This is the second installment in Caroline Bennett’s “Poems for All Nations” research paper on Bedřich Smetana.  To read part one, click here.

1200px-PragueCityscape
Prague, Czech Republic

Bedřich Smetana was born during this tumultuous period in Czech history, on the morning of March 2, 1824. Though he lived in Bohemia, Smetana was essentially raised as a German, and did not speak or write any Czech for much of his life.[1] Smetana’s father, Frantiŝek Smetana, recognized Bedřich’s musical talent from an early age and ensured that his son received an excellent musical education, beginning with the violin at the age of three.[2] By the time Bedřich Smetana was eight he was also playing the piano and singing in a church choir, as well as writing some basic compositions.[3] In order to further his education, Smetana first attended a school in Prague and then moved to the town of Plzeň. It was here that he won renown as an excellent pianist.

Josef Proksch
Josef Proksch

Though he flourished musically, Smetana’s academics suffered due to his busy performance schedule.[4] Smetana eventually chose to drop out of school and pursue a career in music, despite his father’s misgivings. Smetana recorded in his diary on January 23, 1843: “By the grace of God and with his help I shall one day be a Liszt in technique and a Mozart in composition.”[5] Smetana moved back to Prague but quickly realized that he would need more proper musical training if he was to succeed in such a thriving city. Thus, he enrolled in theory lessons with Josef Proksch, one of the finest musicians in Bohemia.[6] While studying with Proksch, Smetana learned how to analyze and imitate the works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, in addition to emulating more contemporary composers like Berlioz and Liszt.[7] Smetana dedicated himself to his studies with such tenacity that within three years he was ready to strike out on his own for good.[8] Smetana decided to give a brief concert tour in Europe before establishing his own music school in Prague.[9] He continued to devote himself to his compositions, and even wrote to Franz Liszt requesting his aid in publishing what he termed “a sketch.”[10]

 

Also during this time period, Smetana began displaying his patriotism: when rebellion broke out in Prague on June 11, 1848, Smetana quickly joined a corps and helped man the barricades.[11]

Gothenburgcity
Göteborg

The revolution was stifled like so many before, and Smetana decided to leave Prague for a while and go on a concert tour in Sweden. Though he intended for his visit to Sweden to be brief, he soon found that he was more sought after in Sweden than at home. He remained in Göteborg for many years, performing concerts, teaching piano and voice lessons,[12] and interacting with the social and musical life of the Swedes. It was during his sojourns away from Bohemia that Smetana heard the most recent works of Richard Wagner and fell in love with the way his music told stories and spoke to the emotions of audiences.[13]

 

Back home, the politics in the Czech lands were changing rapidly. The Austrian government was allowing more of Czech culture to surface, and there was suddenly a revived interest in the Czech language and arts.[14] Smetana quickly recognized an opportunity to establish himself further by developing a national music for Bohemia and the other Czech countries.  He returned to Prague for good in 1861. Smetana immediately set about writing operas in the Czech language to be performed in the newly-established Provisional Theatre.[15] Because of his recent exposure to a thriving musical society in Sweden, Smetana advocated the forming of music groups in and around Prague. He conducted an orchestra,[16] wrote many articles promoting Czech music, and composed for a variety of genres, including the first Czech national opera,[17] pieces for men’s chorus, overtures for puppet plays, and the like.[18] Early in his career Smetana had been indifferent to the fate of Czech culture; now its development and preservation was what he lived for each day.

Sadly, tragedy struck at this most prolific period of Smetana’s life. In 1874, as he was writing the first tone poem in the Ma Vlást collection, Smetana realized that he was losing his hearing.[19] By the end of the year he was completely deaf in both ears. He resigned his position as a conductor, and struggled to continue composing. Smetana’s frustration with his health often strained his relationships with his family and colleagues.[20] Nevertheless, his desire to write music and show his love for his homeland propelled him forward. He wrote to a friend in 1880, “I have tasted the bitterness of life in most abundant measure, as perhaps few others; but I have also experienced beautiful enchanting moments, yes, even sacred moments!”[21] Music was a constant source of joy to Smetana, and he continued his work as a musician until his death in 1884.

Vysehrad_as_seen_over_the_Vltava_from_Cisarska_louka
Vyšehrad

Smetana shares many of his joyful moments with audiences through Ma Vlást. It is both a touching and a thrilling piece, and like many of his compositions it is focused on the Czech lands. Immediately before beginning work on Ma Vlást, Smetana premiered another patriotic composition, the opera Libuše, which greatly influenced the writing of his symphonic poem cycle.[22] The setting for the opera is Vyšehrad, a rock that overlooks Prague, and the first tone poem Smetana wrote for Ma Vlást musically depicted Vyšehrad and the castle that looms over it. It took Smetana about seven years to write all of Ma Vlást, from approximately 1872 to 1879. Most of the movements were premiered separately: Vyšehrad (March 1875), Vlatva (April 1875), Ŝárka (1876 or 1877), From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields (October 1875), and both Tábor and Blaník in 1880. When he finally completed and performed all of the tone poems together as a single unit in 1882, his audience recognized that he had written a masterpiece. Ma Vlást is powerful on many levels, and Brian Large notes that it “penetrates the very roots of Czech national feeling by celebrating everything that is dear to the people, their legends, landscapes, history and the prophetic vision of their future.”[23] Smetana recounts ancient Czech legends through the movements Ŝárka, Tábor, and Blaník, its landscapes in Vlatva and From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, and history in Vyšehrad. Each of the movements reminds listeners of where the Czechs came from, and how throughout history they had fought for their homeland and freedom.

[1] Brian Large, Smetana (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 114.

[2] Ibid., 3-4.

[3] Ibid., 4-5.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Frantisek Bartos, Bedřich Smetana: Letters and Reminiscences, trans. Daphne Rusbridge  (Prague: Artia, 1955), 18.

[6] Large, Smetana, 24.

[7] Ibid., 37.

[8] Vladimir Helfert, “Bedřich Smetana,” The Slavonic Review 3, no. 7 (June 1924), 4, accessed September 20, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4201826.

[9] John Clapham, Master Musician: Smetana (London: J. M. Dent & Sons LTD, 1972), 20.

[10] Bartos, Letters, 25-26.

[11] Clapham, Smetana, 21.

[12] Ibid., 24, 26.

[13] Ibid., 28.

[14] Newmarch, Music of Czechoslovakia, 61.

[15] Clapham, Smetana, 31.

[16] Bartos, Letters, 105.

[17] Jim Brown, “The Role of Folk Consciousness in the Modern State: Its Efficacy, Use and  Abuse,” Storytelling, Self, Society 6, no. 1 Special Issue: Bhutan National Storytelling Conference (January-April 2010): 28, accessed September 20, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41949039.

[18] Clapham, Smetana, 33-34.

[19] Bartos, Letters, 150-151.

[20] G. A., “Review of Smetana by John Clapham,” Music & Letters 54, no. 1 (January 1973): 3-4, accessed September 20, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/734179.

[21] Bartos, Letters, 210.

[22] Large, Smetana, 262.

[23] Large, Smetana, 259.

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