Archive for the ‘Videos’ Category

Auf den Flűgeln der Musik – On the Wings of Music

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

35_thumbnailUrsula Rehn Wolfman is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Born in Steinfeld, Austria, Ursula was educated in Germany, England, France, and the United States. As an independent scholar who formerly worked with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, her particular field of interest is the relationship between the arts, literature, painting/sculpture, architecture, and music. She has lectured extensively in the U.S. and abroad on French literature and its relationship with the arts. She received the Diplome Superieur from the Sorbonne in Paris and completed her graduate studies in the United States at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with a doctorate in French literature and philosophy and a minor in art history. Ursula has led tours for the Smithsonian throughout Europe.


The just-concluded Smithsonian Journeys Tour ‘Symphony on the Danube’ of September 2013, started in Krakow, Poland, traversed the Czech Republic to Prague and continued along the Danube from Passau to Melk, to Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest — its regions and cities showcases some of the greatest European architecture, art and music. Our journey had a musical emphasis, as its title suggests, and musical performances were scheduled throughout the tour, from Chopin’s music in Krakow, to Dvořák’s and Smetana’s in Prague, to recitals on the great organs in Passau and Melk, to Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Strauss compositions in Vienna, and Hungarian gypsy music in Budapest. For me, though, it is always magical Prague, the city of a thousand spires, which leaves the most memorable musical impressions.

Even in Mozart’s time, Bohemia and its capital, Prague, were considered the ‘conservatory of music’ with its exceptionally well-trained musicians, and also with a population profoundly appreciative of Mozart’s genius — very different from Vienna, where Mozart’s genius was not always understood. Mozart’s ‘beloved Prague citizens’ adored his Magic Flute and his Marriage of Figaro. His ‘Don Giovanni’ premiered in Prague’s Estate Theatre, and after his death in 1791, Mozart’s Requiem saw its first performance in St. Nicholas Church in the Mala Strana district (Lesser Town) below the Hrádčany Castle.

Architecturally, with its many Baroque churches, Prague provides an exceptional visual and acoustic background for many of the greatest compositions of the Baroque and Classical periods. These churches, built as basilicas with a central rotunda and soaring, painted heavens with figures of saints dramatically reaching into space, have perfect acoustics, which differ from those experienced in particular by American audiences, who are more familiar with acoustics in their Gothic-style churches or modern concert halls. Baroque-style churches do not exist in America. On my European tours, I always encourage our Smithsonian travelers to experience music of the period performed in buildings of the period.

In Prague, as in Eastern Europe in general, Baroque organs, many still in their original, unaltered state after these many centuries, are tuned to the principals of Baroque music, i.e., almost one octave lower than modern organs. This requires accompanying instruments also to be tuned to the same pitch, resulting in a warm, breathy sound – quite different from what we usually hear elsewhere. The concert we attended in St. Nicholas Church featured Jan Kalfus on the Baroque organ and mezzosoprano Yvona Škvárová, soloist of the National Theatre. The program started with two compositions of the Baroque era, J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-Minor, followed by Händel’s Arias from Xerxes, and Semele — with organ and voice soaring in this perfect architectural space –reminding us of the importance of the human voice which found new expressions in Bach’s and Händel’s oratorios. A selection of biblical songs by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Antonin Dvořák concluded this extraordinary concert, which left us all transported “on the wings of music”.

Another amazing musical experience took place in Prague’s Lobkowicz Palace, where we first visited the extraordinary collection of the Princes Lobkowicz, which was restored to the current Prince Lobkowicz family after the fall of communism.   The Beethoven Room, one of the most interesting parts of the collection, has period instruments on view, as well as the original scores of Beethoven’s Third Symphony — initially dedicated to Napoleon, but changed in honor of an ancestor of the current Prince Lobkowicz, after Napoleon’s advance and subjugation of Eastern Europe — and Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies and Mozart’s re-orchestration of Händel’s Messiah in Mozart’s own hand.

Prince Lobkowicz personally greeted us before the ensuing concert in one of the Baroque Halls of his Palace. A superb quartet played classical and contemporary music. One of the most moving pieces was Antonin Dvořák’s Largo from his New World Symphony, musically connecting Old Europe and the New World represented by our Smithsonian travelers. For all of us it was one of the highlights of our travels — on the Danube and “on the wings of music”.

Antonin Dvořák’s Largo. Video courtesy of Howard Whittle.


To learn more about our Symphony on the Blue Danube: A Classical Music Cruise click here!

A Parallel Ireland

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Kate Chadbourne holds a Ph.D. in Celtic Languages and Literatures from Harvard University where she currently teaches courses in Irish language and folklore. As a visiting scholar she has spent a year each at the University of Ulster, University College Swansea, and University College Cork. Dr. Chadbourne’s research and writing focuses on Irish and Celtic life, including essays about the Celtic Otherworld, the Irish harp, the history of Irish storytelling, the fairy tradition of Donegal, and various themes in the medieval literature of Ireland and Wales.  Like Cenn Faelad, a figure in early Irish literature, Kate lives at the crossroads of scholarship and art.  She performs regularly as a singer, musician and storyteller, and has published two poetry chapbooks:  The Harp-Boat, a collection about her father, a Maine lobsterman, and in 2011, Brigit’s Woven World & other poems of Ireland.


Come to Ireland and you’ll see images you’ve dreamed of for years:  thatched cottages, castles on hill-tops, colorful Georgian doors in Dublin. You will wander through the stately homes of the Anglo-Irish, and you will clamber over the stones of 6th century monastic foundations, still as complex and fascinating today as they must have been in their heyday. We come to Ireland to stand on the ground where great things happened, where heroic or ingenious men and women lived, worked, and made history. Happily, we find all of that and it delights, intrigues, and even changes us.  But we find something else sharing the same earth with the history and culture:  a parallel kingdom that is just as vital, enticing, and essential. That is, the Ireland of animals!

We rolled past fields salted with sheep, and we peered over hedges into pastures where calves leaned into their mothers’ warm sides. There were sparrows and egrets, ponies and wolfhounds, European robins and a billion magpies. There were pairs of Connemara donkeys sheltering by stone walls as rain spit sideways but they – undaunted – seemed too deep in conversation to notice the weather. Leigheas gach brón an comhrá, as they say. The cure for every sorrow is conversation.

Off the bus, though, we found ourselves occasionally at eye-level with Ireland’s creatures. On our first full day in Dublin, we “met” the swans on St. Stephen’s Green and got close enough to admire the cygnets in their furry plumage. Like a group of bored teenagers, they flopped down on the walkway to demonstrate their lack of interest. Not so their parents who hissed and swiveled serpentine necks toward the bare legs of a fellow traveler. The rest of us deemed it wise to take a different path.  039-515

I suppose we weren’t surprised to see swans as they figure rather prominently in Irish stories of transformation. The most famous of these is “The Children of Lir,” in which a king’s unlucky progeny were transformed into swans by their jealous stepmother and forced to spend 900 years in swan-shape. What makes this somehow more unearthly is that they retained the power of human speech. Thinking of that tale, I half expected these city swans to pipe up in their best Dublin accent, “Stop yer gawking! Clear off the path, ya miserable articles!”

Some of our encounters with animals were quiet – so quiet you could nearly overlook them. Over a lunch of fresh fish at Tí Joe Watty’s on Inismór, the largest of the Aran Islands, I noticed this polite creature sitting in the doorway. She had the run of the beer garden, but her welcome stopped at the door. She gazed at us steadily, invoking the proverb, Tá cead ag an chat amharc ar an rí, “The cat has permission to look at the king.” In this case, however, it isn’t we who were royal. That honor, I’m sure, belonged to the fish on our plates!


Animals seem to live much closer to human beings and houses in Ireland. Down the road from Tí Joe Watty’s, we spied this character sauntering round the doorstep, a born diplomat if ever there were one:


And there across the road was his neighbor who took some time off gazing at his ruined church to allow us to rub his cheek and coo at him until he nearly smiled:


He seemed to embody another proverb, one that offers us hope if we can just hang on.  Mair, a chapaill, agus gheobhaidh tú féar. Live, horse, and you will get grass. Perhaps he was a retired jaunting car horse and distant cousin to Robert (yes, that’s his real name), the good-natured fellow who pulled our car through beautiful Killarney National Park and all the way to Lough Leane?


But truly, of all the creatures we encountered, the most remarkable were certainly the sheepdogs we saw on the Ring of Kerry in the employ of shepherd Brendan Ferris. Trained to respond to different whistle pitches and even to the softest verbal command, these dogs displayed an enviable eagerness for their work along and great cleverness! For the dog lovers among us, this was one of the highlights of the trip. Here we got a peek into the mysterious and wonderful intersection between human and animal worlds – a shared world of mutual affection, productivity, and delight.

These meetings with animals rounded out the tour and brought us back to earth after the splendors of Trinity, Muckross House, and Kilkenny Castle. Here we saw Ireland on a creaturely scale, and the country is warmer and richer for that. Long may they bray, squawk, peck, neigh, and bark.   Beannachtaí orthu go léir: Blessings on all of them!


To learn more about our Emerald Isle trip click here.

Video: The Real Hunt for Red October

Monday, November 1st, 2010
The Kremlin, on Moscow's Red Square

The Kremlin, on Moscow's Red Square

In November, 1975, The Sentry, a state-of-the-art Russian warship, was taken over by a rogue Soviet officer. This remarkable mutiny not only inspired the best-selling political thriller and blockbuster movie, “The Hunt for Red October,” it almost triggered World War III. For the first time, the Smithsonian Channel reveals stories of bravery and tragedy firsthand, from the men aboard the warship and the officers who ordered its destruction. Watch the video for an exciting sneak peak of The Real Story: The Hunt for Red October.

The Real Hunt for Red October

We’re making Russia’s extraordinary history come to life on two unique journeys in 2011, our Waterways of Russia and Historic Waterways of the Baltics cruises. Travel on either one for an essential understanding of the history of the Russian empire and the critical part Russia will play in the global future.

Where were you on November 8, 1975, when Valery Sabin staged his mutiny?

Video: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is home to some of nature’s most unusual animals – corals. Corals are animals, not plants, and have a remarkable way of reproducing to build their reef societies.

Secrets of the Great Barrier Reef

If Australia’s on your life list, now is a great time to go. Click here for more information on our tours to Australia. If you’re interested in coral reefs, click here for Smithsonian’s interactive coral reef exhibit, or here for more on the amazing Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, which will be at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History through April 24, 2011.

What’s on your life list? Let us know!

It's Not Easy Being First

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

No one can say this more than Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Their transcontinental expedition was filled with unpredictability, natural dangers, and Native communities who were not ready to have anyone move into their territory. The story itself, without any embellishment, is dramatic with equally intriguing characters including Thomas Jefferson, a young Shoshone woman named Sacagawea, and a team of men known as the Corps of Discovery who faced a landscape that had never been navigated or mapped.

Why had it taken until 1804 to even start exploring the Pacific Northwest? It was a project that Jefferson had been pondering while living in France in the 1780s, knowing it could lead to huge opportunities for the very young United States of America. He also heard talk that King Louis the XVI of France was interested in exploring the region. While the royal had officially proposed a scientific expedition, Jefferson felt the French King had a political mission in mind.

Knowing the expedition was extremely dangerous, President Jefferson provided peace medalsto the Corps to introduce themselves to the various tribes they met along the way. But on the trail, it was Sacagawea and her infant son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who slept wrapped on a cradleboard, that reassured the tribes that the group meant no harm.

Although Lewis and Clark are best known for laying the groundwork for westward expansion and creating the first maps of the region, their observations were also useful to scientists researching the natural wildlife the Corps of Discovery encountered. Even though they were never intended to be a scientific expedition, their work helps us preserve the indigenous species and natural landscape of the early 19th century.

Explore the natural landscape as the Corps of Discovery would have seen it on In the Wake of Lewis and Clark: A Voyage Along the Columbia and Snake Rivers Aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird. Book by November 1, 2010 and save $750 per person off your cabin!

Where would you like to go exploring? Please share.