed little interest in formal studies and from which he was expelled in 1910 for “incorrigible negligence.” A subsequent stint as a violinist with the Czech Philharmonic did not go much better and by 1923 Martinů was in Paris, studying and composing. His astonishing ability to absorb whatever he encountered and make it his own is reflected in the jazz, neoclassical and surreal elements in the music he wrote between the world wars.

In 1940 Martinů and his wife fled the Nazi invasion and for the next 19 years travelled the world while he churned out a wide-ranging oeuvre of symphonic, chamber and opera works. Thanks largely to the efforts of the Martinů Institute in Prague, his music continues to gain wider recognition and exposure, in particular his opera The Greek Passion, now performed regularly at opera houses worldwide. Like Suk, Martinůʼs name graces a charming small hall in Prague – at Liechtenstein Palace, home of the Academy of Performing Arts, where the composer would no doubt identify with struggling students.

One of the brightest lights of 20th-century Czech music was rarely in Prague. Leoš Janáček spent most of his life in and around the city of Brno in Moravia, where his explorations of folk music became the basis of a new musical language that gave birth to groundbreaking operas such as Jenůfa, Káťa Kabanová and The Cunning Little Vixen. Janáček did not get along with the musical establishment in Prague – the head of the National Theater insisted on rewriting Jenůfa before he would stage it – which may be why his footprint there is so small. Pragueʼs National Theater now stages outstanding productions of Janáčekʼs operas, though serious fans will want to make the pilgrimage to Brno to see the composerʼs home, grave and memorials, including a gleaming golden effigy that greets visitors entering the expansive Janáček Theater.

Dvořák memorial in cemetery © Prague City Tourism
Dvořák memorial in cemetery
© Prague City Tourism

Classical music lovers will find much more to explore in Prague. Particularly in this anniversary year, Beethoven enthusiasts will revel in the original manuscripts on display at Lobkowicz Palace, on the eastern end of the Prague Castle complex. Lobkowicz forebear Josef František Maxmilián was a generous patron of Beethoven, who dedicated his Third, Fifth and Sixth symphonies to the Prince. Also on display are an impressive collection of paintings, decorative and sacred art objects, arms and armour and manuscripts by Handel, Mozart and Haydn, supplemented by occasional concerts. And no trip to Prague is complete without a visit to the Estates' Theater, where Mozart himself premiered Don Giovanni in 1787. Productions of Mozart operas now run continuously at the theatre, including fresh versions of Don Giovanni every few years.

The Czech Museum of Music in Malá Strana offers a double treat: a breathtaking collection of more than 400 historically valuable instruments, housed in a beautifully renovated baroque church. The instruments range from a piano played by Mozart to curiosities like glass harmonicas and two-headed brass instruments known as “šediphones”. Nor is the modern era neglected, with an insightful exhibit about what happened after instruments got plugged in and plenty of interactive activities for children.

The perfect coda for a musical excursion is at Vyšehrad, the historic promontory overlooking the Vltava, where Prague was founded. Many of the countryʼs greatest leaders and artists are buried there, in a solemn sculpture garden. Glorious monuments and statues mark the graves of Dvořák and Smetana, as well as Karel Ančerl and Rafael Kubelík, the legendary conductors who took Czech music out to the world. Keen eyes will also find more recent luminaries like the eminent violinist Josef Suk, grandson of the composer. In concert halls throughout the world, their music lives on.


This article was sponsored by Prague City Tourism.