It's a cool evening in Prague that is swiftly becoming cold, with a trace of light snowfall that provides a memorable backdrop against the centuries-old churches of Old Town Square. The crowd shivers a bit as they stand outside St. Nicholas, the stately former house of worship found at the corner of the square.
The folks who've lined up here—quite a few Americans, the ear quickly notices, but then also more than just a smattering of locals—aren't here to worship in the traditional sense. They've gathered to celebrate at an altar that's far more pervasive in the Czech capital these days—that of classical music. Prague is rife with musical venues and opportunities to attend concerts (Smetana Concert Hall pictured).
In fact, my tour guide told me earlier that day, that's the primary purpose of many of Prague's churches, since the Communist rule that went on for decades all but eliminated religious practice for many Czechs. The churches survived by holding regular concerts that were advertised on signs throughout the city and hawked by ticket sellers, who often have one more than just one concert to sell. "What are you looking for?" one asked me. "I have classical, Gershwin and Andrew Lloyd Webber."
Tonight at the concert I've chosen, the musical apostles are familiar names—Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart—as are the pieces of music. As my tour guide told me, "it's perfect for visitors—you pay maybe $15 and it only lasts about an hour, so it doesn't even take up the evening. And the music is usually something everybody knows and likes. So it's not too hard to listen to." It's a little "touristy," as a friend of mine later put it, but so what? In a city that was called home by such composers as Mozart and Dvorak, it just seems like the thing to do, no matter the venue.
As the shivering crowd files into the dimly lit church, everyone realizes they're not going to get a break from the cold. The church is heated only by small portable heaters, and some audience members seem to feel they may have been warmer outside. Comfortable? Not really. But it's atmospheric and a little haunting, even more so if you gaze upward and notice the rafters that are surrounded by baroque frescoes of various saints surrounded by puffy clouds and a pipe organ. Suddenly your mind drifts back hundreds of years, and your imagination is stirred—even before one note of music is played.
Other popular "tourist" venues for music include the staircase of the National Museum (at the end of Wenceslas Square) and the more formal Municipal House, at Republic Square in the heart of Old Town. Opera lovers can visit the National Theatre and the State Opera. The city also trades heavily on its Mozart heritage: Marionette performances of Don Giovanni can be found just about everywhere, it seems. You can also visit Bertram-ka, the villa where Wolfgang Amadeus composed his classic dark opera. The house has a small Mozart exhibition, and in summertime it's a real treat to see one of the many concerts held on the villa's lawn. The city has a museum devoted to composer Antonin Dvôrak, another of its favorite sons, as well as an exhibition on Czech composer/conductor Bedrich Smetana.
Back at St. Nicholas Church, the formally clad musicians enter and strike up the first notes of Bach's flowing, ingenious Brandenburg Concerto Number Three. An alto mournfully sings Vivaldi's famous "Stabat Mater," a meditation on the Virgin Mary's suffering, and the crowd is rapt—if they're anything like me, they have by now completely forgotten how cold it is inside the church. And the final piece, Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," ever lively and joyful, is a little like a benediction, giving concertgoers a joyful sendoff into the Prague night.