COLUMBIA — Judith Mabary’s impression of Prague, when she arrived there 15 years ago, was that it was gray.
“The people themselves were gray,” she said, recalling drab clothes and joyless faces. Even the city was covered in a black grit that cities collect from decades of burning coal and the exhaust of countless cars navigating streets designed for horse carriages.
But as she spent her time in the city, studying Czech melodrama while working toward her doctorate in musicology, her impressions changed and she grew to love this city frozen in time.
Mabary’s love of the Czech Republic shows itself quietly now in her office in MU’s Fine Arts Building, in a pair of picture postcards taped to a metal cabinet in the corner and in the coffee mug that sits just above her keyboard on her desk. Her love of music, on the other hand, is overt: a rack of CDs occupies a wall, and music texts fill the bookshelves and sit in neat stacks on the desk.
Mabary is in her seventh year teaching music history courses, including general survey courses for sophomore music majors, graduate-level classes covering a specific musical era and a course to introduce journalism students to music. Her favorite, she said, is the survey course — “because of their level of enthusiasm when I get them hooked.”
She’s working on two chapters of a hoped-for book covering the life and works of Czech composer Vitezslava Kaprálová. Kaprálová died when she was only 25, leaving behind a collection of songs, orchestral music and piano works. Mabary is also working on a project for Routledge music covering the Czech choral music of the 19th century, and she hopes to make research trips to Prague to expand her dissertation into a book.
The appeal of Czech music encourages her continued studies into its various forms. The melodies appeal to her the most, “melodies that are profound in their simplicity,” she said, adding that many of the tunes were drawn from folk life.
“That I find very attractive, trying to merge the high art with the people themselves,” Mabary said.
Mabary’s origins are as elegantly simple as the music she loves. She began her musical studies as a girl growing up on a farm outside Doniphan, in southeastern Missouri. At 12, Mabary began piano lessons. She didn’t want to practice but felt responsible to do so because her parents were paying for it.
And despite not wanting to practice, when she entered Central Methodist University, she was a piano performance major. Later, she switched to vocal performance, attending MU for a master’s degree in the field — a time that included singing the coloratura soprano role of Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
While studying at the University of North Texas, she went to St. Louis for a conference hosted by Michael Beckerman, a scholar of Czech music then of Washington University. With his encouragement, she transferred there, earning a master’s degree in musicology and beginning her doctoral studies. Through Beckerman, Mabary, who had never left the United States, began traveling to Prague.
“That whole experience really opened up the world to me,” she said.
Mabary spent 10 months in Prague from 1993 to 1994, pouring through the National Theatre archives for information on the Czech melodrama, searching through the city’s libraries and meeting with scholars and composers. Czech melodrama is a style of chamber music for piano and reciter — there is no singing. Much of its text is taken from fairy tales or folk tales, but it can sometimes be political, depending on the cultural climate.
Prague was changing in ways both positive and negative. Because it was recently freed of Communist rule, foreign influences began to assert themselves while she was there. Suddenly McDonald’s, KFC’s and Little Caesars Pizzas were popping up in a city that is still prized for its medieval architecture.
There was a shift in the artistic culture of the city. Several orchestras that had been able to perform under the old regime had to disband. The Czech Socialists had been supportive of the arts, giving some performers more opportunities than were possible in this new era. Yet the end of the Communist regime also meant greater freedom for those who lived in the city.
Mabary described her life-expanding time in Prague as frightening at first. She had studied the Czech language at Indiana University over the summer but still felt anxious about going. But the people, despite her gray first impressions, were accommodating. Just knowing that she was trying made her OK in the eyes of most of the native speakers, she said.
She especially recalled one morning standing alone on the Charles Bridge, so often captured in photographs of Prague. Mist was everywhere, with ice a gleaming sheath on the trees — like something out of a fairy tale.
By then she had come to love the Czech capital.
“I felt very much at home there.”