Trio, Op. 5, No. 1, “Velvet Trio” (1999)
Michael A. Cooney (b. 1975)

The Velvet Trio was written in reference to the Velvet Revolution that took place in Czechoslovakia in 1989. Having the good fortune to visit Prague in December of 1998, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of national pride from the people. I stayed in Prague Castle for a few days and soaked in the history of this amazing city.

Entitled The Golden City , which is a name given to the capital city of Prague, the first movement is a reflection of it’s history. There are many themes serving different purposes. One might reference the beauty of the city and the cultural diversity, while the next might make one think of soldiers marching. This movement is somewhat of a background for the rest of the piece.

Czechoslovak Road, the second movement, describes the communist occupation and the suppression of free-thinking and creativity. This is emphasized by ostinato in the piano. Being more free-flowing, the waltz section is harmonically stagnant which is meant to continue the overall feeling of oppression. At the conclusion of this movement, the open fifths in the last measure create an overall sense of ambiguity.

Movement three, 17 November, 1989, paints the “Velvet Revolution.” Again the ostinato figure in the piano is representing the communist stronghold on Czechoslovakia. Although the communist grip is fast weakening, the ostinato harks to soldiers’ footsteps. First heard in the violin, the main theme is the voice of the Czechoslovak people. It is a single voice heard over the ostinato, which is then answered by the cello and followed by their duet. The texture begins to fill with this ever-more present theme symbolizing the people uniting oppression. The piano eventually gives in and joins with this theme. Becoming more and more violent with a piano cadenza, the movement enters a subsequent octatonic section depicting the actual struggle for freedom. The victory of the Czech people is portrayed by the return to the key of E minor and the initial theme of the first movement. The reflective, final slow section represents the forever remaining torment burned in the city’s soul.

The “Velvet Revolution” – Historical Background

During the second half of the 1980s, the general situation in Czechoslovakia became more easygoing, especially after the introduction of Perestroika reforms in the then-Soviet Union. But the Czechoslovak leadership – still headed by Gustav Husak, who had assumed power after the Soviet Invasion of 1968 – was leery of movements intended to “reform communism from within” and continued to toe a hard line in Czechoslovakia, much to the chagrin of Mikhail Gorbacev. But by 1988 there were organized demonstrations demanding change – and just about one month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, communism in Czechoslovakia became a casualty as well.

The six-week period between November 17 and December 29, 1989, also known as the “Velvet Revolution” brought about the bloodless overthrow of the Czechoslovak communist regime. Almost immediately, rumors (which have never been proved) began to circulate that the impetus for the Velvet Revolution had come from a KGB provocateur sent by Gorbacev, who wanted reform rather than hardline communists in power. The theory goes that the popular demonstrations went farther than Gorbacev and the KGB had intended. In part because of this, the Czechs do not like the term “Velvet Revolution,” preferring to call what happened “the November Events” (Listopadove udalosti) or – sometimes – just “November” (Listopad). But we digress.

It all started on November 17, 1989 – fifty years to the day that Czech students had held a demonstration to protest the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. On this anniversary, students in the capital city of Prague were again protesting an oppressive regime.

The protest began as a legal rally to commemorate the death of Jan Opletal, but turned instead into a demonstration demanding democratic reforms. Riot police stopped the students (who were making their way from the Czech National Cemetery at Vysehrad to Wenceslas Square) halfway in their march, in Narodni trida. After a stand-off in which the students offered flowers to the riot police and showed no resistance, the police began beating the young demonstrators with night sticks. In all, at least 167 people were injured. One student was reportedly beaten to death, and – although this was later proved false – this rumor served to crystallize support for the students and their demands among the general public. In a severe blow to the communists’ morale, a number of workers’ unions immediately joined the students’ cause.

From Saturday, November 18, until the general strike of November 27, mass demonstrations took place in Prague, Bratislava, and elsewhere – and public discussions instead of performances were held in Czechoslovakia’ theaters. During one of these discussions, at the Cinoherni Klub theater on Sunday, November 19, the Civic Forum (OF) was established as the official “spokes group” for “the segment of the Czechoslovak public which is ever more critical of the policy of the present Czechoslovak leadership.”

The Civic Forum, led by the then-dissident Vaclav Havel, demanded the resignation of the Communist government, the release of prisoners of conscience, and investigations into the November 17 police action. A similar initiative – the Public Against Violence (VPN) – was born in Slovakia on November 20, 1989. Both of them were joined en masse by Czechoslovak citizens – from university students and staff to workers in factories and employees of other institutions. It took about 2 weeks for the nation’s media to begin broadcasting reports of what was really going on in Prague, and in the interim students traveled to cities and villages in the countryside to rally support outside the capital.

The leaders of the Communist regime were totally unprepared to deal with the popular unrest, even though communist regimes throughout the region had been wobbling and toppling around them for some time.

As the mass demonstrations continued – and more and more Czechoslovaks supported the general strikes that were called – an extraordinary session of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Central Committee was called. The Presidium of the Communist Party resigned, and a relatively unknown Party member, Karel Urbanek, was elected as the new Communist Party leader. The public rejected these cosmetic changes, which were intended to give the impression that the Communist Party was being reformed from within as it had been in 1968. The people’s dissatisfaction increased.

Massive demonstrations of almost 750,000 people at Letna Park in Prague on November 25 and 26, and the general strike on the 27th were devastating for the communist regime. Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec was forced to hold talks with the Civic Forum, which was led by still- dissident (soon to be President) Vaclav Havel. The Civic Forum presented a list of political demands at their second meeting with Adamec, who agreed to form a new coalition government, and to delete three articles – guaranteeing a leading role in political life for the Czechoslovak Communist Party and for the National Front, and mandating Marxist-Leninist education – from the Constitution. These amendments were unanimously approved by the communist parliament the next day, on November 29, 1989.

Well, the old saying that ‘if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile’ held true, and the communist capitulation led to increased demands on the part of the demonstrators. A new government was formed by Marian Calfa; it included just nine members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (several of whom actively cooperated with the Civic Forum); two members of the Czechoslovak Socialist Party; two members of the Czechoslovak People’s Party; and seven ministers with no party affiliation – all of latter were Civic Forum or Public Against Violence activists.

This new government was named by Czechoslovak President Gustav Husak on December 10. The same evening, he went on television to announce his resignation, and the Civic Forum cancelled a general strike which had been scheduled for the next day.

At the 19th joint session of the two houses of the Federal Assembly, Alexandr Dubcek – who had led the ill-fated Prague Spring movement in the 1960’s – was elected Speaker of the Federal Assembly. One day later, the parliament elected the Civic Forum’s leader, Vaclav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia.

Despite their many shortcomings – not the least of which were political inexperience and serious time pressures – the new government and parliament were able to fill in many of the most gaping gaps in the Czechoslovak legal framework – concentrating in particular on the areas of human rights and freedoms, private ownership, and business law. They were also able to lay the framework for the first free elections to be held in Czechoslovakia in more than 40 years.

The results of the 1990 local and parliamentary elections in Czechoslovakia, which were likened at the time to a referendum which posed the question “Communism, yes or no?” showed a sweeping victory for the soon to be extinct Civic Forum (OF) in the Czech Republic, and for the Public Against Violence (VPN) in Slovakia. In other words, “Communism, no thanks.”

The turnout for the local elections was more than 73 percent, and for Parliamentary elections more than 96 percent of the population went to the polls!

Czech Petr Pithart of the Civic Forum was elected as Czech Premier, Slovaks Vladimir Meciar and Marian Calfa, both of the Public Against Violence (VPN), were elected Slovak and Federal Premier, respectively. Vaclav Havel was re-elected as the Czechoslovak President on July 5, 1990.