Smetana – (Czech Music Series)




This term Matthew Taylor will be dealing in particular with differing aspects of five major Czech composers from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Chronologically, they are:-

Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) and the particular aspect will be the symphonic poems from the cycle, Ma Vlast.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) particularly concentrating on his string quartets but also a comparison between his sixth symphony with that of Brahms’ second.

Josef Suk (1874 – 1935). Here Matthew has singled out for study Suk’s Asrael symphony completed in 1906

Leos Janacek (1853-1928) once described by me, in my note on Taras Bulba, as a weirdo. The particular focus in this case will be on the operas, Jenufa and the Cunning Little Vixen

Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959). His symphonies were composed at annual intervals in America between 1941 and 1945 with one stray late comer in 1951. Matthew will also introduce us to Martinu’s second string quartet written in 1925 and which will be played at the halls by the Wihan Quartet.


Smetana, who was born in Bohemia, then forming part of the Hapsburg Empire, is said to be the first of the great Czech composers. Not quite so as there were several Bohemian composers, particularly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, whose names do not appear in concert programmes alongside their contemporary Austrian top notchers. What there is no doubt about is that Smetana gave the lead to the emergent Czech nationalist movement during the nineteenth century. Interestingly, Smetana was primarily a German speaking Czech and only took up advocacy of the Czech language in his thirties. Even later on, in one of his most famous works, Ma Vlast, the river Vltava was also accorded its German name of Moldau.

His father was a brewer on the estate of Count Waldstein – now there’s a name to link back to Beethoven. Smetana started playing the violin at the age of five and clearly had talent. His father was himself an amateur player when he had the time. He had had three marriages and eighteen children. Anyway, he did not entertain any thought of a son of his playing professionally. That was no job for a Czech boy when you could be a brewer.

In 1840 Smetana moved to Pilsen for his general education and here he met up again with Katerina Kolar with whom he used to play piano duets in his boyhood. The 19-year-old Smetana was smitten. At this time she was studying piano in Prague with a celebrated teacher, Josef Proksch. She managed to persuade him to accept the impoverished Smetana as a student in composition and theory, allowing him to defer payment until he could afford it. This brought Smetana to Prague where he got to know the Director of Prague Conservatoire. In turn, he recommended Smetana to Count Leopold Thun to be the resident music master and piano tutor to his family. Smetana was then able to combine his extended stays in the country with the family during the summer with periods in town attending the Prague social “season”.

To begin with his ambition was to be a virtuoso in the Lisztian manner but he began to make out as a composer with a strong personality of his own. His early piano pieces, bagatelles and impromptus, had a charm which contained his already recognizable stamp. In 1848 political unrest was leading to revolution throughout Europe and with the build up and turbulence Smetana began to feel ill at ease with service in the Thun household. He decided to set up his own music school in Prague.  He then sought financial help from a number of quarters including Liszt who gave Smetana his encouraging support including offering to find a publisher for Smetana’s music. With the outbreak of the 1848 uprisings (to which he felt passionately committed), Smetana left the employ of the Thun family and opened the music school. In the following year he and Katerina got married.

Unfortunately the music school did not turn out to be a financial success and Mr and Mrs Smetana, against a background of a number of childbirths only one of which survived infancy, were soon struggling. Smetana himself was getting known and admired, not only by Liszt but he also had met Berlioz and the Schumanns. Despite such hobnobbing, his music was not achieving a breakthrough in Prague. In 1855 Katerina began developing signs of consumption. With this and with the growing political difficulties in Prague he grabbed at a chance to move to Gothenberg to take up a conductorship which had been offered to him. He and Katerina moved there. Alas the climate was not kind and Katerina died in 1857. Smetana stayed on living in Sweden till 1861. It was during this Gothenberg period that he was to write his first symphonic poems, a musical form invented by Liszt. Richard III is very much Liszt influenced. Its dramatic character appears to reflect the drama of Shakespeare’s play although Smetana had in fact written the music before choosing his subject. Wallenstein’s Camp, was based on one of a trilogy of plays by Schiller. The setting was set in Pilsen, his old stamping ground, during the thirty years war. Haakon Jarl was based Norwegian history of the 10th century with fighting going on between Haakon and various people, all called Harald. A year after Katerina’’s death, Smetana married his brother’s sister in law, Bettina Ferdinandova but the marriage was not a happy one and Smetana sought other consolations over which we will draw a curtain..

In 1861 Smetana and Bettina returned to Prague which had returned to normal. Within a year of his arrival, the Provisional Theatre, dedicated to Czech language plays and operas, was opened, and Smetana became a leading light in the battle to establish it on a firm footing. This was achieved despite the fact that he had been a German speaker with considerable opposition from the conservative elements within Prague’s cultural society, who did not appreciate an ardent supporter of Wagner and Liszt, then arch-modernists, leading the way in Prague.

It was against this background that Smetana’s thoughts turned to creating musical dramas and orchestral pieces which celebrated the popular culture and history of the Czech people. There followed a series of operas, the first in 1863 being The Brandenburgers in Bohemia. This is a patriotic work which deals with Bohemia’s political history and a wholesale uprising. It was soon followed by The Bartered Bride, known by my friends in the orchestral pit at ENO as The Bastard Bride. Smetana had become the Theatre’s conductor, and things were looking up. The opera became such a runaway success that its position as the most popular Czech opera has remained unchallenged ever since. Smetana spent the rest of his life as an operatic composer trying to recreate this level of popular acclaim.

However, it was to music dramas that Smetana next turned and it is sad that these do not get sufficient performance in England. I would particularly recommend the next opera, Dalibor. It takes a more progressive musical stance. It has a plot reminiscent of Fidelio – hero locked up in prison and heroine planning his escape. Influenced by Wagner the work is based on leitmotifs but there is a greater melodic feel that only Czech music can produce. It was not well received but undaunted, he chose an equally ambitious political subject for his next opera, Libuše leading to the eventual triumph of the Czech people. Eight years passed before the first production and in the interim there were three further operas,The Two Widows (1874), a comedy, The Kiss (1876) and The Secret (1878), both inspired by stories set in the Bohemian countryside.

In 1874 Smetana began work on a cycle of symphonic poems to be entitled “Ma Vlast”, “My Country”. Effectively, having depicted his country in its many facets in his operas, he was about to do the same in his symphonic poems which he was to write over the next five years. During this period he began suffering from the physical disintegration caused by what was described as inherited syphilis, which was presumably a more respectable means of acquiring the disorder. Smetana realized he was going deaf and the incipient tinnitus was musically described in his string quartet “From My Life” with a long high pitched violin note interrupting the earlier joys. Ma Vlast finally consisted of six separate symphonic movements, the last two, Tabor and Blanik having been added later. Unlike the works written in Stockholm, these set about depicting various aspects of Bohemian history, geography, legend and dance. The best known, often played on its own, is the second, Vltava which, like the fourth, Bohemia’s Woods and Meadows, was issued separately in the days of 78 rpm records. However they are all best heard in context as part of the whole cycle. As Matthew will be analysing them, I will not attempt to do likewise but just make some passing comments.

The opening work is Vysherad, the name of a historic 10th century castle on a promontory overlooking the mouth of the Vltava river. It is much associated with legend. There is a cemetery there where the remains of Smetana and Dvorak are buried. The main theme of Vysherad is played at the start on two harps before being bandied round the orchestra. The importance of this theme becomes apparent as it appears in some, not all, the other works. For those who only know Vltava – it gets a daily performance on Classic FM – they may not realize that what sounds like a fanfare coda at the end is in fact the Vysherad theme denoting the river flowing past the castle towards the sea.

Vltava is a wonderful description of a river babbling at its source before flowing through the countryside, past peasants dancing, reaching a climax through its rapids until it flows majestically past Vysherad. The main theme of Vltava bears an uncanny resemblance to Hatikvah, the Zionist hymn of hope which became the Israeli national anthem. Co-incidence? I doubt it. Vltava is the same tune in the major to the minor of Hatikvah. Here is an abbreviated extract from one internet source:-

“The melody for Hatikvah derives from the La Mantovana, a 17th-century Italian song. Its earliest known appearance in print was in the del Biado’s collection of madrigals. Later known in early 17th-century Italy as “Ballo di Mantova” its melody gained wide currency in Renaissance Europe, and was also famously used by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana in his symphonic poem celebrating Bohemia, “Má vlast,” as “Vltava” (Die Moldau).”

The Zionist movement was born in Bohemia. The music for Hatikvah is said to have been written by one Shmuel Cohen in 1888. Either he was influenced by a common ancestor of Vltava or he had heard Vltava which had received its first performance in 1882 and thought “Now that’s the tune I’ve been waiting for”.

The third work of the cycle is Sarka who was an Amazon like figure of legend who was apart from being a feminist warrior was a misandrist who seduced her man before killing him. She must have been worth dying for.

Bohemias Woods and Meadows is a succession of themes developing from one to the other. It tells no story but is a combination of nature painting and country dancing.

The last two are both separate and linked. Tabor is based on the wars of the Protestant leader Jan Huss, who lived some hundred years before Luther. It starts with a statement of the Hussite hymn, “Ye who are the warriors of God”, used also by Dvorak in his overture, The Hussite. Its theme is like a Morse code tattoo. It is with this theme that Tabor ends with the tattoo as a question mark. It is immediately followed with exactly the same phrase for the opening of Blanik. There is even more symphonic development as it reaches a climax with the Hussite hymn combined with the Vysherad theme giving the whole cycle a feel of thematic cohesion.

Ma Vlast is a work of great national and emotional appeal. In particular it was Rafael Kubelik who conducted it with the Czech Philharmonic when the Nazis entered Prague in March 1939 and again when Kubelik returned to Prague in 1990 after the Velvet Revolution.

Smetana could not conduct Ma Vlast because of his disability. He went on to write the first act of the opera Viola in 1883, based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. However he suffered his final mental collapse in April 1884. In mid-May he died, as did Schumann, in an asylum.