Poems for All Nations: Part IV

This week, Caroline Bennett concludes her four part research paper on the symphonic poem cycle Ma Vlást composed by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana.

Vyšehrad
Vyšehrad

The premiere performance of all six symphonic poems in Ma Vlást was on November 5, 1882, in Prague. It was conducted by a close friend and associate of Smetana’s, Adolf Čech.[1] The premiere of Ma Vlást came at an opportune time, as Czech nationalism was gaining momentum with each passing year. In addition, Smetana’s audience was becoming more accustomed to and accepting of his Wagner-like sound and thus enthusiastically applauded the richly textured and beautifully orchestrated Ma Vlást. Though Smetana could not hear the performance, he was extremely pleased by both the attitude of the orchestra as well as the approval of the audience. He wrote to Čech shortly after that:

Adolf Cech
Adolf Čech

“I saw that the achievements of the players were realizing my dreams to perfection and that you were leading them…You gave me back my confidence that the mysterious sounds in the innermost depths of my heart will again make themselves heard.”[2]

Smetana was not the only critical listener pleased by Ma Vlást. Eduard Hanslick, a prominent music critic, was also delighted by Smetana’s ode to Czech life and culture. This is rather surprising since Hanslick, although a Czech, was very much a German nationalist. Accordingly, in his review, Hanslick twisted Smetana’s purpose for the piece to be nationalistic to Germany through constant references to German writings or people.[3] Hanslick recognized that Smetana was attempting to inspire his Czech audience to be patriots, but did his best to dismiss this important aspect of the piece.[4] As a result, Hanslick unintentionally revealed how poignant and applicable Ma Vlást is to people of all nationalities and ethnicities. The overarching story of the cycle—one of love for home and a desire for freedom—are themes that transcend time and space. In addition, all audiences have an appreciation for beauty, and it is clear throughout Ma Vlást, but especially in Vltava, that Smetana’s symphonic poem cycle is a masterpiece.

Without a doubt, Smetana was devoted to establishing and creating Czech music that could compare with the music of other European countries like Germany and France.[5] Czech musicologist Vladimir Helfert, however, notes that,

Smetana
Bedřich Smetana

“…Smetana is not a figure wholly limited by the boundaries of his own country. He belongs to the art of the whole world, for his works have worth for all humanity. His idea of nation and country does not rest upon mere jingoism or racial hatred, but on respect for the culture of others and on a positive and kindly love for all mankind. Here we come upon a trait which is deeply rooted in the Slavonic soul, as is shown by the names of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy: it was because Smetana loved mankind that he also loved his own nation.”[6]

Smetana was a well-rounded composer who was inspired by the music and society he experienced throughout his life, first through his study of the music fundamentals and later through his sojourn in Sweden. He desired to create distinctly Czech music, but was unafraid to use elements from other countries, as demonstrated by the main theme in Vltava. And though his main goal with Ma Vlást was to celebrate his beloved homeland and inspire other Czechs, Smetana understood that his music was not just to be appreciated by his countrymen, but also by audiences all over the world. Its beauty and power have ensured that Ma Vlást has become a staple in the classical music world, and promises to remain so for many years to come.

Footnotes

[1] Bartos, Letters, 267.

[2] Ibid., 268.

[3] David Brodbeck, “Hanslick’s Smetana and Hanslick’s Prague,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 134, no. 1 (2009): 29-30, accessed September 20, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40783129.

[4] Brodbeck, “Hanslick’s Smetana,” 27.

[5] John Clapham, “Smetana: A Century After,” The Musical Times 125, no. 1694 (April 1984), 4, accessed September 20, 2015, doi: 10.2307/963564.

[6] Helfert, “Bedřich Smetana,” 14-15.

Bibliography

Bartos, Frantisek. Bedřich Smetana: Letters and Reminiscences. Translated by Daphne Rusbridge. Prague: Artia, 1955.

Brodbeck, David. “Hanslick’s Smetana and Hanslick’s Prague.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 134, no. 1 (2009), 1-36. Accessed September 20, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40783129.

Brown, Jim. “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), 39-57. Accessed September 20, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41949039.

Clapham, John. “Bedřich Smetana.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980. xvii: 391-408.

———. Master Musician: Smetana. London: J. M. Dent & Sons LTD, 1972.

———. “Smetana: A Century After.” The Musical Times 125, no. 1694 (April 1984), 201-205. Accessed September 20, 2015. doi: 10.2307/963564.

Dowling, Maria. Czechoslovakia. London: Arnold, 2002.

G. A. “Review of Smetana by John Clapham.” Music & Letters 54, no. 1 (January 1973), 85-86. Accessed September 20, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/734179.

Helfert, Vladimir. “Bedřich Smetana.” The Slavonic Review 3, no. 7 (June 1924), 141-155. Accessed September 20, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4201826.

Large, Brian. Smetana. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970.

Newmarch, Rosa. The Music of Czechoslovakia. Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1942.

Smetana, Bedřich. “Vltava.” In Má Vlast. Leipzig: Eulenburg, 1914.

 

Counting Every Word

Scrutinizing my computer screen, I read another sentence aloud.  I heaved a sigh.  None of the words seemed superfluous; I felt like I had trimmed off every spare word I could without weakening my essay.  I continued reading the paper, wondering how I was ever going to get my word count below my professor’s limit of 500 words.

Picture me at ten or eleven o’ clock at night going through this exact same routine once a week for eight weeks, and you will have an idea of my experiences while taking a course on American history this past spring.  I have a problem most students would envy.  I struggle with word count rules, not because I have trouble reaching the minimum, but because I always overshoot the mark—usually by a lot.  No matter how much I curbed myself as I typed my rough drafts, I always had too many thoughts, too much supporting material, and too many quotes I wanted to include.  Most of the essays were about American war novels, each of which was full of important and interesting information that I felt I needed to mention if I was going to write a thorough paper.  I also needed to include as much historical context and analysis as possible to satisfy my teacher.

While my professor’s word count rule felt constricting and chafed against my urge to write more, the limitation challenged me to become a better writer.  Because of this restriction, I had to make every word count, to reexamine how I organized my paper and structured my sentences.  I experienced what every child hates:  that frustrating time when your parents tell you, “Do it.  It’ll be good for you.”  Except this time, I was the one having to remind myself of the advantages of this word count rule while simultaneously becoming annoyed with it.  I was trying to see the bright side of the matter as I attempted to find another 20 words to excise.  Facing character-building challenges is so frustrating.

Character Building C&H

In the end, somehow, I always managed to chop the paper down to size without making it sound like Procrustes had gotten to it.  And now the ordeal is over, I am able to fully appreciate how it challenged me.  Writing those essays helped me spend my words wisely and more thoughtfully than I would have otherwise.  As I worked my paper down to 500 words, I felt like I was condensing it into something stronger, boiling out excess material and making it more potent in the process.  My success each time also encouraged and continues to encourage me, reminding me that I can overcome writing obstacles, even when they prove to be extremely challenging.

I have to admit that oftentimes as I worked on those history essays, I wished for 750 or 1000 words to work with.  (I’m guessing that desire was really strong on the papers that ended up 499 or exactly 500 words long).  However, as I think about that wish now, I can see the long paper being a different but equally demanding sort of challenge as the short one.  Would the paper have been as powerful?  Would I have wasted time and ink on insignificant words, quotes, or ideas?  Would I have been able to make every word count in that long of a paper?  Perhaps that should be my next challenge.  Maybe we writers would all benefit from counting every word.

A Voice for Modern Times

Introduction

Hailing from the same recording label as Beautiful Eulogy, Propaganda brings a frank conversational style to his discussion of a variety of issues. While analysis of our current social crises is driving many to socialism, nationalism, hateful sectionalism, and any number of other responses, Propaganda presents the issues in their true light–analyzing them not from the purely human-centric perspective, but under a perspective shaped by the Bible.

Content

Propaganda has released a number of albums over the past several years, many of which deal heavily with various issues in society. His latest album, Crooked, is much the same, but after watching events unfold over the past few years with more careful attention than before–riots, shootings, elections, transgender controversies, injustices–his latest songs have carried a weighty relevance for me that few musical albums have before. His song “It’s Complicated” addresses how multi-faceted and complicated people are, and how much greater the image we are made in is than the ones we try to create for ourselves:

We may scratch ourselves raw to erase the image we were made in
Smoke, snort, sex or drown out the silence
We may waste our life savings on makeovers
To try to rhinoplast our daddy’s nose away
But no nip, no tuck could cut away the sense of obligation
We are becoming what we are not
But what we are is inescapable
You are a masterpiece fighting to be a silly selfie with a hideous filter
You are heavens handmade calligraphy
Slumming it among papyrus fonts

The song “Crooked” addresses the injustices and the lack of compassion that has been shown to many in the African American community. However, while anyone can sing about the problems in the world, the Gospel never lets us despair. Similarly, Propaganda’s songs, while painfully honest at times, are incessantly upward-focused toward Christ–we are all sinners in need of the same Savior. Whenever an artist goes to the source–to Christ’s goodness and man’s sinfulness–only then can a real, constructive, healing dialogue begin. This is something that Propaganda does well–seeing beyond the surface level differences to the underlying issue that plagues us all.

Style

Having listened to a decent amount of rap over the years, Propaganda’s style has always struck me as being more on the, excuse the vulgarity, “wordy” end of the spectrum. While with some rap you can get lost in the rhythm and easily follow the lyrics, with Propaganda the words are much more forward and require constant attention. This is by no means detrimental, but does mean he should not be played as “background” music.

Conclusion

Whenever discussing social issues, the Gospel must be the linchpin of any discussion. Without it we simply become driven by anger and pain. Without Jesus we all become content with playing in the mud, not imagining the amazing vistas of possibility. Propaganda brings the Gospel with his music, and this makes every issue he tackles, no matter how difficult, horrendous, and muddy it may seem, one that points us back to the Great Physician. He is a much needed voice in modern times.

Why couldn’t you just hug me?
Look me in the eyes and tell me love is lovely
Ribbons in the sky that Stevie Wondie flung me
Sing lullabies to the son you brung me
But your eyes just won’t keep they mouth shut

[…]

I could tell the future, we’re a broken record
I’ma say something then I’m gon’ regret it
And you’ll put up a wall and I’ma try to wreck it
Love is not love if it’s never been tested

-Bear With Me

Our Fireworks

Listen up, folks, and you shall hear
Of the late-night fireworks that took place here,
On the Fourth of July, maybe 2002?
I didn’t bother to see if anyone knew
Or remembered that particular day and year.

Mom said to us, “Here’s the plan,
We’re going to Grandma’s for dinner tonight,
And, if she says you can,
If you wanna do fireworks, that’s all right –
Just be very careful, and don’t blow up your face,
I just read an article where that was the case,
Gruesome things happen when there’s explosives and fire,
Stop laughing, it’s not funny, the stakes are dire,
If I see you being careless, you’ll feel my ire,”

Or something like that, but we didn’t care,
For, at Grandma’s, something caused us to stare.
As my brother and I walked onto the porch,
Our aunt arrived, and with a lurch,
Placed a huge package on the ground.
Peeking forward, there we found,
A mountain of fireworks, pound upon pound,
Whose grand power was magnified
By the vibrant illustrations on the side.

But we still had to eat, and it was still light,
So we wandered, watching eagerly,
As the sun slipped down most meagerly.
For, to us kids, the dinner was a bore,
Waiting and waiting with all our might,
‘Til at last, Mom said, most agreeably
“Y’all can go now” – and we were out the door.

We opened the package our aunt had brought,
And there was the cornucopia of dreams.
There black cats lay in reams and reams,
And fountains beyond our wildest thought.
Smoke bombs in pink and blue and red,
Enough sparklers to keep a festival fed,
And spinners and candles and parachutes,
And novelty tanks the size of little troops,
And, one giant bottle rocket, last,
That we were sure would give such a blast
One loud enough to wake the dead
And brighten up the shadowy night
Enough to rival the moon’s light.
A sparkling flower that would fly
Up, up, up, high into the sky.

So we dived right in, and with matches we lit
The fuse of many a cracker that eve,
As screamers buzzed over and into the tree,
And a fountain exploded in an angry fit.
That wasn’t all! In the gloom of the night,
Who knows how many sparklers we did light?
Black cats exploded with all their might,
And candles combusted for all to see.
But the best we did with the novelty tanks,
As we lined them up, rank upon rank,
Just on the edge of an ant pile grand,
And set them in motion, and watched them sputter,
As forward they began to putter,
Shooting sparks into the ant-filled sand.

It must have been ten by the living room clocks,
When we called the family to come outside.
Onto the porch they filed and stared,
As the giant rocket we prepared,
And since they refused to put on shoes over socks,
Or leave the coziness of the rocking chair,
Do you think they saw it at all,
When the rocket exploded high in the air?
Or the little pink crystals softly fall?

Nope.

Yet, through the evening we fired on,
Every last candle and spinner and spark.
We heard every last black cat bark,
Until every single one of them was gone.
No more crack in the darkness, or pop in the night,
No more echoing, shimmering light.
But, borne on on the night-wind of the past,
Through all of my memory, down to the last,
In the hour of darkness and laughter that is free,
I will remember, though now it is gone,
That box of fireworks that once I did see,
And the July Fourth Fireworks that once shone.