In part three of her research paper about Czech composer Smetana and his work Ma Vlást, Caroline Bennett has at last reached my favorite part of the composition: the second movement known as Die Moldau.  If you’re just joining us, here are Part I and Part II of the paper.

Kniha "VLTAVA - Libor Sváček" - vydání 1., rok 2011
The Vltava (known in German as Die Moldau) River flows into the Elbe

The second movement of Ma Vlást is perhaps the most well-known of all. This is not only due to its intricate orchestration, but also because its subject is that of the Czechs’ most beloved river. Though commonly called by the German name Die Moldau, the Czech name of the river is the Vltava.[1] Smetana was likely inspired to write about the Vltava when he visited the Šumava valley in 1867, and saw the two streams that join and eventually become the sweeping river. A friend later wrote that it was there that Smetana “heard the gentle, poetic song of the two streams…and within him sounded the first two chords of the two motives which intertwine and increase and later grow and swell into a mighty melodic stream.”[2]

Without a doubt, Smetana composed effective motives for imitating the flow of water, but there is some dispute over what inspired the main melody of the piece, a rising and falling figure, often played by the strings, that symbolizes the Vltava. The melody bears a strong resemblance to the Swedish folksong “Ack Varmeland, du skona,” as well as to a plethora of central European folksongs.[3] Most striking, however, is its similarity to an Italian piece called “La Mantovana,” which also inspired the Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah.” It is impossible to know specifically which of these songs Smetana was thinking of as he wrote Vltava, but regardless, it reveals his familiarity with different musical cultures and his ability to adjust songs to create the perfect melody for his compositions.

Vyšehrad
Vyšehrad

Smetana’s genius for combining melody with story is demonstrated throughout Vltava. In the opening bars, Smetana uses the flutes to imitate the first source of the river by having them play fluttering upward passages. Soon after, the flutes are joined by the clarinets, representing the river’s second source with a downward moving figure.[4] After the main theme is introduced, indicating the joining of the two streams, Smetana depicts the river’s integration into daily Czech life by reflecting a series of images—forests, weddings in the countryside—through an ever changing key center. At first the entire orchestra can be heard, but slowly the volume dies away as instruments drop out. Just when it seems that the instruments will completely fade out, a lively dance is introduced by the strings, as a group of water-nymphs dance in the moonlight by the water.[5] Then, just as suddenly, the key changes to minor and the audience is immersed in only the moonlight and the flowing of the river as it passes by ruined castles from long ago. The echoes of horns are a reminder of the former glory of the castles. The horns crescendo as they reintroduce the main theme, and the instrumental parts divide, signaling that the river enters the St. Johns Rapids. Leaving the rapids behind, the flowing lines of the music return as the Vltava enters a broad stream. Smetana has the river pass by the towering castle Vyšehrad by introducing the “glory” theme previously heard in Vyšehrad.[6] Finally, the music dies away, much like it began, as the Vltava flows into the Elbe river.

[1] Brown, “Folk Consciousness,” 48.

[2] Clapham, Smetana, 108.

[3] Clapham, Smetana, 80.

[4] Ibid., 80.

[5] Bartos, Letters, 264.

[6] John Clapham, “Bedřich Smetana,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980), xvii: 399.

Photograph of Vltava and Elbe rivers from http://www.visitstrednicechy.cz/en/central-bohemia-the-central-elbe-and-melnik-areas/30/

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