Home » Uncategorized » Bedrich Smetana and “The Moldau”

Bedrich Smetana and “The Moldau”

Portrait of balding, bearded, bespectacled middle-aged man with solemn expression, wearing a bow tie and high-buttoned jacket

     Bedřich (Ger. Friedrich) Smetana (March 2, 1824 –May 12, 1884) was a Czech composer who pioneered the development of a musical style which became closely identified with his country’s aspirations to independent statehood and is thus widely regarded in his homeland as the father of Czech music. Smetana was born as Friedrich Smetana in Litomyšl, east of Prague near the traditional border between Bohemia and Moravia, then provinces of the Habsburg Empire. He was the third child, and first son, of František Smetana, brewer to Count Waldstein, and his third wife Barbora Lynková.  The elder Smetana, although uneducated, had a natural gift for music and was a competent violinist who played in a string quartet.   Bedřich was introduced to music by his father and in October of 1830, at the age of six, gave his first public performanceat a concert held in Litomyšl’s Philosophical Academy.  He played a piano arrangement of Auber’s overture to La muette de Portici.

     In 1831 the family moved to Jindřichův Hradec in the south of Bohemia where Smetana attended the local elementary school and later the gymnasium. He also studied violin and piano, discovering the works of Mozart and Beethoven, and began composing simple pieces of which one, a dance (Kvapiček, or “Little Galop”), survives in sketch form.  In 1835, František retired to a farm in the south-eastern region of Bohemia. There being no suitable local school, Smetana, with František’s approval, enrolled in 1839 at Prague’s Academic Grammar School under Josef Jungmann, a distinguished poet and linguist who was a leading figure in the movement for Czech national revival.  Finding Jungmann’s school uncongenial, Smetana soon began missing classes. He attended concerts, visited the opera, listened to military bands and joined an amateur string quartet for whom he composed simple pieces. After Liszt gave a series of piano recitals in the city, Smetana became convinced that he would find satisfaction only in a musical career. 

     However, all this ended when František discovered his son’s truancy, and removed him from the city, placing him temporarily with his uncle in Nové Město, where he enjoyed a brief romance with his cousin Louisa. He commemorated this in Louisa’s Polka, Smetana’s earliest complete composition that has survived.  An older cousin, Josef Smetana, a teacher at the Premonstratensian School in Plzeň (Pilsen), then offered to supervise the boy’s remaining schooling, and in the summer of 1840 Smetana departed for Plzeň and remained there until he completed his schooling in 1843. His skills as a pianist were in great demand at the town’s many soirées.  He composed several pieces, among which are two Quadrilles, a song duet,  an incomplete piano study for the left hand, and his first orchestral piece, a B-flat minuet.  In August 1843 Smetana again departed for Prague.  Lacking any formal musical training, he needed a teacher, and was introduced to Josef Proksch, head of the Prague Music Institute.   He also secured an appointment as music teacher to the family of a nobleman, Count Thun.

     For the next three years, besides teaching piano to the Thun children, Smetana studied theory and composition under Proksch. The works he composed in these years include songs, dances, bagatelles, impromptus, and the G minor Piano Sonata.   In June 1847, on resigning his position in the Thun household, Smetana set out on a tour of Western Bohemia, hoping to establish a reputation as a concert pianist.  When he returned to Prague, he made a living from private pupils and occasional appearances as an accompanist in chamber concerts.  He also began work on his first major orchestral work, the Overture in D major.  Early in 1848, Smetana wrote to Franz Liszt, whom he had not yet met, asking him to accept the dedication of a new piano work, Six Characteristic Pieces, and recommend it to a publisher.  Smetana was able to start a Piano Institute in late August 1848, with twelve students. In this time of relative financial stability Smetana married Kateřina Kolářová,, on  August 27, 1849. Four daughters were born to the couple between 1851 and 1855.

     In 1850, Smetana accepted the post of Court Pianist in Ferdinand’s establishment in Prague Castle.   He continued teaching in the Piano Institute, and devoted himself increasingly to composition. His works, mainly for the piano, included the three-part Wedding Scenes, some of the music of which was later used in The Bartered Bride.   He also wrote numerous short experimental pieces collected under the name Album Leaves, and a series of polkas.   During 1853–54 he worked on a major orchestral piece, the Triumphal Symphony, composed to commemorate the wedding of Emperor Franz Joseph.  In the years between 1854 and 1856 Smetana suffered a series of personal blows. In July of 1854 his second daughter, Gabriela, died of tuberculosis. A year later his eldest daughter Bedřiška, who at the age of four was showing signs of musical precocity, died of scarlet fever.   Smetana wrote his Piano Trio in G minor as a tribute to her memory.  Just after Bedřiška’s death a fourth daughter, Kateřina, had been born but she, too, died in June,1856. By this time Smetana’s wife Kateřina had also been diagnosed with tuberculosis.

     Smetana’s disenchantment with Prague was growing and he decided to seek success n Sweden, Smetana.   So on October 11, 1856, after writing to his parents that “Prague did not wish to acknowledge me, so I left it”, he departed for Gothenburg where opened a music school and became conductor of the Gothenburg Society for Classical Choral Music.   In 1858 he completed the symphonic poem Richard III, his first major orchestral composition since the Triumphal Symphony. He followed this with Wallenstein’s Camp, inspired by Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein drama trilogy, and began a third symphonic poem Hakon Jarl, based on the tragic drama by Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger.  Smetana also wrote two large-scale piano works: Macbeth and the Witches, and an Étude in C in the style of Liszt.

     Kateřina’s health gradually worsened and in the spring of 1859 failed completely. Homeward bound, she died at Dresden on April 19,1859.  Later that year he stayed with his younger brother Karel, and fell in love with Karel’s sister-in-law Barbora (Bettina) Ferdinandiová, sixteen years his junior. He proposed marriage, and the marriage took place the following year, on  July 10,1860, after which Smetana and his new wife returned to Sweden for a final season.  By 1861 Smetana was seeing prospects of a better future for Czech nationalism and culture.  Back in Prague, he conducted performances of Richard III and Wallenstein’s Camp in the Žofín Island concert hall in January 1862.  In 1861, it had been announced that a Provisional Theatre would be built in Prague, as a home for Czech opera.  Smetana saw this as an opportunity to write and stage opera that would reflect Czech national character.   In April 1863 he submitted a score, under the title of The Brandenburgers in Bohemia.  He also had become Chorus Master of the nationalistic Hlahol Choral Society soon after his return from Sweden, and he composed patriotic choruses for the Society such as The Three Riders and The Renegade were performed at concerts in early 1863.

     On January 5, 1866, The Brandenburgers was performed to an enthusiastic reception at the Provisional Theatre.  In July 1863, Smetana had received the libretto for a second opera, a light comedy entitled The Bartered Bride, which he composed during the next three years. Because of the success of The Brandenburgers, the management of the Provisional Theatre readily agreed to stage the new opera, which was premiered on May 30, 1866 in its original two-act version with spoken dialogue.   He finally achieved a long-standing ambition with an appointment as principal conductor of the Provisional Theatre.  On May 16, 1868, Smetana, representing Czech musicians, helped to lay the foundation stone for the future National Theatre and he wrote a Festive Overture for the occasion. That same evening Smetana’s third opera, Dalibor, was premièred at Prague’s New Town Theatre.

     By 1872 Smetana had completed his monumental fourth opera, Libuše, his most ambitious work to date, but was withholding its premiere for the future opening of the National Theatre.  Smetana composed his fifth opera, The Two Widows, between June 1873 and January 1874.  By the summer Smetana was ill; a throat infection was followed by a rash and an apparent blockage to the ears. By mid-August, unable to work, he transferred his duties to his deputy, Adolf Čech. A press announcement stated that Smetana had “become ill as a result of nervous strain caused by certain people recently.”  He had become totally deaf in his right ear, and in October lost all hearing in his left ear also, resulting in his subsequent resignation from the theatre.

     In worsening health, Smetana continued to compose. In June 1876 he, Bettina and their two daughters left Prague for Jabkenice, the home of his eldest daughter Žofie where, in tranquil surroundings, Smetana was able to work undisturbed.  Before leaving Prague he had begun a cycle of six symphonic poems, called Má vlast (“My Fatherland”), and had completed the first two, Vyšehrad and Vltava, which had both been performed in Prague during 1875. In Jabkenice Smetana composed four more movements, the complete cycle being first performed on  November 5,1882 under the baton of Adolf Čech.  Other major works composed in these years were the E minor String Quartet “From My Life,” a series of Czech dances for piano, several choral pieces. and three more operas: The Kiss, The Secret and The Devil’s Wall, all of which received their first performances between 1876 and 1882.  The long-delayed premiere of Smetana’s opera Libuše finally arrived when the National Theatre opened on June 11, 1881.

     In May 1882 The Bartered Bride was given its 100th performance, an unprecedented event in the history of Czech opera, and so popular that a repeat “100th performance” was staged.   A gala concert and banquet was arranged to honor Smetana’s 60th birthday in March 1884, but he was too ill to attend.  By the winter of 1882–83 he was experiencing depression, insomnia, and hallucinations, together with giddiness, cramp and a temporary loss of speech.  In 1883 he began writing a new symphonic suite, Prague Carnival, but could get no further than an Introduction and a Polonaise.  He also started a new opera, Viola, based on the character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but wrote only fragments as his mental state gradually deteriorated.   In October of 1883 his behavior at a private reception in Prague disturbed his friends.  By the middle of February, 1884, he had ceased to be coherent, and was periodically violent.  So, on April 23 his family, unable to nurse him any longer, removed him to the Kateřinky Lunatic Asylum in Prague, where he died on May 12, 1884.  The hospital registered the cause of death as senile dementia.

     Internationally Smetana is best known for his opera The Bartered Bride, for the symphonic cycle Má vlast (“My Fatherland”), which portrays the history, legends, and landscape of the composer’s native land, and for his First String Quartet From My Life.  Some of Smetana’s music in my collection includes the following:

                The Bartered Bride: Overture and Dances.   

                Blanik. 

                From Bohemia’s Fields and Meadows.                  

                Libusa: Overture. 

                The Moldau (Vlatava). 

                Sarka. 

                String Quartet No. 1 in em, From My Life. 

                Tabor. 

                Vysehrad.

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