Sculpture of brothers Zaboj and Slavoj from The Queen's Court Manuscript, situated in the park at Vysehrad (Prague)


An unhinged debate over a forged mediaeval Czech manuscript


An unhinged debate over a forged mediaeval Czech manuscript

Earlier this month, I published my lecture notes from Ostrava Days 2023. Having attended as a composer, I'd like to now share the work that I wrote for the occasion, ZBYHOŇ//Mythopoeia, and my motivations for writing it. Below the following introductory notes is the full text/libretto that the two narrators deliver, with the German translated into English. The recording can be found on Soundcloud by pressing the button below. All information (and the recording) can also be accessed on my website.

by Anna Heflin

Anna Heflin, narrator
Eric Wubbels, organ, narrator
Kamil Barciok, trumpet
Jennifer Baker, trombone
Canticum Ostrava
Jurij Galatenko, choirmaster
Composed for Ostrava Days 2023

From the outset, it was clear to me that my second piece for the Czech choir Canticum Ostrava at Ostrava Days needed to be in Czech. It was also very apparent that this here American, yours truly, was not about to learn or any semblance of Czech in two months, barring “na zdraví”.

I went looking for a text to fit the bill, with swirling hopes and dreams of finding something mediaeval, and what I found opened a very strange and unexpected set of floodgates. Or, rather, what the Curator of the Czech National Museum, Václav Hanka, “found” in 1817 and 1818 – the twin manuscripts of Krávolé Dvůr and Zelená Hora. The Czechs didn’t have a Nibelungenlied (an anonymous heroic epic in Middle High German), and then one magically manifested in an attic! Huzzah! Statues were erected! The ancient manuscripts were celebrated, published, translated….and they were forged. Their falsehood was not accepted until the founder of Czechoslovakia and its first president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, proved it in the 1880s.

The manuscripts are also referred to as the Queen’s Court Manuscript and if you’re not Czech you’ve likely never heard of them. Czechs know of their existence, but it’s like inquiring after an estranged and deranged uncle. If you want to get a raised eyebrow, bring them up.

So we have forgery, mediaeval currents, strange language, doubt, heroism, nationalism and an existence on the periphery of culture. Quite ripe ground, indeed! But what to set the text to for the choir? The obscure modes of Boethius, naturally, as they are inherently questionable relatives of ancient Greek modes.

Thus the stage is set for….wait, what is the stage? ZBYHOŇ//Mythopoeia premiered at the colossal Cathedral of the Divine Saviour in Ostrava and was written with that space in mind.

Now that we see the stage, it is set for an ensuing unhinged debate over the choir between two narrators speaking in English and German who twist the construct of reason in their attempt to grasp and convey what they perceive as truth. For the premiere, I (the composer/writer) played the role of the English speaker. I delivered my text amplified onstage with the choir flanked by two brass players. I speak only in quotes and it's giving neurotic musicology lecturer who has seven cats. It goes well and fine until I’m interrupted by the German narrator – a part played by my composition teacher/mentor Eric Wubbels in the premiere. Wubbels speaks German, but is American. He delivers his amplified historical rebuttals from the back of the cathedral 80 ft up in the air while playing organ, which was a first for him.

It is recommended that the narration is printed for the audience in the language that the majority of them speak. For the premiere, the English/German dialogue was printed in Czech. That said, there is an intentionality to multilingualism. As I mention in the work itself, I don’t speak German. The German part was translated from English to German by Meaghan Burke. And when you lack essential information, how do you keep a dialogue going? Do you find yourself in doubt or erecting a statue?

I want to know how to interpret messages that are impossible to understand. I wonder if words contain an energy that can be felt. I think about what it means to activate a sacred space through language and sound using “false” materials and irreverence. I find myself asking if the forgery itself, and people’s readiness to believe it, is more uncanny than the idea of them poofing into existence. Or is it beautiful, this readiness to receive?

Full Text/Libretto

Anna Heflin (AH): “The wealth of material presented in this book presents a challenge to Slavists and mediaevalists alike. The historical and aesthetic evaluation of the vernacular texts of mediaeval Bohemia is only in its beginnings. Problems of many kinds need to be solved; and the questions that must be answered are different from those that were asked by the ‘positivist’ scholars of earlier decades. Questions of ‘influence’, ‘originality’, ‘derivation’ are not paramount if we are truly concerned to understand mediaeval works in their historical context.”

And now, the piece!

So my initial question was how to set this text in a proper historical context. The modes seemed a logical place to begin, but what was their true place in medieval culture? We turn to Boethius following the fermata.

“Music is associated not only with speculation but with morality. When rhythms and modes reach an intellect through the ear, they doubtless affect and reshape that mind according to their particular character.”

Of course it’s important to do your research when setting text from another language, so I reached out to Ostrava Days composer Petr Bakla. He said, “the language looks mysterious even to us…with a hint of funny. You can do whatever you want with the texts, no one will give a shit.”

Eric Wubbels (EW): Zu diesem Punkt muss ich aber unbedingt unterbrechen. Erkunden wir doch das Erblühen slawischen literarischen Schabernacks, folgend der Tradition von Macphersons Fingal in 1761 bis zu Prosper Mérimés ‘Hyacinthe Maglanovich-Übersetzungen aus dem Illyrischen” in La Guzla in 1827. Warum erwähne ich das? Nun ja, es hallen in unseren Ohren noch immer diese sogenannten ‘uralten’ lyrischen bzw. epischen alttschechischen Gedichte vom goldenen Zeitalter der Fälschung - die ‘entdeckten’ zwei Handschriften von Krávolé Dvůr and Zelená Hora, gefunden vom Kurator des Tschechischen Nationalmuseum…ein gewisser Václav Hanka.

At this point I insist I must interject. Let us examine the flowering of Slavic literary hoaxes that began with Macpherson’s Fingal in 1761 and ended with Prosper Mérimé’s “translations from the Illyrian of Hyacinthe Maglanovich” contained in La Guzla in 1827. Why do I bring this up? Currently ringing in our ears are the so-called ancient lyrical and epic poems in Old-Czech from the golden age of forgery – the “discovered” twin forged manuscripts of Krávolé Dvůr and Zelená Hora, found by the Curator of the Czech National Museum…a one Václav Hanka.

Genau diese Geschichte, ‘ZBYHOŇ’, behauptet nicht einmal sich selbst treu zu bleiben! Um in ein Schloss einzubrechen, um ein Mädchen zu retten, muss sich der Hauptdarsteller als Ritter verkleiden, nur so kann er den Bösewicht vernichten. Haben wir überhaupt kein Anstand mehr? Soll ich mich als Luftballon verkleiden, wenn es mich so zum Thron der Königinhofer Handschrift hebt?

This particular story, “ZBYHOŇ”, doesn’t even proclaim to be true to itself! In order to break into a castle and save a maiden, the protagonist must pretend to be a knight to defeat the evil villain. Have we lost all sense of decency? Shall I pretend to be a balloon if it raises me to the throne of the Queen's Court Manuscript?

AH: Sir, I don’t speak German.

Continuing on…“Boethius’ discussion on the modes is not Boethius’: rather it represents a competent translation of one Greek source, namely Nicomachus’ lost work on music.” I’m quite unsure if the modes I’m using are that of Boethius, Nichomachus or some illegitimate hybrid species.

EW: Der Philologe und Zeithistoriker Josef Dobrovsky, große Figur des tschechischen nationalen Wiedergeburt und noch größeres Vorbild von mir, hat als erster nach der unglaublichen ‘Entdeckung’ der zweiten Schrift seine Zweifel bezüglich ihrer Echtheit geäußert, wurde dann dafür beschuldigt, ‘ganze Jahrhunderte zu entvölkern.’ QUATSCH!!! Die Handschriften wurden erst in den 1880er Jahren entlarvt, als der Gründer und erster Präsident der Tschechoslowakei Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk sie als Fälschungen bloßgestellt hatte.

Philologist and historian Josef Dobrovský, an important figure of the Czech National Revival and my personal hero, was the first to express his doubts concerning their authenticity following the quite unbelievable find of the medieval manuscript number two in 1818, and when he did he was accused of “depopulating whole centuries.” HUMBUG!!! The manuscripts were not officially denounced until the 1880s when the founder of Czechoslovakia and its first president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, proved them to have been forged.

AH: “The development of texts in Greek theory sometimes seems to resemble those of medieval Latin theory; the lines between copying, compiling, and creating sometimes seem indistinguishable.” (Calvin M Bower)

EW: 2018 feierte das Tschechische Nationalmuseum das 80. Jubiläum des Todes Tomáš Garrigue Masaryks mit der Ausstellung ‘Das Masaryk Phänomen’. Zu der Sammlung gehörten Masaryks leichter Sportanzug, seine Totenmaske und die erste Ausstellung der ‘Originalschriften’ Hradec Králové und Zelená Hora. Ich frage mich, was Hanka davon halten würde, dass seine 'Original Fälschung' in seinem eigenen Museum ausgestellt wird. Und doch, ihr NeinsagerInnen, Hanka ist doch wirklich der Schuldige daran!

In 2018, the Czech National Museum commemorated the 80th anniversary of the death of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk with The Masaryk Phenomenon. Collection pieces included Masaryk's light casual suit, his death mask, and the first exhibition of the “original” Manuscripts of Hradec Králové and Zelená Hora. I wonder how Hanka would have felt about his “original” forged document being on display at his very museum. And yes naysayers, yes, Hanka really is the culprit!

Denken Sie zurück an den Anfang des Stückes. Es war irgendwie merkwürdig, oder? Aber im Laufe davon setzt sich das Werk so durch, bis Sie daran glauben. Und Sie merken schon, dass es lauter geworden ist. Noch mehr Stimmen, noch mehr überlappende Tonsystemen, was auch immer es braucht, um sich kundzugeben. Und so geht es immer, oder? Am Anfang hinterfragen wir die Sache noch, aber im Laufe der Zeit wird alles von dieser Energie in ihren Bahn gezogen. Ich kann ja nichts dafür, dass die Orgel und die Bläser schon eingefallen sind…das ist ganz jenseits meiner Kontrolle!

I want you to think back to the beginning of the piece. It struck you as odd, no? But as it went on perhaps it continued to assert itself until you believed it. And you’ll notice, it’s gotten louder. More voices, overlapping modes, truly anything to make itself known. That’s how it goes, no? We may question something off the bat, but as time goes on that energy sucks everything into its orbit. I can’t help that the organ and brass have fallen in…it’s quite beyond my control!

AH: Thank you.

According to Wikipedia, the songs of Boethius were “irretrievably lost” but scholarly research by Samuel Barrett filled in the gaps of this previously evaporated oral tradition. The detective story of bringing this music to life has been turned into a documentary film.

EW: Nun ja, ich glaube, Sie bekommen kein Gesamtbild von unserer auf der Bühne stehenden Erzählerin. Sie hat es versäumt, die schon sehr relevante Quelle ihres ersten Zitates zu erwähnen! Das Zitat bezüglich der Geringschätzung von Fragen über ‘Einfluss’, ‘Originalität’, ‘Herkunft’ kommt aus einer Kritik des im 1957 neu veröffentlichten Výbor z české literatury od počáktů po dobu Husovu, eine Sammlung aus böhmischer volkssprachlichen Literatur ‘von der Antike bis zum Anfang 15. Jahrhunderts.’ Warum, fragen Sie mal, musste man dieses Werk neu veröffentlichen nach der ersten Veröffentlichung in 1857? Weil die gefälschten Handschriften darin waren, auch wenn die beim zweiten mal ausgelassen wurden, haben sie auch alles andere in Frage gestellt.

Now, I feel that you aren’t getting a complete picture from our onstage narrator. She failed to mention the source of her first quote – and it is a relevant one! The quote concerning the disregard of questions of ‘influence’, ‘originality’, ‘derivation’ is a review of the 1957 republished “Výbor z české literatury  od počáktů po dobu Husovu”, containing vernacular literature of Bohemia from the ‘oldest times to the beginning of the 15th century’. Why, you may ask, did the work need to be republished following its initial publication in 1857? It contained the forged manuscripts, which were rightfully omitted the second time around but already had the effect of casting doubt on everything else.

AH: From what I can glean from the frustrated German speech it appears that the narrator above doesn’t understand the connection between Boethius and ZBYHOŇ so let me make myself perfectly clear. Both find themselves imprisoned – Boethius quite literally at the end of his life and the maiden in the story. To escape, they each use imagination and impersonation. Only through Boethius’ invented female embodiment of philosophy could he roam freely in his mind. And only by pretending to be a soldier could the protagonist of ZBYHOŇ save the maiden!

EW: Und noch eine Sache - Anna hat den Satz gleich nach ihrem unzitierten Zitat auch nicht erwähnt: ‘Das schattenhafte und oberflächliche Bild der tschechischen Literatur des Mittelalters von früherer Literaturgeschichte muss neu entworfen werden, und dies mit einem europäischen Hintergrund.’ (The Slavonic and East European Review Vol. 37, 1959)

And one more thing – Anna didn’t mention the sentence immediately following her uncited quote: “The shadowy and superficial picture of medieval Czech literature that appeared in older literary histories needs to be redrawn, and to be redrawn against a European background.” (The Slavonic and East European Review Vol. 37, 1959)

AH: Thinking about the forged documents more generally, they also have a lot in common with the modes of Boethius. Without proper recourse to look back, Boethius and Václav Hanka invented pasts of their own. And for quite some time, both ideated forms of mythology were not merely accepted, but celebrated.

EW: Und fangen Sie mir bitte nicht an mit diesem Boethischen Tonsystem, welches höchstens eine grobe Annäherung der verlorenen tiefsinnigen altgriechischen Musiktradition ist. Das, was Sie hören, ist nicht einmal die richtige Version dieses verfälschten Systems. Sie nimmt einfach: nimmt und zwängt es irgendwie in die Form.

And don’t get me started on these modes of Boethius, which at their best are gross approximations of a lost and profound ancient Greek musical tradition. What you’re hearing isn’t even the correct version of these false modes. She just takes; takes and molds into whatever fits the form.

AH: It’s not my bad if the organ clad narrator is averse to reason, which I have laid out swiftly and clearly here today.

EW: Nicht einmal diese Worte hat sie geschrieben, und wie hätte sie das machen sollen, wenn sie kein deutsch kann? Meaghan Burke hat die Übersetzung gemacht, und wir wissen alle was dabei verloren geht! Da ist der Boethius noch einmal…nur weil wir so furchtbar entkoppelt von unserer Vergangenheit sind, heißt es nicht dass wir einfach so eine willkürlich erfinden können! Aber bitte ˙hören sie nicht auf mich! Oder um Gottes Willen gar auf die Vernunft!

She didn’t even write these words, how could she when she doesn’t speak German?! Meaghan Burke translated them and we all know what gets lost in that process! It’s Boethius all over again…Just because we feel terribly unconnected to our past doesn’t mean that we can willy-nilly invent one! Don’t pay attention to me! Or goodness forbid, to reason!


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