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A Q&A with Expert Dr. Carol Reynolds

By | April 5, 2014

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.

That's the "micro" story. But the inner divisions within these lands are just as fascinating. Buda versus Pest, for example. Moravia versus Slovenia. We'll be exploring all of this during our wonderful tour.

Q: Your research interests include German Romanticism, which represented a new crossroads of art, philosophy, and science, the dominant movement of the late 18th and 19th centuries, and a widespread reaction in Germany and England to the French Enlightenment. What impact did the Romantic movement have on Eastern Europe?

A : Many of us grew up viewing Eastern Europe as a block of countries trapped behind the Iron Curtain. We forget that this division didn't exist in history. There was a free and active flow of cultural life from London to Paris to Leipzig to Prague, particularly in the 19th century. All you have to do is look at the concert schedules of an artist like Franz Liszt to see how intertwined the cultural capitals of Europe were.

Speaking of Liszt, so many Eastern Europeans were central "movers and shakers" of European Romanticism. Yes, the literary roots of Romanticism came from Germans but those ideas spread like wildfire as far away as Russia and America.

And the music was wonderfully international: think of the significance of just three Romantic composers: Chopin (Polish), Liszt (Hungarian), Dvořák (Czech). Chopin and Liszt made their careers in Paris, while Dvořák exerted influence on American music.

The Polish violinist Henryk Wieniawski, for example, was adored nearly as much as Paganini. We could talk about gypsy music, which affected Brahms as much as it did Liszt. And we haven't mentioned the poets and painters! But we'll have time to do all of that on our tours.

Q: The grand finale of the "Old World Europe" program is a private tour of the exquisite and unique Lobkowicz Museum, and dinner in picturesque Prague Castle. The Lobkowicz family history is intricately intertwined with the history of Europe, and the Museum houses rare manuscripts as part of their vast collections, including original Mozart and Beethoven manuscripts. What do you hope the Smithsonian travelers will take away from this special visit?

A : The Lobkowicz family was one of the great European patrons for art. You could even think of them as "jet-setters" for their time, as they had many residences. Their primary palace in the 18th century was in Vienna, which is where the connection with Beethoven was forged. They hosted glittering events associated with the Congress of Vienna and generally fostered the arts. But their hereditary palaces were in Bohemia, and their presence in Prague, even today through the stunning Lobkowicz Museum, still affects Czech cultural life.

So, it's marvelous that we'll be ending our tour this way. We'll be able to imagine ourselves as part of their glittering circle, if only for one festive evening.


Dr. Carol Reynolds

Carol Reynolds weaves high energy, humor, and history into everything she does. After a career in music history at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Professor Carol and husband Hank began designing multi-media fine arts curricula. Her unprecedented Discovering Music: 300 Years of Interaction in Western Music, Arts, History, and Culture (2009) has reached students across the world. In 2011 she released a cross-discipline course called Exploring America’s Musical Heritage. She is now creating a curriculum on the history of sacred music from Jewish Liturgy to 1600. Her research interests include German Romanticism and the musical court of Frederick the Great. She is fluent in German and Russian and maintains a home in Weimar. Dr. Reynolds is a staunch advocate of arts education at every stage of life and speaks regularly at educational conferences across the U.S.A pianist and organist, she is a popular speaker for organizations like The Dallas Symphony, Van Cliburn Concerts, The Dallas Opera, Tulsa Symphony, Kimball Museum, Fort Worth Opera, San Francisco Wagner Society, and the Davidson Institute.

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