Please join Friends of Bertramka, a group of individuals concerned about the future of this beloved Mozart monument in Prague, and dedicated to supporting its revival for a new era of Mozart plans and projects.
(All photos by Sherry Davis)
Bertramka was formally restituted to its owner, the Czech Mozart Society, in 2009. Friends of Bertramka has been created by the Mozart Society of America to aid its friends and colleagues in the Czech Mozart Society in repairing both recent and long-term damage to Bertramka and restoring its museum and educational programs.
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Bertramka: A Brief History
What should have been an unequivocally joyful moment—the restitution last fall of one of Prague’s most significant cultural monuments, the villa Bertramka, to the Czech Mozart Society—was marred when it was handed back to its owners as an empty shell, stripped of its furnishings, its lighting fixtures, its exhibition including instruments and paintings as well as wall displays, part of its heating system, its kitchen cabinetry, and much else. A storage building, which had housed the Mozart Society’s archive, was found in a state of complete disrepair and providing shelter for a family of martens. Though the transfer of the property took place on 2 December 2009 as scheduled, the papers had to be signed on a battered old chair, as all other furniture had been removed from the building. Photographs of the villa’s interior before and after its recent despoiling may be viewed on the website of the Mozartova obec (Mozart Society) at the following links:
Bertramka, located in what is now the Smíchov district in Prague 5, is precious to Mozart lovers because of its association with Mozart’s visits in 1787 and 1791, when he visited his friends Josefa and František Dušek at the villa and worked at composing Don Giovanni and other music. Originally a farmhouse surrounded by vineyards, Bertramka was converted into a genteel villa with a park and gardens early in the 18th century and named after one of its owners, Franz of Bertram; it was purchased by the Dušeks in 1784 and inhabited by them until František’s death in 1799. Mozart’s sons Carl Thomas and Franz Xaver Wolfgang both spent some years in Prague after their father’s death, and Bertramka became a second home for them. In 1856, writing to Bertramka’s then owner Adolf Popelka, Carl recalled, “Even blindfolded, I could still find my way there today – after 59 years! . . . I still remember every room in the house and every corner of the garden. In the garden – on the left – there was, first, a little flowerbed and beyond it a path leading uphill and overgrown by fruit trees, with a large pond on the right, then the greenhouse that I saw being built and, finally, the hillside that was used for farming and at the very top of which there was a pavilion from which you could look down on the cemetery. I also remember – and, as you can imagine, with special affection – the lower part of your estate, where the orchard was situated and where I tried to slip away whenever I could. It was like an Eden to me.”
Adolf Popelka, whose father Lambert had acquired Bertramka at auction in 1838, held the memory of Mozart in some reverence. It was he who began to treat the villa as a shrine, erecting a bust of Mozart by Tomáš Seidan in the garden in 1876 and organizing a festive gathering there to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Don Giovanni’s première. After the death of Popelka’s widow in 1918 Bertramka passed to Mathilda Sliwenská, who willed it, by now in poor condition, to the Salzburg Mozarteum in 1925. As Tomislav Volek has written, “For the citizens of the young [Czechoslovakian] Republic, who were endeavoring to ‘de-Austrify’ the whole of Czech society, this was a bitter mouthful.” [See Volek, “80 Jahre Mozart-Gemeinde in der Tschechischen Republik,” http://www.mozartovaobec.cz/?stranka=120] Thus the Czech Mozart Society came into being, with the enormous task of negotiating with the Mozarteum to buy Bertramka, and raising the necessary funds. Leading members of Prague’s musical and financial communities joined this effort, which finally succeeded with the purchase of Bertramka by the Mozart Society in January1929. In the years that followed, burdened now with heavy debt, the Czech Mozart Society worked with a sympathetic government, musicians, and other Prague citizens, to begin restoration of the house and gardens, present exhibitions and concerts, and start a publication program.
These initiatives came to a sudden halt with the Nazi invasion and occupation, when Bertramka was renamed “Bertramshof.” After the defeat of the Germans in 1945 the Czech Mozart Society returned only briefly to its mission, which was hindered once again after the communist takeover three years later. Though the new regime did not dissolve the Mozart Society, it exerted strict control over its activities and eventually confiscated its property, including over a thousand musical prints, manuscripts, letters, and other documents that were absorbed by the music department of the National Museum. At the same time, the State prepared to celebrate the Mozart bicentennial in 1956 with gala performances and exhibitions, including the further restoration and opening of Bertramka as the “W. A. Mozart and Dušek Memorial” on 25 May. After this point the Czech Mozart Society was compelled to accept a relationship with the National Museum in which, though it retained nominal control of Bertramka, the museum acted as its administrator. The Mozart Society was allowed a space in the storage building mentioned above and permitted to arrange ten concerts per year.
During the 1980s the Mozart Society came under intensive pressure to turn over Bertramka to the city and signed a document doing so in 1986; but only three years later, as the communist government fell, its members decided to apply for restitution of all its property. Thus began a lengthy period of litigation, during which time Bertramka was rented by the municipality of Prague 5 to Comenius (the Pan-European Society for Culture, Education, and Scientific and Technical Cooperation), which promoted tourist visits to the exhibition, ran a concert series, and also rented out the building and grounds for weddings, parties, and other private events. The municipality financed further, extensive restoration at Bertramka during this period. In 2004 the constitutional court of the Czech Republic ruled in favor of the Czech Mozart Society, and decreed that Bertramka should be restituted to it. Only now has this finally taken place, with much publicity, many hard feelings on each side, and with the rather shocking removal of the building’s contents by Comenius cited at the beginning of this article.
It is clear that in the next cycle of Bertramka’s eventful life the Czech Mozart Society will face many challenges, including not only raising extensive funds to support the estate, but continuing the delicate process of restitution as it pertains to the many materials, including instruments and portraits as well as musical documents, now housed by the National Museum. In the immediate future it will need, at a minimum, to restore lighting and seating so that concerts may continue, and it faces the prospect of devising and installing an entirely new exhibition. Though rather daunting, there is no doubt that this is nonetheless a rare opportunity to re-envision Bertramka as a space where Mozart’s memory can be meaningfully preserved, and as a special setting for the enjoyment of his music. It is fitting that the citizens of Prague, who since Mozart’s lifetime have been foremost among those who understand and appreciate him, should once again have the protection of this beloved part of his legacy in their hands.
© Mozart Society of America