The Velvet Revolution

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

Václav Havel in "Disturbing the Peace"

… the kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons ...

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.

Questions to Christian Benda

What memories do you have of Václav Havel?

"I met Václav Havel on several occasions and got to know closely the ideas for which he stood as a man. During one of our conversations, I remember a simple statement that sums up the dangers of today's world: "Nowadays, the yoghurt pot is more important than the yogurt itself." Václav Havel was a herald of individual and social consciousness conveying ideas able to hold the world of tomorrow. In him there was something prophetic.

He was also the spokesman for human values, which are still unconscious in our time.

I was very flattered that he considered me a defender of his ideas, which strive to enhance a free cultural life, a fraternal economy and equal legal principles for all. These are not necessarily new ideas, but he knew how to apply them in specific cases. Václav Havel embodied everything one may aspire to find in the president of a democratic republic.

He was, in my eyes, a true revolutionary, if we can combine this concept with that of peace."

Is music a revolution?

"Music is the revolution itself.

Music is revealed through its constant and harmonious transformation within time. This is certainly why it is used as a symbol of social transformation. Revolution is also an astronomical term: the revolution (or translation) of the earth around the sun. This idea includes both an eternal return and an evolution.

The relationship between the celestial revolution and the human revolution can be called 'music of the spheres'. One should not forget that, in the Middle Ages, music was considered with geometry, arithmetic and astronomy, an exact science. Music resonates within each of us what occurs outside. In Italy we find this wonderful link between the science of Vincenzo Galilei and his son Galileo, and, in Bohemia, within the Czech Republic, between Kepler and Tycho Brahe."

As artistic and musical director do you feel an ambassador in the world of Havel's message?

"Václav Havel chose theater, an art form, as a means to communicate his message. Others asked him to become a social leader and to express himself through a different, political path, that of a statesman. His message always remained the same, despite various forms of expression.

If we consider the message behind the form in which it is expressed, and not the form itself, I would say yes to this question: I do feel I am conveying the same content of message as Václav Havel,

This message wishes to be heard, far beyond our individual lives. And to do so, it will inspire further human beings to commit themselves to communicate this message. The content of this message is for us to try conveying through every human action, whether economic, artistic or legal-political, a reality, a content, and not only the appearance of such reality, the appearance of such content.

But our economy has become merely finance, injustice is justified by law, and culture is pure marketing. Unfortunately, these days, no human endeavor can survive without a marketing department in charge of making us believe in what has no reality. And despite our rebellion, we do not know how to solve this problem. Whether in music or in any other area of life, we thirst for reality, for content.

We need to take distance from the image of all things, especially if it is an illusion. The paradox of Václav Havel is to be the one that shows the truth while he is a politician. But what is truth?"



It's been a few days since Václav Havel cannot be attained any more
By our glance in the physical world.
But it is with joyful and luminous strength
That he shines thoroughly through our spiritual vision.

As human being, doubt, among us, is a commonplace,
And it is comforting to see come true
The deepest mission of man:
To be, unconditionally,
Through liberty,
Without any possible doubt,
Without any question.

He made the words of ancient time resound:
Uniting the present, the past and the future.

He made the sounds of a light echo
Which does not go out with night,
But shines as a sun in the firmament
While our eyes do not perceive it any more.

It is full of gratitude,
That we may thank life
For letting us
Cross the road of Václav Havel.

Christian Benda

“Even today we need a change similar to the one which was brought twenty years ago to Central Europe by the velvet revolution. It is a complete change of attitude to the planet, to Earth and to its sensitive and vulnerable organism.”

Václav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic, playwright, essayist and honorary president of the Prague Sinfonia Orchestra.

The traditional desire for freedom, in November of 1989, was expressed in a Czech folk song which parents used to sing to their children:

"Ach Synku, synku, domali jsi?"

"Oh, my little son, are you home? Papa's asking, did you plow the field?"
"I plowed a little, but the little wheel broke"
"When it's broken, have it fixed. Learn, little son, how to get things done properly"

It is believed that the term Velvet Revolution (sametová revoluce) originated from the various communist opposition groups which met in theaters such as the Laterna Magika, velvet referring to the velvet ropes found in all these theaters.

Human Rights by Václav Havel

Inauguration of the Human Rights Building

It is a great honour for me to be invited to speak, on behalf of the country which now holds the chair in the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, on this very special day when the Council of Europe inaugurates the Human Rights Building. I firmly believe that this house will soon become a materialized symbol of the values the sharing of which has been the driving force behind European unification.

With your permission, I should like to take this opportunity to present to you one general observation on human rights and one specific observation about those who put them in jeopardy.

We who tried in the past to resist the totalitarian system in the countries of the former Communist bloc used to be referred to either as dissidents or as human rights champions. The former of these two names was rather inaccurate, the latter though somewhat pathetic came nearer to reality. The concept of respect for human rights, as they are laid down in various international conventions, was indeed the starting point for our endeavours, and most of the documents which we brought out, incurring persecution for doing so, were principally criticisms of the massive violations of human rights by the Communist regimes.

Nevertheless, I will admit that one pretty weird, almost heretical question occurred to me time and again throughout my dissident years. I asked myself why in fact humanity should be supposed to enjoy such and such human rights, where the prime origin of these rights was, who had ever said that these were the rights human beings should have, or why we were taking it for granted that we had the right to any rights at all. The answers that are offered and generally accepted today, such as that this is a product of the development of human civilization, a fruit of human self-reflection as it has been subsequently embodied in social contracts between people who agreed upon what were to be their vested, natural or inalienable rights, failed to satisfy me. The more I have thought about it, the more I have been led to believe that the prime origin of these rights must lay in something deeper than a mere contract. I have been ever less willing to accept the idea that things such as the right to life, freedom of thought, respect for human dignity or equality before the law should be worth making sacrifices for just because someone reached agreement that these were reasonable principles that met human needs, or that were practical for human coexistence on this earth.

Don't worry, it is not my intention to take up your time with boring descriptions of my train of thought or comments on my philosophical convictions. I shall limit myself to stating my considered opinion that while the present-day concept of human rights indeed takes a form which derives from the state of civilization today, the set of values and imperatives which it reflects is rooted elsewhere: in a deeper, truly profound inner experience, an archetypal human experience of the world and of humanity itself within this world. Already in long bygone times, long before the term 'human rights' was coined, the human mind realized that the higher order of Being of which it is a part puts it under a certain obligation. Different cultures, both past and present, have perceived this obligation in different ways in terms of form and sometimes in terms of content as well, but all have agreed that this title or obligation comes, so to speak, from without, as its background has the dimensions of the infinite, and of eternity. In other words: the concept of human rights is only one of the ways in which our present civilization gives expression to what might be called the moral order, whose existence is part of the fundamental experience of humanity as conscious creatures experience of something which transcends us, which to put it in plain words exists beyond us. There are simply certain things which people do not just because they have agreed with other people on doing them, or because they have found them practical.

Various manifestations of crises in the world today apparently corroborate this opinion. Don't they all emanate from one common cause from a decline of human responsibility for our world, precisely the kind of responsibility that relates to higher authorities rather than to those underlying a simple intention to adhere to certain standards endorsed by a vote ? Don't we find an explanation for many such developments in the decline of humanity's readiness to honour the order of Being that stands above the human person and to conduct ourselves responsibly even when nobody sees us, when there is nobody to tell on us to any mundane authorities that may have been put in charge of overseeing observance of certain agreed rules? And isn't it this decline of the modern spirit that provokes many cultures to revolt against such contemporary standards in which they do not find any deities to worship, and which they therefore deem to be lacking a proper metaphysical anchor?

There has been much discussion about whether human rights in the form which is now accepted in the Euro-American cultural sphere are truly universal, that is, whether their observance can be required of everyone, or whether they are only a product of one particular culture that cannot be imposed upon other cultures which are based on different world outlooks and different traditions.

If we were to perceive human rights as a mere product of a social contract the answer to this question would be clear: we would have no right whatsoever to demand that they be observed by anyone who has not subscribed to this contract or who has had no part in devising it. No group can justifiably claim that what its members have agreed upon among themselves applies automatically to everyone else as well, nor can it purport that only what this particular group deems right is truly universal, and right for all.

If we, however, recognize that respect for human rights as a political requirement or imperative is actually a political expression of moral obligations anchored in the general human experience of the absolute, any reasons for relativist skepticism cease to be valid. While this recognition alone does not win any battles, at least it paves the way: universality of human rights can be successfully defended if we look for its truly universal spiritual roots. That is, if we join forces in a search for what most cultures have in common and if we attempt a new reflection on the most profound points of departure from which our manifold cultures have grown. In reality, these starting points are much closer to one another than they now seem to be. The more we cling to the mere surface of things the more the otherness in diverse cultures conceals the depths of affinity among them. The way to genuine universalism does not lead through compromises among various contemporary forms of otherness but through a joint quest to bring back humanity's common primeval experience of the universe, and of the human being within it...

Europe like the whole world today currently finds itself at a crucial historical crossroads. It shall either succeed in embracing a new sense of responsibility, one that will grow out of the universal spiritual experience of the human race and heed the moral message which this experience holds for us, or it shall again commit the same fatal error for which it paid such a terrible price twice before in this century the error of closing its eyes to the emerging evil of nationalism which, like any evil, is contagious.

Let me conclude by voicing my enduring hope that human reason, decency, solidarity and preparedness to seek understanding and to live together in fairness will triumph over everything which threatens them. I have no doubt that the Council of Europe and its various institutions, including those to reside in this Building, will make a major contribution towards achieving this not by using instruments of power, which the Council does not have, but by pursuing further the great endeavour which it undertook several decades ago, that is, by continuing to promote, intensify and spread a good spirit of cooperation among nations.

The Power of the Powerless (1978)
Václav Havel

A new mood had begun to surface after the years of waiting, of apathy and of skepticism toward various forms of resistance. People were “tired of being tired”; they were fed up with the stagnation, the inactivity, barely hanging on in the hope that things might improve after all.

Many groups of differing tendencies which until then had remained isolated from each other, reluctant to cooperate, or which were committed to forms of action that made cooperation difficult, were suddenly struck with the powerful realization that freedom is indivisible.

There is no freedom without equality before the law, and there is no equality before the law without freedom.

Address by Václav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, on the Day of Students' Fight for Freedom and Democracy (17. 11. 1999)

It is only today, that we are becoming fully aware of the magnitude and multiplicity of the challenges which originated in these epochal developments.

The present calls for a new perception of the contemporary world as a multi-polar, multicultural and globally interconnected entity and, for a consistent reform of all international organisations and institutions in order that they might reflect this new understanding and are able to meet the formidable tasks of the coming period in its spirit.

The first concern in our thinking must be the future.

If, however, such thinking is to have a solid foundation we must not forget the past either.

' The tanks are rolling out, the Stones are rolling in ‘

Songs, Music, and the Velvet Revolution
Lubomír Tyllner

Music, especially singing, is not an unusual phenomenon in revolut ions. Music is capable of evoking emotions and conveying them, and of uniting and inspiring often heterogeneous communities of people. Two Czech revolutions, the Hussite and the Velvet, despite their having taken place more than five hundred years apart from one another, show striking similarities with respect to the part played by music. The reputation of the "singing people" in the Hussite revolution travelled far beyond the frontiers of the Bohemian Lands, and the revolution of November 1989 was nicknamed the "singing revolution".

The parallels between the periods shortly before the revolutions are also striking. Well before the revolutions, the repertoire of songs managed to point to the state of society and to the changes that were brewing. In the pre-Hussite revolution there was a relatively long succession of topical and propaganda songs that reflected the opinion of the times and national currents. The songs of the Normalization period, after the ultimate defeat of Prague Spring reforms in the spring of 1969 through to the period leading up to the mid-November 1989 also anticipated the political changes, although the means by which the ends were achieved were different in each revolution. Whereas the Hussite revolution was preceded by a plurality of views and relative freedom, the ideological period before November 1989 allowed for no freedom of expression. Many musicians, singers, and songwriters were persecuted; the songwriters in particular, because the régime considered their lyrics and intellectual freedom politically dangerous. Research into the manuscript songbooks that young people made for themselves in the pre-November period, from elementary-school pupils to post-secondary-school students, demonstrates that although some folk singers had long been absent from the concert stages, their repertoires had survived in full measure in oral form or in this illicit songbook culture.

No wonder, then, that it was folk singers, songs, and music, which accompanied all the major events, both on the eve of, and during, the Velvet Revolution – during the student demonstration in the Albertov district of Prague and in the demonstrations on Národní tída (National Avenue) before the police began beating demonstrators with truncheons. The banned pop singer Marta Kubiová soon remerged from years of obscurity with her famous song "Modlitba" (Prayer), which rang out on Wenceslas Square during the early spontaneous demonstrations in Prague. After returning from exile, the singer-songwriter Jaroslav Hutka appeared at the huge demonstrations on Letná park, Prague, and the singer-songwriter Karel Kryl came to Czechoslovakia from Bavaria and also sang at the demonstrations. Professional interpreters of serious music, the Czech Philharmonic, also took part; and the great conductor Rafael Kubelík and the piano virtuoso Rudolf Firkušný* returned to their native land and gave enthusiastically received performances.

There is an old czech saying “Every Czech is a musician.”

The first noteworthy Czech composer is Adam Michna (1600-1676).

Over the next two centuries, most arts came to a standstill, but music education flourished, and Prague came to be known as the "conservatory of Europe" as Czech musicians achieved fame in Vienna, Paris and Rome, particularly court composer Jiri Antonin BENDA (1722-1795), who inspired sometime Prague resident W.A. Mozart (1756-1791). Mozart himself occupied a significant local role in the Austrian-dominated late 18th century, famously remarking that only Prague audiences understood his music and composing his Don Giovanni in the city.

The 19th century saw the rise of nationalism and a corresponding interest in folk culture, culminating in the establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918. Locally born classical composers Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884), Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) drew on motives from Czech folk sources to worldwide acclaim, and the revival of the Czech language from obscure dialects also brought about increased interest in folk songs. Moravian-born composer Leo Janácek (1854-1928) took this tendency even further, drawing on pan-Slavism, speech melodies and traditional work songs to create a highly individual style.

The political turbulence of the 20th century had enormous impact on music in the Czech lands, as both the Nazi occupation and the post-war Communist rulers exploited folk culture for their own benefit. Following the Stalinist dictum "socialist in content, national in character", traditional music was subsumed into large state sponsored dance ensembles. At the same time, the role of music as resistance was taken over by jazz and later underground rock, which had the advantage of being both international and youth-oriented at a time when folk music became increasingly associated with the establishment. After government persecution of experimental rock band The Plastic People of the Universe in 1976, underground music became closer to the circle of dissidents around playwright Václav Havel, with several figures from this scene playing leading roles in the Velvet Revolution of 1989.