Dec 042018
 

Today is the birthday (1875) of René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke better known as Rainer Maria Rilke, a Bohemian poet and novelist who is known for his lyrically intense poetry and prose. He invokes images that focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude and profound anxiety. While Rilke is most known for his contributions to German literature, over 400 poems were originally written in French and dedicated to the canton of Valais in Switzerland. Among English-language readers, his best-known works include the poetry collections Duino Elegies (Duineser Elegien) and Sonnets to Orpheus (Die Sonette an Orpheus), the semi-autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge), and a collection of ten letters that was published after his death under the title Letters to a Young Poet (Briefe an einen jungen Dichter). In the later 20th century, his work found new audiences through use by New Age theologians and self-help authors, which could explain why I find his work unappealing.

Rilke was born in Prague, then capital of Bohemia. His father, Josef Rilke (1838–1906), became a railway official after an unsuccessful military career. His mother, Sophie (“Phia”) Entz (1851–1931), came from a well-to-do Prague family, the Entz-Kinzelbergers, who lived in a house on the Herrengasse (Panská) 8, where Rilke also spent many of his early years. The relationship between Phia and her only son was colored by her mourning for an earlier child, a daughter who had died only one week old. During Rilke’s early years Phia acted as if she sought to recover the lost girl through the boy by dressing him in girl’s clothing. His parents’ marriage failed in 1884. His parents pressured him into entering a military academy in St. Pölten, Lower Austria, which he attended from 1886 until 1891, when he left owing to illness.

He moved to Linz, where he attended trade school. He was expelled from the school in May 1892, and returned to Prague. From 1892 to 1895 he was tutored for the university entrance exam, which he passed in 1895. Until 1896 he studied literature, art history, and philosophy in Prague and Munich.

In 1897 in Munich, Rilke met and fell in love with the widely traveled, intellectual – but married – woman of letters Lou Andreas-Salomé. Rilke changed his first name from “René” to “Rainer” at Salomé’s urging because she thought that name to be more masculine, forceful, and Germanic. His relationship with her lasted until 1900. But even after their separation, Salomé continued to be Rilke’s most important confidante until the end of his life. Having trained from 1912 to 1913 as a psychoanalyst with Sigmund Freud, she shared her knowledge of psychoanalysis with Rilke.

In 1898, Rilke undertook a journey lasting several weeks to Italy. In 1899, he traveled with Salomé and her husband, Friedrich Andreas, to Moscow where he met Leo Tolstoy. Between May and August 1900, a second journey to Russia, accompanied only by Salomé, again took him to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, where he met the family of Boris Pasternak and Spiridon Drozhzhin, a peasant poet.

In 1900, Rilke stayed at the artists’ colony at Worpswede. Here he met the sculptor Clara Westhoff, whom he married the following year. Their daughter Ruth (1901–1972) was born in December 1901. Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907), an early expressionist painter, became acquainted with Rilke in Worpswede and Paris, and painted his portrait in 1906. In the summer of 1902, Rilke left home and traveled to Paris to write a monograph on Auguste Rodin. His wife left their daughter with her parents and joined Rilke there. The relationship between Rilke and Clara Westhoff continued for the rest of his life; a mutually-agreed-upon effort at divorce was bureaucratically hindered by Rilke’s “official” status as a Catholic, though a non-practicing one.

At first, Rilke had a difficult time in Paris, an experience that he called on in the first part of his only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. At the same time, his encounter with modernism was stimulating: Rilke became deeply involved with the sculpture of Rodin, then the work of Paul Cézanne. For a time, he acted as Rodin’s secretary, also lecturing and writing a long essay on Rodin and his work. Rodin taught him the value of observation and, under this influence, Rilke dramatically transformed his poetic style from the subjective and sometimes incantatory language of his earlier work into something quite new in European literature. The result was the New Poems, famous for the “thing-poems” expressing Rilke’s rejuvenated artistic vision. During these years, Paris increasingly became his main residence.

Between October 1911 and May 1912, Rilke stayed at the Castle Duino, near Trieste, home of Princess Marie of Thurn und Taxis. He began the poem cycle called the Duino Elegies there in 1912 which would remain unfinished for a decade because of a long-lasting creativity crisis. Rilke had developed an admiration for El Greco as early as 1908, so he visited Toledo during the winter of 1912/13 to see his paintings. Subsequently, Rilke spent extended periods in Ronda, the famous bullfighting center in southern Spain. He kept a permanent room at the Hotel Reina Victoria from December 1912 to February 1913.

The outbreak of World War I surprised Rilke during a stay in Germany. He was unable to return to Paris, where his property was confiscated and auctioned. He spent the greater part of the war in Munich. From 1914 to 1916 he had a turbulent affair with the painter Lou Albert-Lasard. Rilke was called up at the beginning of 1916 and had to undertake basic training in Vienna. Influential friends interceded on his behalf, and he was transferred to the War Records Office and discharged from the military on 9th June 1916. He returned to Munich, interrupted by a stay on Hertha Koenig’s Gut Bockel in Westphalia. The traumatic experience of military service, a reminder of the horrors of the military academy, almost completely silenced him as a poet.

On 11th June 1919, Rilke traveled from Munich to Switzerland. The outward motive was an invitation to lecture in Zurich, but the real reason was the wish to escape the post-war chaos and take up his work on the Duino Elegies once again. The search for a suitable and affordable place to live proved to be very difficult. Among other places, Rilke lived in Soglio, Locarno and Berg am Irchel. Only in mid-1921 was he able to find a permanent residence in the Château de Muzot in the commune of Veyras, close to Sierre in Valais. In an intensely creative period, Rilke completed the Duino Elegies in several weeks in February 1922. Before and after, Rilke rapidly wrote both parts of the poem cycle Sonnets to Orpheus containing 55 entire sonnets. Together, these two have often been taken as constituting the high points of Rilke’s work. In May 1922, Rilke’s patron Werner Reinhart bought and renovated Muzot so that Rilke could live there rent-free.

During this time, Reinhart introduced Rilke to his protégée, the Australian violinist Alma Moodie. Rilke was so impressed with her playing that he wrote in a letter: “What a sound, what richness, what determination. That and the Sonnets to Orpheus, those were two strings of the same voice. And she plays mostly Bach! Muzot has received its musical christening…” From 1923 on, Rilke increasingly had to struggle with health problems that necessitated many long stays at a sanatorium in Territet, near Montreux, on Lake Geneva. His long stay in Paris between January and August 1925 was an attempt to escape his illness through a change in location and living conditions. Despite this, numerous important individual poems appeared in the years 1923–1926 (including Gong and Mausoleum), as well as his abundant lyrical work in French.

In 1924, Erika Mitterer began writing poems to Rilke, who wrote back with approximately fifty poems of his own and called her verse a Herzlandschaft (landscape of the heart). This was the only time Rilke had a productive poetic collaboration throughout all his work. Mitterer also visited Rilke. In 1950, her Correspondence in Verse with Rilke was published.

Rilke supported the Russian Revolution in 1917 as well as the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919. He became friends with Ernst Toller and mourned the deaths of Rosa Luxembourg, Kurt Eisner, and Karl Liebknecht. He confided that of the five or six newspapers he read daily, those on the far left came closest to his own opinions.[30] He developed a reputation for supporting left-wing causes, and thus, out of fear for his own safety, became more reticent about politics after the Bavarian Republic was crushed by the right-wing Freikorps. Yet, in January and February 1926, Rilke wrote three letters to the Mussolini-adversary Aurelia Gallarati Scotti in which he praised Benito Mussolini and described fascism as a healing agent.

Shortly before his death, Rilke’s illness was diagnosed as leukemia. He suffered ulcerous sores in his mouth, pain troubled his stomach and intestines, and he struggled with increasingly low spirits. Open-eyed, he died in the arms of his doctor on December 29th, 1926, in the Valmont Sanatorium in Switzerland. He was buried on January 2, 1927, in the Raron cemetery to the west of Visp.

Rilke had chosen as his own epitaph this poem:

Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust, Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel Lidern.

Rose, o pure contradiction, desire to be no one’s sleep beneath so many lids.

A legend developed surrounding his death and roses. It was said: “To honor a visitor, the Egyptian beauty Nimet Eloui Bey, Rilke gathered some roses from his garden. While doing so, he pricked his hand on a thorn. This small wound failed to heal, grew rapidly worse, soon his entire arm was swollen, and his other arm became affected as well”, and so he died.

Here is a Bohemian recipe for baked rabbit that I have selected for Rilke, partly because he reminds me of a rabbit (don’t ask), and partly because I miss rabbit since I left Italy.

Bohemian Baked Rabbit

Ingredients

1 rabbit, jointed
1 tbsp caraway seeds
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
100ml white wine vinegar
2 tbsp plain flour
oil, for frying
100 gm pitted prunes, halved
250ml beer
2 tbsp sour cream
salt and white pepper

Instructions

Soak a clean tea towel with vinegar. Place the rabbit pieces on the towel and press the caraway seeds into the meat. Scatter the chopped onion over the rabbit, and then wrap it up in the tea towel. Place the wrapped meat on a dish and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat the oven to 150°C. Unwrap the pieces of meat and dust them with the flour. Heat a little oil in large skillet over a medium heat and sauté the rabbit pieces until browned on all sides. Transfer the rabbit pieces to a lidded casserole and add the prunes and beer. Cook in the oven for 1 hour, turning the pieces over from time to time. About 15 minutes before the end of cooking, season with salt and pepper.

Remove the meat from the casserole and leave to stand, covered, for 7–8 minutes. Add the sour cream to the sauce and stir. Place the rabbit pieces on a heated serving dish, pour the casserole sauce over the rabbit, and serve.

 

Jul 032018
 

Today is the birthday (1883) of Franz Kafka, a German-speaking Bohemian novelist and short story writer, widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature. We now use the word “Kafkaesque” to describe literature which fuses elements of realism and the fantastic, typically featuring isolated protagonists faced with bizarre or surreal predicaments and incomprehensible social-bureaucratic powers. His best-known works include “Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis”), Der Process (The Trial), and Das Schloss (The Castle). Few of Kafka’s works were published during his lifetime: the story collections Betrachtung (Contemplation) and Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor), and individual stories (such as “Die Verwandlung”) were published in literary magazines but received little public attention. Much of Kafka’s work was unfinished when he died and on his death bed he ordered his manuscripts destroyed by a friend. Instead he had them edited for publication, and it was only after his death that Kafka became internationally renowned. Back in my typically angst-ridden teens and early 20s, Kafka was on my shelves beside Orwell, Camus, Sartre, and Hesse. Fortunately, that stage of my life passed.

Kafka was born near the Old Town Square in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His family were middle-class Ashkenazi Jews. His father, Hermann Kafka (1854–1931), was the fourth child of Jakob Kafka, a shochet (Jewish ritual slaughterer) in Osek, a Czech village with a large Jewish population located near Strakonice in southern Bohemia. Hermann moved the Kafka family to Prague. After working as a traveling sales representative, he eventually became a fashion retailer who employed up to 15 people and used the image of a jackdaw (kavka in Czech, pronounced and colloquially written as kafka) as his business logo. Kafka’s mother, Julie (1856–1934), was the daughter of Jakob Löwy, a prosperous retail merchant in Poděbrady, and was better educated than her husband.

Kafka’s parents probably spoke a dialect of German influenced by Yiddish that was sometimes pejoratively called Mauscheldeutsch, but, because the German language was considered the vehicle of social mobility, they probably encouraged their children to speak High German. Hermann and Julie had six children, of whom Franz was the eldest. Franz’s two brothers, Georg and Heinrich, died in infancy before Franz was seven. His three sisters were Gabriele (“Ellie”) (1889–1944), Valerie (“Valli”) (1890–1942) and Ottilie (“Ottla”) (1892–1943). They all died during the Holocaust of World War II.

Hermann was described by Franz Kafka as “a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, and knowledge of human nature”. On business days, both parents were absent from the home, with Julie Kafka working as many as 12 hours each day helping to manage the family business. Consequently, Kafka’s childhood was lonely, and the children were reared largely by a series of governesses and servants. Kafka’s troubled relationship with his father is evident in his “Brief an den Vater” (Letter to His Father) of more than 100 pages, in which he complains of being profoundly affected by his father’s authoritarian and demanding character. His mother, in contrast, was quiet and shy.

The Kafka family had a servant girl living with them in a cramped apartment. Franz’s room was often cold. In November 1913 the family moved into a bigger apartment, although Ellie and Valli had married and moved out of the first apartment. In early August 1914, just after World War I began, the sisters did not know where their husbands were in the military and moved back in with the family in this larger apartment. Both Ellie and Valli also had children. Franz at age 31 moved into Valli’s former apartment, quiet by contrast, and lived by himself for the first time.

From 1889 to 1893, Kafka attended the Deutsche Knabenschule German boys’ elementary school at the Masný trh/Fleischmarkt (meat market). His Jewish education ended with his Bar Mitzvah celebration at the age of 13. Kafka never enjoyed attending the synagogue and went with his father only on four high holy days a year. After leaving elementary school in 1893, Kafka was admitted to the rigorous classics-oriented state gymnasium, Altstädter Deutsches Gymnasium, an academic secondary school at Old Town Square, within the Kinský Palace. German was the language of instruction, but Kafka also spoke and wrote in Czech. He studied the latter at the gymnasium for 8 years, and received compliments for his Czech, but he never considered himself fluent in Czech, though he spoke German with a Czech accent. He completed his final exams in 1901.

Kafka was admitted to the Deutsche Karl-Ferdinands-Universität of Prague in 1901, studying chemistry, but switched to law after two weeks. Although this field did not excite him, it offered a range of career possibilities which pleased his father. In addition, law required a longer course of study, giving Kafka time to take classes in German studies and art history. He also joined a student club, Lese- und Redehalle der Deutschen Studenten (Reading and Lecture Hall of the German students), which organized literary events, readings and other activities. Among Kafka’s friends were the journalist Felix Weltsch, who studied philosophy, the actor Yitzchak Lowy who came from an orthodox Hasidic Warsaw family, and the writers Oskar Baum and Franz Werfel.

At the end of his first year of studies, Kafka met Max Brod, a fellow law student who became a close friend for life (and was the one who had his MSS published posthumously). Brod soon noticed that, although Kafka was shy and seldom spoke, what he said was usually profound. Brod encouraged Kafka to read Plato’s Protagoras in the original Greek, and Flaubert’s L’éducation sentimentale and La Tentation de St. Antoine in French. Kafka considered Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Nikolai Gogol, Franz Grillparzer, and Heinrich von Kleist to be his “true blood brothers.” Kafka was awarded the degree of Doctor of Law on 18th July 1906 and performed an obligatory year of unpaid service as law clerk for the civil and criminal courts.

On 1st November 1907, Kafka was hired at the Assicurazioni Generali, an insurance company, where he worked for nearly a year. His correspondence during that period indicates that he was unhappy with his work schedule—from 8 am to 6 pm, 6 days a week—making it extremely difficult to concentrate on writing, which was assuming increasing importance to him. On 15th July 1908, he resigned. Two weeks later he found employment more amenable to writing when he joined the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the kingdom of Bohemia. The job involved investigating and assessing compensation for personal injury to industrial workers. Accidents such as lost fingers or limbs were commonplace at this time owing to poor work safety policies at the time. It was especially true of factories fitted with machine lathes, drills, planing machines and rotary saws which were rarely fitted with safety guards.

Kafka’s father often referred to his son’s job as an insurance officer as a Brotberuf, literally “bread job”, a job done only to pay the bills, and Kafka often claimed to despise it. Kafka was rapidly promoted and his duties included processing and investigating compensation claims, writing reports, and handling appeals from businessmen who thought their firms had been placed in too high a risk category, which cost them more in insurance premiums.[46] He compiled and composed the annual report on the insurance institute for the several years he worked there, and they were received well by his superiors. Kafka usually got off work at 2 p.m., so that he had time to spend on his writing, although his father also expected him to help out at and take over the family fancy goods store.

In late 1911, Elli’s husband Karl Hermann and Kafka became partners in the first asbestos factory in Prague, known as Prager Asbestwerke Hermann & Co., having used dowry money from Hermann Kafka. Kafka showed a positive attitude at first, dedicating much of his free time to the business, but he later resented the encroachment of this work on his writing time. During that period, he also found interest and entertainment in the performances of Yiddish theatre. After seeing a Yiddish theater troupe perform in October 1911, for the next six months Kafka “immersed himself in Yiddish language and in Yiddish literature”. This interest also served as a starting point for his growing exploration of Judaism. It was at about this time that Kafka became a vegetarian. Around 1915 Kafka received his conscription notice for military service in World War I, but his employers at the insurance institute arranged for a deferment because his work was considered essential government service. Later he attempted to join the military but was prevented from doing so by medical problems associated with tuberculosis, with which he was diagnosed in 1917. In 1918 the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute put Kafka on a pension due to his illness, for which there was no cure at the time, and he spent most of the rest of his life in sanatoria.

Kafka never married, and his relationships with women can be called “complicated.” On 13 August 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer, a relative of Brod, who worked in Berlin as a representative of a dictaphone company. A week after the meeting at Brod’s home, Kafka wrote in his diary:

Miss FB. When I arrived at Brod’s on 13 August, she was sitting at the table. I was not at all curious about who she was, but rather took her for granted at once. Bony, empty face that wore its emptiness openly. Bare throat. A blouse thrown on. Looked very domestic in her dress although, as it turned out, she by no means was. (I alienate myself from her a little by inspecting her so closely …) Almost broken nose. Blonde, somewhat straight, unattractive hair, strong chin. As I was taking my seat I looked at her closely for the first time, by the time I was seated I already had an unshakeable opinion.

Shortly after this, Kafka wrote the story “Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”) in only one night and worked in a productive period on Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared) and “Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis”). Kafka and Felice Bauer communicated mostly through letters over the next five years, met occasionally, and were engaged twice. Kafka’s extant letters to her were published as Briefe an Felice (Letters to Felice); her letters do not survive. Kafka was later engaged to Julie Wohryzek, a poor and uneducated hotel chambermaid. Although the two rented an apartment and set a wedding date, the marriage never took place. Before the date of the intended marriage, he began an affair with another woman

Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis in August 1917 and moved for a few months to the Bohemian village of Zürau (Siřem in the Czech language), where his sister Ottla worked on the farm of her brother-in-law Karl Hermann. He felt comfortable there and later described this time as perhaps the best time in his life, probably because he had no responsibilities. He kept diaries and notes from which he later extracted 109 numbered pieces of text. They were later published as Die Zürauer Aphorismen oder Betrachtungen über Sünde, Hoffnung, Leid und den wahren Weg (The Zürau Aphorisms or Reflections on Sin, Hope, Suffering, and the True Way).

In 1920 Kafka began an intense relationship with Milena Jesenská, a Czech journalist and writer. His letters to her were later published as Briefe an Milena. During a vacation in July 1923 to Graal-Müritz on the Baltic Sea, Kafka met Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher from an orthodox Jewish family. Kafka, hoping to escape the influence of his family to concentrate on his writing, moved briefly to Berlin and lived with Diamant. She encouraged an interest in the Talmud, and at the time Kafka worked on four stories, which he prepared to be published as Ein Hungerkünstler (A Hunger Artist).

Kafka’s laryngeal tuberculosis worsened and in March 1924 he returned from Berlin to Prague, where members of his family, principally his sister Ottla, took care of him. He went to Dr. Hoffmann’s sanatorium in Kierling just outside Vienna for treatment on 10th April, and died there on 3rd June 1924. The immediate cause of death was malnutrition because the condition of Kafka’s throat made eating too painful for him, and at the time there was no way to feed him except orally (other medical methods were not developed until later). Kafka was editing “A Hunger Artist” on his deathbed, a story whose composition he had begun before his throat closed to the point that he could not take any nourishment. His body was brought back to Prague where he was buried on 11th June 1924, in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague-Žižkov. His tombstone was designed by architect Leopold Ehrmann.

It may seem macabre to celebrate a man who died of malnutrition with a recipe, but I think it is suitably Kafkaesque. Kafka was a strict vegetarian for most of his adult life, and food appears regularly in his writing. His vegetarianism rules out a recipe for tripe soup, which is a pity because the Czech version, dršťky polévka, is an old favorite of mine. I gave a recipe for another Bohemian soup, kulajda, here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/jan-zrzavy/  Bohemia is justifiably famous for its vast array of soups, including many that can be made meatless quite easily. There are pea (hrachovka), bean (fazolová) and lentil soups (čočková polévka), mushroom soup (houbová polévka), tomato soup (rajská polévka), vegetable soup (zeleninová polévka), onion soup (cibulačka) and bread soup (chlebová polévka). Kyselo is a regional specialty soup made from rye sourdough, mushrooms, caraway and fried onion. You can choose any of these, and there are plenty of recipes online. I’ll give you potato and mushroom soup (bramboračka) which is quite complex, and regionally varied throughout Bohemia. Nowadays cooks use dried black mushrooms, but the soup was originally made from wild forest mushrooms. It is also common to serve the soup in a bowl made of hollowed out rye and caraway bread. I have had it this way once, and have to say it was good, but too filling for me. Czechs with me had no trouble scarfing down the soup with a whole loaf of bread.

Bramboračka

Ingredients

500 gm potatoes, peeled and cut in large chunks
35 gm dried black mushrooms or 100 gm fresh wild mushrooms, sliced
200 gm peeled and diced carrot
200 gm peeled and diced celeriac root
200 gm shredded cabbage,
1 leek, white part only, sliced
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 tbs olive oil
6 cups vegetable broth
salt and pepper
1 tbsp dried marjoram
4 tbsp flour

Instructions

If you are using dried mushrooms, soak them in a bowl covered with hot (not boiling) water for about 20 minutes.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed stock pot over medium heat and sauté the onions until soft. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the chopped vegetables and sauté for an additional 10 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon so that they take on some color evenly. (Do not add mushrooms at this point if you are using dried ones).

Add the stock to the pot along with the dried mushrooms and their liquid if you are using them, the marjoram, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a slow simmer and cook until the vegetables are soft. Mix the flour with a generous amount of cold water and whisk thoroughly. Then add a little hot broth to the flour and water mixture, and whisk again. Then pour this mixture back into the soup, stirring vigorously until it is well combined. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Simmer another 10 minutes. Serve in deep bowls with rye bread, or in hollowed out dark bread bowls.

Sep 282013
 

wenc2

Wenceslas I (Václav I), duke of Bohemia, was murdered on this date in 935, purportedly in a plot by his own brother, Boleslav the Cruel.  Because he is a saint of the Catholic church his feast day falls on the day of his death. The Czech Republic now (since 2000) celebrates today as Czech Statehood Day as well. His martyrdom, and the popularity of several biographies, quickly gave rise to a reputation for heroic righteousness and piety, resulting in his being canonized and posthumously being elevated from duke to king. He is the subject of the carol “Good King Wenceslas,” written over 900 years later, in 1853. Not many of the facts of his life can be fully verified historically. Most of what I present here is legend.

Wenceslas was son of Vratislaus I, duke of Bohemia from the P?emyslid dynasty. His father was raised in a Christian milieu because his father, Borivoj I of Bohemia, was purportedly converted by Saints Cyril and Methodius. His mother Drahomíra was the daughter of a pagan chief of Havolans, and was baptized at the time of her marriage (but never really converted).

In 921, when Wenceslas was thirteen, his father died and he was brought up by his grandmother, Saint Ludmila, who raised him as a Christian and acted as regent while he was a minor. A violent dispute between the fervently Christian regent and her daughter-in-law drove Ludmila to seek sanctuary at Tetín Castle near Beroun. Drahomíra, who was trying to garner support from the nobility, was furious about losing influence over her son and arranged to have Ludmila strangled at Tetín on September 15, 921.  According to some legends, having regained control of her son, Drahomíra set out to convert him to the old pagan religion. According to other legends, she was a Christian herself; however, very little is known about her.

After the fall of Great Moravia, the rulers of the Bohemian duchy had to deal with continuous raids by the Magyars and the forces of the Saxon duke and East Frankish king Henry the Fowler, who had started several eastern campaigns into the adjacent lands of the Polabian Slavs, homeland of Wenceslas’ mother. To withstand Saxon overlordship Wenceslas’ father, Vratislaus, had forged an alliance with the Bavarian duke Arnulf the Bad, then a fierce opponent of king Henry; however, it became worthless when Arnulf and Henry reconciled at Regensburg in 921.

In 924 or 925 Wenceslas assumed government for himself and, it is believed, had Drahomíra exiled. After gaining the throne at the age of eighteen, he defeated a rebellious duke of Kou?im named Radslav. He also founded a rotunda consecrated to St Vitus at Prague Castle in Prague, which is the core of present-day St Vitus Cathedral.

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Early in 929 the joint forces of Arnulf the Bad and Henry the Fowler reached Prague in a sudden attack, which forced Wenceslas to resume the payment of a tribute which had been first imposed by the East Frankish king Arnulf of Carinthia in 895. Henry the Fowler had been forced to pay a huge tribute to the Magyars in 926 and he therefore needed the Bohemian tribute, which Wenceslas probably refused to pay after the reconciliation between Arnulf and Henry.

In September 935 (in older sources 929) a group of nobles—allied with Wenceslas’ younger brother Boleslav—plotted to kill Wenceslas. After Boleslav invited Wenceslas to the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Stará Boleslav, three of Boleslav’s companions – Tira, ?esta and Hn?vsa – murdered Wenceslas on his way to church after a quarrel between him and his brother. Boleslav thus succeeded him as the duke of Bohemia. According to Cosmas’s Chronicle, one of Boleslav’s sons was born on the day of Wenceslas’ death, and because of the ominous circumstance of his birth the infant was named Strachkvas, which means “a dreadful feast.” There are discrepancies in the records regarding the date of St Wenceslas’ death. It has been argued that Wenceslas’ remains were transferred to St Vitus’s Church in 932, ruling out the later date; however, the year 935 is now favored by historians as the date of his murder.

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Wenceslas was considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death, when a cult of Wenceslas grew up in Bohemia and in England. Within a few decades of Wenceslas’ death four biographies of him were in circulation. He was universally hailed as rex justus, or “righteous king”—that is, a monarch whose power stems mainly from his great piety, as well as from his valor. The chronicler Cosmas of Prague, writing in about the year 1119, states:

But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.

Although Wenceslas was, during his lifetime, only a duke, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously “conferred on [Wenceslas] the regal dignity and title” and that is why, in the legend and song, he is referred to as a “king.”

An equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslas and other patron saints of Bohemia (St. Adalbert, St. Ludmila, St. Prokop, and St. Agnes of Bohemia) is located in Wenceslas Square in Prague.

wenc5

His helmet and armor are on display inside Prague Castle and his relics are in St Vitus cathedral.  Sometimes his skull is publicly displayed.

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The hymn “Svatý Václave” (Saint Wenceslas)  is one of the oldest known Czech songs in. Its roots supposedly may be found in the 12th century, and it is still one of the most popular religious songs. In 1918, when the state of Czechoslovak was formed, the song was discussed as one of the possible choices for the national anthem.

An enduring legend claims that a huge army of knights sleeps inside Blaník, a mountain in the Czech Republic. The knights will awaken and, under the command of St. Wenceslas, will bring aid to the Czech people when they face great peril. There is a similar great legend in Prague which says that when the Motherland is in danger or in its darkest times and close to ruin, the equestrian statue of king Wenceslas in Wenceslas Square will come to life, raise the army sleeping in Blaník, and upon crossing the Charles Bridge his horse will stumble and trip over a stone, revealing the legendary sword of Bruncvík. With this sword, King Wenceslas will slay all the enemies of the Czechs, bringing peace and prosperity to the land.

Just a couple of small footnotes. First, Wenceslas I of Bohemia is not to be confused with Wenceslaus I of Bohemia (c. 1205 – 23 September 1253), even though you can spell their names in English the same way (I added the “u” to the second one to distinguish them).  The latter was known as Wenceslaus One-Eye. 300 years and an eye make all the difference apparently.  Second, and related, what is it with these regal epithets from the Middle Ages?  I mean, Charles the Bald, Charles the Fat, Boleslav the Cruel, Henry the Fowler (his greatest accomplishment was shooting birds?), Arnulf the Bad . . . etc.  I’d be up for starting this practice again. Any suggestions for king Charles III to be? (Hint: “the Bald” is taken.)

Here is a very popular Czech winter dish for our celebration of Wenceslas, sví?ková na smetan?, or beef tenderloin in sour cream sauce.  It is typically served with bread dumplings which I will give the recipe for as well.  You need to start 24 hours ahead of time to allow the beef to marinate. Every Czech will tell you that his or her maminka or babi makes the best sví?ková. They may all be correct. I don’t know; I have only had it in restaurants.

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Sví?ková na smetan?  

Ingredients:

2 pounds beef tenderloin
1 slice of bacon, cut into small pieces for larding
1 medium onion, shredded
2 medium carrots, shredded
2 medium parsnips, shredded
½ small celeriac root, shredded
2 bay leaves
½ tsp allspice
1 tsp thyme
2 tbsp fresh chopped parsley
1 cup red wine vinegar
4 tbsp butter
½ tsp sugar
1 lemon, juiced
½ cup sour cream

Instructions:

First day

Using a small sharp knife, make small cuts in the tenderloin and insert pieces of bacon into each. Season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Use a non-reactive bowl for marinating (there are too many ingredients for my normal method using a ziplok bag).  The bowl should be large enough to allow the meat and vegetables to be covered by the marinade, and no bigger.

Place a layer of vegetables in first, then the meat, then more vegetables to cover the meat so that it is surrounded.

Sprinkle on the thyme, allspice, parsley, and bay leaves.

Pour in the vinegar and two tablespoons of the oil. Add a little more water or vinegar if you need to in order to cover the meat.

Cover the bowl and refrigerate. Turn the meat in the marinade occasionally. Allow 24 hours.

Second day.

Preheat the oven to 350°F/175C. Remove the tenderloin from the marinade: pat it dry with paper towels. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil very hot in a frying pan and brown the meat on all sides, then place it in a roasting pan.

Pour about ½ cup of water into the frying pan and boil rapidly, scraping the pan so that the remains of the browning dissolve (deglazing). Then pour these juices over the roast. Surround it with all the vegetables and pour over the marinating liquid. Place the butter on top of the meat. Then roast, basting occasionally, for 1 ½ hours.

When the meat is done, take it out of the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 100°F/ 50°C.

Remove the roast from the pan.

Purée the liquid and vegetables in a blender or food processor.

Put the meat back in the pan and return to the oven.

Pour the vegetable purée into a medium-sized saucepan and heat to a low boil. Check for seasoning. Add the lemon juice and sugar. If the sauce needs thinning, add some water or beef broth. Just before serving, stir the sour cream into the sauce and heat it through. Do not let it boil.

Serve slices of the tenderloin with the sauce and dumplings plus some extra sour cream and a dollop of tart preserves such as cranberries.

Serves 6

Knedliky (Bread dumplings)

3 cups white flour
3 cups semolina flour
1 whole egg
1 tsp baking powder
½ cup milk
1 teaspoon salt
½ French baguette, cubed

Instructions:
Mix the flour, semolina, and baking powder together in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and break in the egg. Add the milk and stir with a wooden spoon to combine.  Stir the dough vigorously for about ten minutes, adding milk if necessary, until bubbles start to form. You can use a food processor if you have a plastic blade.

Add some of the cubed bread and continue to mix. Keep adding bread until the dough is still moist but not soggy.

Put the dough on a floured board and divide it into four pieces, shaping them into small loaves by rolling them on the board with your hands.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil. Put in two of the dumplings and let them cook for 12 minutes: flip them over and cook for 12 minutes more. Remove and repeat with the other two dumplings.

Place the cooked dumplings on a cutting board. Do not try to slice them with a knife; the dumplings are likely to get crushed and lose their lightness. Instead, take a long piece of sewing thread or unflavored dental floss, slide it under one of the dumplings, wrap it around the top and pull tight to slice. Repeat to slice all the dumplings.

Sep 082013
 

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Today is the birthday (1841) of Antonín Leopold Dvořák, Czech musician and composer. In some senses it might be more historically accurate to call him a Bohemian composer since he was born and lived in Bohemia, which later became part of Czechoslovakia, and is now the core of the Czech republic.  But maybe, too, this is a quibble.  His first language was Czech, and I doubt that he made a distinction between being Czech and being Bohemian. The first is an ethnic designation, the second, political.  I’ll get into this nationalist stuff in a bit.  It’s important. Rather than give a sketch of his whole life and work, I am going to focus on two themes: his boyhood and youth, and his status as a nationalist composer. The rest you can discover for yourself.

Dvo?ák was born in Nelahozeves, near Prague, which was then in Bohemia, a state in the greater Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary. His father František was an innkeeper and butcher, who also played zither professionally. His mother, Anna, was the daughter of Josef Zden?k, the bailiff of Prince Lobkowitz. From infancy Dvo?ák heard traditional music played by his father and by bands his father hired to play on Saturday nights for dances at the inn. It’s likely that his father’s repertoire was ethnically quite diverse because he learnt to play zither as a young man while traveling through Hungary.

His first music teacher was the church music director, who was also the one and only teacher of the elementary school there. This man, Josef Spic (or Spitz) was a typical example of the Czech “kantor,” a public school teacher and musician. Spic was also a competent composer in the style of Mozart and some of his works survive, although they were never performed.  He taught Dvo?ák to play the violin and to sing, and from age 8 he sang in the local church choir.

It is well known that Dvořák had a great passion for trains and train timetables, and would sometimes go to stations just to see the trains arrive and depart.  It’s possible that this fascination developed when he was a young boy when the rail line and station at Nelahozeves were being built, a huge event for the whole town. There is a tunnel through the cliff just to the south of the town, and the workers who built it were from Italy. They were experienced in building tunnels through the Alps and so were contracted to build this one. There is a report that after work they liked to gather around the Dvořák butcher shop and sing their traditional Italian songs, which the young boy would have heard.

Dvořák’s father was pleased with his son’s interest in music and so at the age of 13 he sent him to Zlonice to live with his uncle Antonín Zdenek in order to get better training and to learn German, which was important for advancement in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Dvořák took organ, piano, and violin lessons from his German language teacher Anton Liehmann. Liehmann also taught him music theory and introduced him to the composers of the time. Apparently Dvořák had great respect for his teacher even though he had a violent temper.

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Dvořák took further organ and music theory lessons with Franz Hanke in the town of Ceská Kamenice, but they were cut short because money was tight at home and he had to return to help his father. Claims that he apprenticed as a butcher at this time are untrue, but he did help with the business. At the age of 16, the family business was earning enough that Dvořák’s father’s consented to him becoming a professional musician provided he could build a career as an organist. So he went to Prague to study at the city’s Organ School. During most of his studies he worked as a musician to support himself.

In 1858, he joined Karel Komzák’s orchestra, with whom he performed in Prague’s restaurants and at balls. The high professional level of the ensemble attracted the attention of Jan Nepomuk Maýr, who engaged the whole orchestra in the Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra. Dvořák played viola. In July 1863, Dvořák played in a program devoted to the German composer Richard Wagner, who conducted the orchestra.  In 1864, Dvořák agreed to share the rent of an apartment located in Prague’s Žižkov district with five other people, including violinist Mořic Anger and Karel Cech, who later became a singer. The constant need to supplement his income pushed him to give piano lessons. It was through these piano lessons that he met his wife. He originally fell in love with his pupil and colleague from the Provisional Theater, Josefína Cermáková, a rising actress. However, she never returned his love and ended up marrying into the nobility. In 1873 Dvořák married Josefina’s younger sister, Anna Cermáková. They had nine children together, three of whom died in infancy. By all accounts it was a happy marriage despite its seemingly odd beginnings.

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Dvořák was also composing while performing and giving piano lessons. He produced his String Quintet in A Minor in 1861 and the 1st String Quartet in1862. In the early 1860s, he also made his first symphonic attempts, some of which he self-critically burned. For ten years he composed incessantly with almost no notice or public performances. His first publicly performed composition was the song Vzpomínání (October 1871, musical evenings of L. Procházka). Then in 1873 his cantata, Hymnus, brought him to public attention. The point I want you to take from this is that Dvořák struggled in obscurity and poverty for more than 13 years to achieve recognition, and during that period he was intensely self critical. The fame he garnered subsequently was founded on the proverbial “blood, sweat, and tears” – something I greatly admire.

In the following decades Dvořák went from success to success with an increasingly international following.  He was seen, in large measure, as a nationalist composer because of his frequent use of Bohemian and Moravian traditional dance and song melodies in his compositions.  As such he was part of a large and growing group of European composers thought of as embodying the ethos of their respective ethnic origins. The reason for this movement lies within the nationalist politics of 19th century Europe.  After the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna (1815) carved Europe into a series of states whose purpose was to create a balance of power that would prevent further wars by making it impossible for one nation to gain outright military supremacy.  I suppose the aim was laudable, but the methods were questionable, and ultimately it was a dismal failure.  To create large power blocs, hundreds of ethnic groups were folded into larger entities such as Austria-Hungary.  Almost immediately these groups sought autonomy, and the history of 19th century Europe is, by and large, the history of the struggle for these groups to break away from outside governance.  In 1848, when Dvořák was 7, almost all of Europe erupted in ethnic revolution, and these tensions continued all of his life.  His music was received as a contribution to the establishment of Czech/Bohemian national identity.

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There is no question that the notion of creating a national “voice” was dear to Dvořák’s heart, but it was not confined to Bohemia: his interests were global.  From 1892 to 1895, Dvo?ák was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, at a then staggering $15,000 annual salary. The Conservatory had been founded by a wealthy and philanthropic socialite, Jeannette Thurber; it was located at 126–128 East 17th Street (the building has since been demolished if you had plans to go looking).

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One of Dvořák’s goals in the United States was to discover “American Music” and engage in it, much as he had used Czech idioms within his music. Shortly after his arrival in the U.S. in 1892, he wrote a series of newspaper articles reflecting on the state of “American” music. He supported the concept that African-American and Native American music should be used as a foundation for the growth of “American” music. It was in New York that Dvořák met Harry Burleigh, his pupil at the time and one of the earliest African-American composers. Burleigh introduced Dvořák to traditional spirituals. He wrote, “Dvorak used to get tired during the day and I would sing to him after supper … I gave him what I knew of Negro songs—no one called them spirituals then—and he wrote some of my tunes (my people’s music) into the New World Symphony.”

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In the winter and spring of 1893 Dvořák was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write Symphony No.9, “From the New World,” which was premiered under the baton of Anton Seidl and was wildly successful from the beginning.  It is undoubtedly his most popularly known work. Its Largo has been used in a variety of contexts from songs to movie scores.  I don’t really want to generate a debate as to whether the New World is genuinely “American” music.  Music historians, with nothing better to do, argue even now over whether it is more “American” or more “Bohemian.” Such debates bore me.  What does engage my interest is the fact that for the second half of the 19th century serious music was taken as a legitimate vehicle for social and political unification. A great many national anthems were born in this crucible and have the power to stir people’s souls profoundly. In the interests of fair disclosure I will say that I have little time for nationalism or patriotism. They seem to breed war and not much else.  The question I ask (without any simple answer) as an anthropologist, is “why music?” What is it about music in particular, and highly sophisticated music at that, which makes a Czech’s soul swell with pride? It is immensely powerful.

Dvořák died from a stroke on May 1, 1904, following five weeks of illness, at the age of 62, leaving many unfinished works. His funeral service was held on May 5, attended by tens of thousands.  His death notices covered the entire front pages of Czech newspapers. His ashes were interred in the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague, beneath a bust by Czech sculptor Ladislav Šaloun.

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To celebrate Dvo?ák’s life I have chosen a recipe for kulajda, a traditional Bohemian soup of cream, mushrooms, egg, dill and potatoes. The combination of dill and mushrooms is superb. Dill for me is the savor of the Slavs.

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Kulajda

Ingredients:

8 cups vegetable or other light stock
1 lb (500 g) potatoes, peeled and diced
5 cups of mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup milk
¾ cup all-purpose flour
3 eggs, hard boiled, sliced
1 cup fresh dill, finely chopped
3 tbsps white vinegar
1 tbsp caraway seed
salt
knob of butter

Instructions:

Bring the stock to a boil and add the potatoes. Reduce to a simmer and cook for ten minutes, then add the mushrooms, caraway seeds, and salt to taste.

Whisk together the milk and cream with the flour.  Be especially careful to ensure there are no lumps.  Pour this mixture into the soup in a steady stream while stirring vigorously. When it has all been incorporated, simmer for an additional 5 minutes.

Add the chopped dill, stir and remove from the heat. Add the vinegar by the tablespoon while stirring.

Place the soup in a tureen a place a small cube of butter on top and slices of hard-boiled egg,

Serve with dark rye bread.

Yield:  6 – 8 portions