No matter the ancestry or origin of birth, everybody bleeds kolaches and klobasnek when a Czech band strikes the first notes.
The truth is Czech music is more than bouncing oompas and accordion trills. Czech Texans’ music is among the most enduring aspects of Czech culture, shared by all, regardless of heritage, religious ethnic differences. Texas Czechs and their classical cousins have continued to influence other music forms.
Temple’s Czech Heritage Museum will present a fundraising concert featuring Prague-born concert pianist Karolina Syrovatkova in a recital, titled “Lady in a Bow Tie,” a performance from her series “Living with the Great Composers.” She will feature the classical compositions of Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940), an early feminist who defied stereotypes during her life as a conductor, composer and pianist.
The concert will be Saturday at Christ Episcopal Church Parish Hall, 300 N. Main, Temple. The Virtuoso Strings, students of Academie Musique, will also perform. Academie Musique is a nonprofit music conservatory offering instrumental and choral programs.
Donation requested is $15 each or $25 when reserved as a pair. Tickets are available at CzechHeritageMuseum.org/events/pianokarolina or at EventBrite.
Syrovatkova’s presentations bridge various disciplines such as music and drama to create a new art form — what she describes as “the drama concert.” She studied at Prague Conservatory, L’Ecole Normale in Paris, the University of Maryland and the University of Texas at Austin. She has won international competitions, including the North London and the Sidney M. Wright Presidential Competition.
The performance of Kaprálová’s life and composition is set against the backdrop of the 1918 creation of the country of Czechoslovakia and the years between the world wars, a golden era for the country. She died at age 25 of tuberculosis just as France was overtaken by Nazi Germany.
Kaprálová’s catalogue includes her highly regarded art songs and music for piano solo, a string quartet, a reed trio, music for cello, music for violin and piano, an orchestral cantata, two piano concertos, two orchestral suites, a sinfonietta, and a concertino for clarinet, violin and orchestra. Regarded once as one of the most promising composers of her generation, memory of Kaprálová was almost obliterated by time and circumstance throughout the remaining century. Her works and her life were largely forgotten until just recently, when performers such as Syrovatkova renewed interest in her.
Since 1998, Kaprálová’s legacy has been promoted by The Kaprálová Society, a nonprofit arts organization based in Toronto, Canada.
Even though several waves of Czech immigrants found new homes in Texas throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, music of all kinds firmly bound Europe and North America as strong as piano wire. Czechs who boarded immigrant ships with meager portmanteaus always made room to stash their music makers — trumpets, dulcimers, clarinets, violins and accordions. Everything else was expendable; music was survival because it fed their souls, calmed their anxieties and created a lasting link to their homeland.
“The ‘high’ musical culture of the Czech homelands found its largest audience among certain Czech communities in the northern United States, but it never reached the same degree of popularity among Czech Texans as did traditional and folk music,” said Czech historian Clinton Machann, author of “Krásná Ameríka: A Study of the Texas Czechs, 1851-1939” (Eakin Press, 1983).
Czech music is featured prominently at several significant points in Bell County history. When Temple radio station KTEM went on the air in November 1936, the Divis Orchestra and its “Czech Melody Hour” was among the first acts. “Czech Melody Hour” continued until 1940. Two years later, the orchestra disbanded when several members enlisted to serve in World War II. The Divis musicians also toured throughout Central Texas, especially in dance halls at Seaton, Cyclone, Buckholts, Cameron, West and other venues.
Despite the high prevalence of familiar folk tunes, touring Czech musicians, such as the Divis Orchestra and others, often played the works of classical composers Antonin Dvořak (1841-1904), Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884), and Leoš Janaček (1854-1928), all who found large and enthusiastic audiences in larger Texas cities.
“Even classical and operatic Czech works often are based on folk music traditions and themes,” Machann said. The popularity of these classical composers was apparent in the programs published in the Vestnik, the Temple-based Czech-heritage newspaper.
KTEM was actually late to the Czech dance party. By the 1920s, live band performances aired on Texas radio stations throughout the state, helping to preserve both classical and folk music. At the same time, Texas Czechs could pride themselves on having more than 100 touring ethnic bands, many of which were based in Central Texas, according to Lida Dutkova-Cope, Czech historian and professor at East Carolina University.
Even though oceans separated Texas Czechs from their Eastern European cousins, they communicated regularly. Among the most ardent proponents of maintaining Czech culture, notably its music and language, was Rogers native, Calvin Coolidge Chervenka (1925-2000), former engineering and physics professor at Temple College in the 1960s-1980s.
Chervenka, in a newspaper interview, said that interest in Czech culture, music and traditions seemed to dwindle slowly until the 1950s. However, a new appreciation of roots and heritage during the post-World War II years helped spur a new interest. Chervenka helped to organize the Dallas Czech Club Choir and was instrumental in publication of the choir’s songbook, according to a June 2000 issue Vestnik.
Like all music, no matter its form or origin, Czech music continues to evolve and influence artists of all backgrounds.
Temple’s own favorite son, “Little Joe” Hernandez, the high priest of musica Chicana, looked beyond his own roots of the Mexican ranchera, traditionally played on a bajo sexto guitar and accompanied by bass and drums. He added the Czech polka beat along with horns and keyboards to give what he called “happy music,” a sound all its own.
With all this cross-pollination of musical forms, questions arise: Is the music Czech? Is it Chicano? Is it classical? Is it folk music?
As Hernandez admitted in 1978, “It’s music.”