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.

 

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