[Viewpoint] Defending ‘My Country’A few days ago, the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra performed all six symphonic poems of Bedrich Smetana’s “Ma vlast” (“My Country”) at the Seoul Arts Center.
It was a rare chance to listen to a live orchestra performing the entire symphonic cycle in person at a concert hall. Hakub Hrusa, the 29-year-old conductor from the Czech Republic, led the one hour and 20 minute masterpiece by Smetana, who is widely regarded as the father of Czech music.
Smetana’s My Country was a musical triumph that inspired nationalism in the Czech people, who had been oppressed under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th Century.
Having lost his hearing in his 1850s, Smetana fell into despair about his musical career, but he overcame the hardship with patriotism and creative passion. He spent six years completing the masterpiece that is My Country.
Czechoslovakia, which was struggling to stand against the oppressive rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Smetana, who had endured the handicap of hearing loss yet completed the masterwork, were essentially one in the same.
Throughout the performance of Smetana’s My Country, I couldn’t help but think about my country, South Korea.
The first poem, “Vysehrad,” reminded me of the history of humiliation and resistance of the Namhan Fortress, when China invaded our land in 1637. Vysehrad is the high castle on the Eastern bank of the Vltava River, south of the Czech capital of Prague. Smetana illustrated the panoramic picture of Czechoslovakia’s intense history with two harps.
The second poem, “Vltava,” contains the great flow of the country’s history - just like the Vltava, the lifeline of Czechoslovakia.
The piece certainly evoked my feelings for the Han River.
The Bukhan River and the Namhan River combine to form the Han River, just as two rivers form the Vltava. And just like the Han River’s slow and labored flow, Korean history has been moving forward and onward despite the country’s travails.
“Sarka,” the third poem, is the name of a female warrior from an ancient Czech legend. Through Sarka, Smetana must have dreamt of retaliating for the oppression of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The third piece reminded me of Nongae, the 16th century entertainer who embraced an invading Japanese general and threw herself and the general into the Nam River in Jinju, South Gyeongsang.
I thought of the demilitarized zone and the forbidden land there as I listened to the fourth piece, “Z ceskych luhu a haju,” or “From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields.”
Smetana transposed the traces of bloody revenge and killings into lyrical tunes for the vast forests and fields of Bohemia.
I imagined the thick forests and wild fields of the demilitarized zone healing from the wounds and scars of the Korean War.
The fifth piece is “Tabor,” after a city south of Bohemia.
While listening to it I thought of Gobu, the stronghold of Jeon Bong-jun during the Donghak Peasant Revolution in 1894.
Smetana offered a musical embodiment of Tabor, the base of 15th century religious reformer Jan Hus, to inspire nationalism and patriotism.
The sixth and last poem is titled “Blanik,” which had me dreaming of waking the souls of the Korean soldiers who are resting along the 155 mile-long demarcation line. Smetana finished the grand cycle of My Country with an ultimate triumph by waking up the Hussite warriors resting on Mount Blanik.
Korea’s famous poet Mo Yun-suk wrote that soldiers speak when they die: “In the deserted valley by the mountain, I am looking at the soldier lying by himself. You had been a proud second lieutenant of the ROK Army. Your heart still pumps out warm blood. The blood’s smell is stronger than the scent of roses. I mourn for the young soul and listen to the last words of the soldier.”
On July 27, 1957, the truce agreement was signed, and the gunfire stopped along the demarcation line on a hot summer day.
But the last words of the dying soldiers are still echoing. Many soldiers defended their country by making the ultimate sacrifice, death.
And because of that we can live as we do today.
But are we still willing to give up our lives to defend our country?
Have we forgotten our desperate love for the fatherland? I was especially moved by Smetana’s My Country, as the masterpiece made me contemplate Korea’s current reality.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Chung Jin-hong