Q: As a cultural and musical historian, you're an expert at weaving together the art, music, culture, and history of Europe. What first sparked your interest in music and in European history?
A: The world came to me through books when I was a child. Growing up in the mountains of Virginia, I had no opportunity to travel or attend concerts. But my mother passionately valued education, despite her own impoverished upbringing in an immigrant ghetto in Brooklyn. From her I learned that education, history, and the arts mattered.
Then, at age 14, I fell in love with Russia, but for a different reason. An older cousin was studying Russian at college. When he came home for Christmas, he showed me the Cyrillic alphabet. It seemed so glamorous to me. Amused by my enthusiasm, he began to send me books, including my first Russian novels.
At the same time, my piano teacher began feeding me Russian repertoire, particularly pieces by Prokofiev and Kabalevsky. I fell deeply in love with Russian culture and vowed I would go some day. Of course, back then, one couldn't just "go" independently to Russia, so travel had to wait until 1981 when I received a grant to write my dissertation in Leningrad.
Q: You're leading Smithsonian Journeys’ Old World Europe tour featuring stops in Poland, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, including Prague. Prague is connected with prominent names in art, science, and politics, such as Johannes Kepler, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Kafka, Antonín Dvoŕák, Albert Einstein, and Václav Havel. What factors made Prague such a fountainhead of Eastern European culture, art, and science?
A: You've identified the main factor: the confluence of talent that came to Prague. You know, it's fascinating to see how certain cities, at certain times, draw talent. Prague is a perfect example. And when you stir in the passionate nature of the Slavic people, you end up with a bubbling caldron of creativity, and sometimes even revolution.
Behind it all stands the fact that Prague was a prime center of learning in medieval times. (The University of St. Charles has operated since 1348). Prague's religious history is fascinating, as is the succession of rulers.
Finally, let's not forget the Moldau or the Vltava—the river that defines Prague. Rivers wrap an irresistible energy around a city and the Moldau almost sings the story of Prague and her people. (I use the name Moldau here due to the importance this name takes in the music. Naturally, when you are in Prague, you would call it the Vltava River!)
Q: What underlying historical, cultural, and political connections would you encourage Smithsonian travelers to keep in mind as they travel from Poland, to Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic on the "Old World Europe" program?
A : These countries do share cultural strands. They've allied together at times, but also warred against one another. Their borders have shifted like sand. We rarely think of Poland as a huge, powerful country in Renaissance times, yet it was. We can barely imagine today's refined Austria as a mega-power when the Hapsburg dynasty controlled so much of Europe.