Visions of Vltava (Moldau)
I returned to the front desk the next morning and asked Orsolya for a few recommendations on things to do in town. I was interested in hearing some music, and I asked her for the best places to go and whether it was easy to get tickets to the State Opera House. She said yes, just walk up to the box office during the day and buy your ticket. She wasn’t sure how much the tickets cost, but it probably wasn’t much.
She looked surprised that I even asked, like she expected me to not care one way or another, or to just know that tickets for classical shows in Europe are typically cheap. In fact, I’d later find out that many classical shows are free, you just have to know where to find them.
I remembered catching word of smaller, discreet shows like this in Paris, where I saw fliers posted on the walls and lampposts, scattered beneath the streetlights of the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain. That being said, classical shows seemed more popular toward the east side of the continent, or east of the Rhine, and it made sense given the region’s musical heritage as the birthplace of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Chopin, Schubert, Brahms and Liszt to name a few.
I felt like the roof had been blown off. Central Europe was the well-spring of everything we’d come to know as classical music, and in Budapest I was standing at the frontier, overlooking its musical history still quietly unfolding for anyone who still cared to listen. I bought the tickets for the concert that night. I didn’t recognize the music by name, or the composer or anything listed on the program, I just knew I wanted to see a show, and listen to that orchestra.
As it turned out, some friends of mine were in Budapest for the next few days so I decided to meet with them before heading to the opera house that evening. I’d seen them a couple days before, when I was in Prague.
We met at the east side of the Elisabeth Bridge and made our way farther into town, settling in to grab a bite and a few beers, just a block or so east of the Danube Promenade. We talked about Budapest and traveling through Europe.
“How did you like Prague?” they asked me.
“It was alright,” I said. “I liked the river.”
“Yea the river was beautiful. That was our favorite part of town.”
“Yea. Mine too.”
That was true. A rivers runs through Prague; and like the Danube, it too has a song named in it’s honor. They call it a symphonic poem. I’d only learn that later, since I never thought to get it’s name at the time. I just took a few pictures, hung out for a while and went along my way.
It rises in the southwest from the Bohemian Forest, flowing southeast and then mostly north, across the old province of Bohemia, before emptying into the Elbe River, 18 miles north of Prague. Flowing 270 miles, it’s the longest river in the Czech Republic.
The people there call it Vltava, but it’s also widely known by its German name, Die Moldau.
The River Bohemia
The music I’d be hearing at the Hungarian State Opera House was a set of six symphonic poems called “Má Vlast” written by Bedřich Smetana, the Czech composer. The English translation of Má Vlast is My Fatherland. Each poem, or movement, refers to a specific theme pertaining to Smetana’s homeland of Bohemia.
I had glanced at the program that afternoon when I bought my ticket, but like I said, I didn’t recognize any names so I never thought twice about it.
I also didn’t think or feel any particular way as the orchestra started to play that night. The first movement sounded great and I was happy to be there, but that was it. In those first few minutes, I spent most of the time staring around the theatre, admiring it’s old decor, the walls, the balconies and curtains all adorned in gold and red. It was a deep red, one that reminded me of the Hungarian goulash and the red wine I had the night before.
The color of roses, the color of blood. No matter how the rest of the show went, I was already in love with Budapest. I felt like I’d belonged there. Maybe it was my roots, or my grandfather. Maybe it was the river. The music. I couldn’t be sure. I just felt like I was home, like I’d been there before, in dreams, or in some other time not long before I was born.
In that moment, as the orchestra finished the first movement and slowly began the second, everything changed. Vltava. Moldau. I’d remember the name, and I’d remember the night, for the rest of my life.
Here’s what I recommend: When you listen to this music, turn off the lights. If you want to go a step further, light a candle. Make sure you’re connected to some good speakers and hit play. Remember it’s the second piece–Moldau. Now, sit back and allow yourself the see and feel what you will.
For me, it started in a whisper. The sounds of a flute and clarinet soaring, weaving back and forth like two bluebirds over an ocean, on to where the ocean meets a river and welcomes you to new land, a lost land which begins at the delta. Here is the invitation, a pathway to something ancient. Something that’s existed since the beginning.
I thought of the blues. I was back in America, going down the 61 Highway on a still summer night in Rosedale, Mississippi. At the same time, I saw my grandfather, up in his study listening to music, or maybe playing his violin, looking at me and smiling with unbound love and affection, and mutual understanding. Even though I’d never met him, in that moment, I felt like I knew him better than I ever had before.
Beyond that, I can’t fully describe the sound anymore than I can fully describe what I heard–and continue to hear–on the banks of the river. I think it’s the sort of thing you honor over the course of a lifetime, and you try and do it in more than words.
It takes music. It takes colors and shapes.
Of course the shapes will always change, like everything else. And though it’s a big enough change to make you forget where you’ve been, or what you’ve seen or heard, ultimately you realize what’s happening and that you’ve been there before. It’s in remembrance where you resume awareness, and you understand how words, music and colors still ultimately fall short because the truth is something that doesn’t need a name. It simply is. And we’re it, every time we breathe.
Everything I’d done, everyone I’d met and all the places I’d been were spread out before me like they were happening at once. As time slowed, I dove into the span of a second, and rode on a train in which seconds had turned into a whole morning and afternoon. I was heading back to my beginnings. My family, my ancestors, my roots, my self.
As past, present, and future rolled into one beating heart, from its pulse echoed further visions of yet to come. For me, it was a train bound for Vienna, turning the corner and continuing my journey, heading back west.
When I hear the music now, it’s an act of remembrance, something I was only beginning to grasp as essential to the whole big trip. It takes me back to the river. To the Moldau.
Music had become a doorway to the wider world, and that night in Budapest, I stepped outside.