Not many of Bedrich Smetana’s compositions are especially well known and as a composer he could not be said to have been particularly innovative or influential.
But in the Czech Republic, Che is regarded as something of a musical icon. He is known as the father of Czech music and yet Dvorak is by far the best known, and I suppose more important, composer – someone once said that Smetana created a Czech musical school and Dvorak made it popular.
These days in the Czech Republic Smetana is revered probably not so much because of the quality of his music but because he himself hoped that his work would be closely identified with Czech nationality.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, as modern nation-states emerged, music for many composers became a means of asserting their national identity. Before that, it’s probably true to say that music of the Baroque of Classical periods has a style that cannot be pinned down to one particular country. In time, though, musicians came to define themselves in terms of their nationalities as much as the genres in which they worked. And so we can think of Glinka and Russia, Sibelius and Finland, Copland and the United States, Vaughan Williams and England, de Falla and Spain and, the subject of today’s programme, Bedrich Smetana, the father of Czech music.
But how could someone so esteemed in his own country be so overshadowed by another composer, Dvorak, everywhere else? It’s even more puzzling given that throughout his lifetime Smetana himself was not universally accepted in his homeland.
Smetana was born in 1824 in a small Bohemian town 85 miles east of Prague, which at that time was controlled by Austria. German was the official language of Bohemia. It was the language used in Smetana’s household and Smetana himself was ignorant of correct Czech until relatively late in life. Bedrich showed an interest in music as a young child – his father, who was a brewer, played in a string quartet.
When Bedrich was six he gave a public performance as a pianist and he later went on to study both piano and violin. When he was 15 he went to Prague to study and after seeing a recital by Liszt determined that he would make music his career. He wrote that he wanted “to become a Mozart in composition and a Liszt in technique”.
The young Smetana did not enjoy his time in Prague. He was mocked for his country accent, he would miss classes and wander around the city looking for concerts, brass band recitals and so on to take in.
When his father discovered he was playing truant he sent the boy to live with his uncle in the sticks, where he enjoyed a brief romance with his cousin Louisa. And here’s a piece he wrote for her at the age of 16 – one of the earliest surviving works by Smetana. It's called the Lousina Polka.
Smetana was eventually given permission by his father to follow music as a career. Originally, his father wanted him to be a brewer like him, or maybe even a civil servant. Smetana returned to Prague to study music theory and composition and to begin a career as a composer. In time he landed a job as a music teacher to the family of a nobleman, Count Leopold Thun, and it was at his home that he met Robert and Clara Schumann.
The 1840s was a time of great political upheaval throughout Europe. At the time Bohemia was part of the Austrian Hapsburg empire. In 1848, much of the empire was subject to nationalist risings and Prague saw a rebellion of sorts in which people demanded greater political autonomy. Smetana got caught up in all this, joining what was called a Citizens’ Army, formed to defend Prague against attack. In June 1848 a Hapsburg army moved in to quell the rebellion and Smetana helped to man the barricades here, on the Charles Bridge.
The uprising was crushed but, with his nationalist dander up, Smetana fought on by writing patriotic music: marches dedicated to the Czech National Guard and a piece he called The Song of Freedom.
In 1848 he founded a piano school in Prague, and it became fashionable among supporters of Czech nationalism. He made money, married a young pianist, Katerina, and within six years had four daughters.
And then came personal tragedy. Three of his daughters died in infancy in quick succession, his wife contracted TB and opposition to the Austrian regime in Bohemia was not going well.
Smetana became disenchanted with life and, feeling underappreciated in his homeland, he went to Gothenburg in Sweden without his wife, becoming conductor of the society for classical choral music. Katerina died in 1859 and a year later Smetana remarried.
Let’s hear a piano piece he wrote while in Sweden. On the Seashore was inspired by the sound of waves lapping the shore near Gothenburg.
By now, Smetana was well known. He was touring Europe as a pianist and conductor, and his performances were being attended by royalty. He wrote a very nationalistic opera, The Brandenburgers of Bohemia, and, with his Czech language skills still very dodgy, he studied Czech grammar, making a point of writing and speaking in Czech every day. In truth, he plunged himself into the cultural revival of Bohemia. He wrote:
If we are gifted, it is our duty to work for the glory of our country.
I now want to jump in time a bit to let you hear some more music. From 1863-66 Smetana worked on a second opera, The Bartered Bride, a comedy which tells the story of how love conquers all despite the combined efforts of ambitious parents and a scheming marriage broker. This was Smetana’s attempt to create something that didn’t exist – a truly Czech opera genre. After Ma Vlast, the symphonic poem he wrote late in life and which is by far his most popular composition, The Bartered Bribe is Smetana’s best-known work. You are going to hear a piece from it called Dance of the Comedians, from Act 3.
The Bartered Bride wasn’t an immediate success. One press review described the opera as “no better than that of a 14-year-old boy”. Apparently, it was premiered on the hottest night of the year, it was the eve of the Austro-Prussian War with Bohemia under threat of invasion by Prussian troops, and the performance was poorly attended and lost money.
However, it came to be hailed as a turning point in Czech history. The opera had what some people thought of as an original, Czech musical style and it was the first Czech work to enter the international repertoire.
One thing about Smetana I should mention is that, despite his politics and the fact that he had founded what was in effect the Czech national opera house, there were those at the time who thought his work wasn’t Czech enough. He was frequently criticised for being too much like Wagner, for example. Smetana wrote nine operas in all, and many were criticised for what was called Wagnerism – they were defined for the continuous role they gave the orchestra and the building of an integrated musical drama rather than, as tended to happen in Italian opera for example, using an often wobbly melodrama to string together lyrical numbers. In fact, a feature of Smetana’s operas is that they lack big-hitting arias.
One person who was on Smetana’s side, however, was Dvorak. There was a certain degree of artistic competitiveness between the two composers but also some mutual respect. Smetana conducted and indeed premiered work by Dvorak and Dvorak appeared as violist in the first performance of Smetana’s string quartet, From My Life.
Smetana imagined this piece to be his intimate confession, a work depicting the course of his life, "... using four instruments speaking among themselves in something like a friendly circle."
The work is semi-autobiographical and consists of sketches of periods from Smetana's life, as is suggested by its subtitle, From My Life. Listen out for a prominent viola solo at the beginning of the first movement.
And now let’s hear the fourth and final movement. The end is almost resigned, with only a small ray of hope for a better future, though I will tell you more about that later.
Let’s have another piano piece now. This is another very nationalist piece called In Bohemia and it’s from a set he called Six Characteristic Pieces, Dreams, composed in 1875.
The next piece is from a set of six piano compositions called Album Leaves, and it is played by the Czech pianist Jitka Cechova.
The year 1876 saw the premiered of a Smetana opera called The Kiss. It is now the second most performed opera in Prague, after The Bartered Bride. It tells a somewhat awkward story of a rekindled romance and, as it’s about renewed love and hope it chimes perfectly with the spirit of Czech nationalism Smetana tapped into.
So let’s hear something from The Kiss. Nicole Car is singing that rare being, a strong aria by Smetana. It’s called Vendulka’s Lullaby and band you will hear is the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under Andrew Molino.
Soon, I will give over the rest of the programme to Smetana’s magnum opus, Ma Vlast, My Fatherland.
But before I do I thought I would tell you a wee story which shows the kind of thing that motivated him to write and champion patriotic music. In 1880 he wrote two duets for violin and piano written published under the title From My Homeland. They were the only pieces he wrote for this combination of instruments. Smetana asked that they be published with the title written in both Czech and German but the publishers absolutely refused to do so, and the music appeared only under the words "Aus der Heimat". Such things tend to lead to nationalism or patriotism.
Let’s hear the second movement of From My Homeland. It’s more complex and more varied than the first. And here Itzhak Perlman fairly rattles through it.
Now to Ma Vlast, My Fatherland, a set of six symphonic poems premiered in 1882.
I have already featured the best-known movement in another programme. Die Moldau is the second movement and is a favourite all over the world. In the Czech Republic it’s regarded as an alternative national anthem.It would be churlish of me not to feature,once again, what is probably the single best-known bit of music Smetana ever wrote.
I said From My Homeland, the violin and piano piece, was written in 1880. At the time Smetana was living with his daughter in some isolation in a hunting lodge. And he was completely deaf when he wrote it.
In late July 1874, Smetana felt dizzy while on a duck-hunting expedition. The hearing in his right ear began to fail. A few days later he returned home from a night at the opera, went to bed after mucking about at the piano for an hour or so, and woke up the next morning unable to hear anything but tinnitus, a constant roaring “like a mighty waterfall”, he said.
In fact, there was a sustained harmonic E in the fourth movement of From My Life, which you heard earlier, that represented the ringing in his ears that he experienced before he became completely deaf. You might remember the piece ending with a very definite air of resignation, reflecting the fact that Smetana was becoming resigned to his deafness.
He described the gradual, but rapid loss of his hearing in a letter of resignation to the director of the Royal Provincial Czech Theatre. Not long after the onset of tinnitus he was unable to distinguish individual sounds.
At the beginning of October he lost all hearing in his right ear, and on 20th October he found he was completely deaf. His treatment was based on being isolated from all sounds but was unsuccessful. It must have been dreadful for someone whose life was music.
Smetana had syphilis and for the remaining decade of his life he was never to hear again.
To some, he had become a national hero and though he was given a state pension he complained that he was consigned to poverty, not least because in return for the pension the government claimed all royalties from his work. But he persisted working, giving recitals and composing.
And he wrote Ma Vlast, a brilliant and powerful work that communicated his love of homeland.
As I said, it’s in six parts and it’s undoubtedly best known for the movement called Vltava, or Die Moldau, which in music portrays the biggest river in Bohemia from source to end.
The first movement is called Vysehrad, after the rocky bluff which overlooks Prague, where the Bohemian royal court was based in the eighth century. The cemetery on the hill, which I have visited, is where Smetana, Dvorak and other great Czechs are buried.
This movement opens with an unadorned harp and the music rises to evoke a bustle of activity, gleaming armour, war cries and celebration of victory. Let’s hear it now.
Other movements in Ma Vlast are Tabor, a musical portrait of Hussite warriors, 14th century religious zealots who defended their stronghold to the death; Sarka, the bloody tale of an Amazonian maiden who massacres the men who betrayed her; a movement called, in English, From Bohemia’s Meadows and Fields; and Blanik, the last movement.
After Ma Vlast was completed each movement was enthusiastically celebrated at individual premieres. The complete work was premiered in November 1882 before an ecstatic audience – and its composer, who couldn’t hear a single note.
Today, Ma Vlast is a hugely significant symbol of Czech nationalism. Czech conductors and ensembles simply have to include it in their repertoire. On 5th June 1939 the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Vaclav Talich played it at the National Theatre, in the heart of Nazi-occupied Prague.
The audience not only followed each movement with an ecstatic minute-long shouting ovation but broke into a communal outburst of the Czech national anthem at the end. It was an extraordinary and brave display of Czech nationalism.
As I said earlier, the last movement in Ma Vlast is Blanik, and it’s about the mountain where a huge army of knights, led by St Wenceslas, 10th century Duke of Bohemia, would sleep until the day they might be summoned to defend their homeland.
It ends with hints of the opening theme from the first movement, representing the triumph of a resurrected people and their future happiness and glory.
In 1948 the great Czech conductor Rafael Kubelík exiled himself from his homeland vowing not to return until it was liberated from Soviet rule. “I had lived through one form of bestial tyranny, Nazism,” he said, “as a matter of principle I was not going to live through another.”
In fact, he defected during a trip to Britain, where he had flown to conduct Don Giovanni with the Glyndebourne company at the Edinburgh Festival. He later became musical director of The Royal Opera, Covent Garden.
With the fall of communism during the Velvet Revolution of 1989 he accepted an invitation to return to his homeland to conduct the Czech Philharmonic playing Ma Vlast at the Prague Spring Festival. The concert was recorded live and it’s said a nation stood still to hear it.
Now, each year on 12th May, the anniversary of Smetana's death, the Prague Spring Festival is preceded by a gathering and ceremony at the composer's grave at Vysehrad. The festival then opens that evening with a performance of Ma Vlast in Smetana Hall at the Municipal House in Prague. The president of the republic attends, the national anthem is played and the concert is broadcast live across the nation. It's a big deal.
This, then, is Blanik, from Ma Vlast.
In 1879, Smetana had written to a friend, the Czech poet Jan Neruda, revealing fears of the onset of madness. By the winter of 1882–83 he was experiencing depression, insomnia, and hallucinations, together with giddiness, cramp and a temporary loss of speech. By the middle of February 1884 he had ceased to be coherent and was periodically violent. On 23rd April his family, unable to nurse him any longer, had him placed in an asylum in Prague, where he died on 12th May 1884.
Like Beethoven, he wrote some of his greatest work while being unable to hear a note. Like Schumann, he died a crazed madman in an asylum, the victim of syphilis.
Bedrich Smetana playlist
Each Spotify track has been chosen specifically; however, the corresponding YouTube videos may be performed by different orchestras.