|Chapter 1:||Nationalism and Music|
The interior is no less overpowering, as lavish as any nineteenth-century opera house ought to be, a gleam of gold and crimson everywhere the eye happens to glance. One thing in particular draws my eye in this theater, though: it is the bold letters above the proscenium arch that proclaim, “Národ sobĕ!” or “the nation to itself!” This is a slogan, almost even a shibboleth, that expresses the entire import of this theater to Czech nationalists. The idea is that the Czech nation has given itself this theater, a sacred shrine of the national culture, in which that culture is both created and worshiped.
In one sense, the Czech nation did “give itself” the theater. The campaign to build a theater in Prague for the Czechs—one that was separate but equal to the German theater in the city—was the fondest wish of many of the most prominent Czech patriots over the course of several decades. It took that long just to raise the money to begin construction on the building, which commenced in 1868. It was more than another decade still, in 1881, before it was finished. And then something so unfortunate, so unlucky happened as to be scarcely credible: a few nights after the first performance in the theater, it burned down. While not completely destroyed, the damage was extensive enough that reconstruction took another two years. That is in fact an astoundingly short amount of time, given all the years it took just to reach the point of laying the foundation stone. What made that rapid rebuilding possible were the countless donations that poured in from all over Bohemia, from Czechs of all walks of life who had been appalled at the tragedy of the first theater’s destruction. Thanks to that outpouring—both of finances and sentiment—this shrine of Czech art and culture at last opened its doors to the mass public in 1883, with a performance of Smetana’s opera Libuše.
So, the Czech public certainly did make it possible finally to establish such a cultural institution in the capital. Yet the phrase “Národ sobĕ!” actually supposes a quite remarkable bit of magic: the nation, which would be created at least in part via this theater, was nonetheless already in existence enough to give itself a theater. Somehow, then, the nation in fact creates itself. That, at any rate, is the nineteenth-century view; according to contemporary understandings of nationalism, however, nations do not create themselves.