What one expects to find on one's first visit to a Communist country is strongly influenced by what daily paper one reads, and so we all had different ideas as to what Czechoslovakia would be like. However I think we were all surprised to find how little the Communist influence was in evidence. The only obvious signs were the involved and rigorous checking of passports and visas on the border, and the fact that the only English newspaper available was the Morning Star.
Before we left we were told that Czech scenery was very similar to Switzerland. When we got there we were assured that there were very beautiful mountains somewhere where we weren't; however the scenery we saw was for the most part extremely boring. This was perhaps emphasised by the effect of the Czech tourist industry's comparative infancy; they tend to exaggerate wildly about their sights, and you are invariably disappointed when you see the actual thing. Nevertheless the architecture especially was often fascinating.
On arrival in Prague, after nearly two days' travelling, we were driven to an International Youth Centre which, visually, strongly resembled a prison. However its rules were reasonable, far laxer, for example, than the normal Youth Hostel, and our stay there was quite pleasant. All other accommodation was in hotels, which were, comparatively, superb. Once we were settled in, every effort was made to entertain us, we were taken on sight-seeing tours, excursions, and once even to the theatre. There were no concerts in this part of the holiday, but we rehearsed every day.
Saturday, August 27th, was one of the most hectic days I have ever experienced. We got up at 4.30, had breakfast, and missed our train to Brno. We caught the next train three hours later, and finally arrived at Brno at 1.00 p.m. We dashed to our hotel, ate about half a meal, and were rushed to a small hall where, without any sort of rehearsal, we gave a lecture-recital to an audience of Czech musicians, which included singers from the Brno Opera, Professors from the Brno Conservatoire, composers and conductors. This appreciative group received us warmly, and were fascinated by our style of singing, completely different from that of their own Children's Choirs. After this we went to the Beseda Hall and rehearsed our complete concert, to be given that evening, and including both secular and sacred items, and the third act of "Tales of Hoffmann", which, of course, we had produced at school at the end of last term. The stage was curtainless, and utterly dissimilar to the school stage; this made the rehearsal rather disorganised as far as the opera was concerned.
The actual concert started with the Brno Children's Choir, who were very good, though their singing style was almost the complete antithesis of ours. The rest of the concert was sung by the Monoux choir alone. The audience, which was huge and extremely attentive, seemed to like our sacred items, and was very impressed by the opera. And after the secular items, the last part of the concert, it simply went wild, we had to do two or three encores, and finally just walked out, too tired to do anything else, we had been singing on and off for about seven hours. After the concert we met the Brno Choir, who were very friendly, and gave us gifts. Eventually we somehow got back to the hotel and fell into our beds.
The following day we were taken on a guided tour of Brno. This fell very flat, since no transport was provided, we had to walk everywhere, and our guide knew nothing whatever about the town and in any case could not speak English. However during our stay in Brno other excursions and entertainments were organised, which were far more successful.
On arriving back in Prague we began to prepare for our open-air concert in the Ledeburg Gardens, beneath Prague Castle. This took the same form as the Brno concert, with, of course, the Prague Children's Choir taking the first part. We ended up, however, by singing with the Prague Choir two folk-songs, one Czech, one English. The audience did not seem to be as enthusiastic as before, but this may simply have been the effect of being in the open air. The concert was again very well sung, and we all enjoyed it tremendously.
The rest of our time in Prague was more or less our own, for buying presents and so on. On Friday, September 2nd, we left Prague to return to England.
Although we did only three concerts proper, this trip was vocally the most strenuous, and the most rewarding, so far. We rehearsed hard, and we sang wherever possible, giving, for example, an impromptu little recital whenever we happened to wander into some cathedral. We also recorded items for broadcasting on both Prague and Brno radio services. In most ways, in fact, this was the best trip the choir has had so far. The difficulties involved in arranging this trip were, of course, far greater even than the previous trips; Mr. Moffatt deserves the utmost praise for bringing it off while still retaining his sanity and good humour. This we willingly give him, together with our most grateful thanks. We fervently hope that next year's trip to Hungary will be as enjoyable as this year's was; we can wish for no more.
P. J. Freshney