The Prague Spring Music Festival was about to take place. The opening concert was sold out. Hartford Courant editorial page editor Bob Schrepf had made the acquaintance of a couple of members of the Czech Philharmonic orchestra, who agreed to smuggle five of us up to the second balcony – standing room only. Bodies pressed together uncomfortably but no one complained; it must have been 95 degrees at that altitude in the small confines of a box. Satin gowns, which had probably been in storage since the Second World War, added to the pungent odor and intensity of the experience.
There were just two pieces on the program, the Czech national anthem and Smetana’s Ma Vlast, “my country,” in effect, a symphonic national anthem. The conductor was Rafael Kubilik, the aged maestro who had fled the country 40 years before with his wife and two suitcases, vowing never to return until his country was free. Just before Kubelik raised his baton, a ripple of excitement. Vaclav Havel appeared in the presidential box. The audience roared, and the music soared. Rose petals, from tossed bouquets, were strewn on the stage, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Emotion quite unlike the manufactured tears of the orchestrated crowds in North Korea.
The bloom is off the rose. Vaclav Klaus, a doctrinaire free-boot capitalist, narrow minded nationalist (who is reflexively opposing EU solutions to the current crisis), and singularly unpleasant man who demeaned Havel and his views both privately and publicly, succeeded Havel as president. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the promise of The Velvet Revolution was never as rich as that Prague Spring in 1990. Havel was less effective in office than he was working from the outside. But his death last weekend reminds us of the power a man’s character can have when his persona is imprinted on a people’s movement, when his words and charisma speak to anything being possible. He was a true symbol of the audacity of hope, and the power of language to inspire.
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photo Havel by Associated Press