Bedrich Smetana

Composition Types

Biography

Born: Mar 2, 1824; Czech Republic   Died: May 12, 1884; Czech Republic   Period: Romantic
Bedrich Smetana was one of the great composers of his country's history and one of the leaders of the movement toward musical nationalism. His father was a violin teacher who gave Bedrich his first lessons and referred him to keyboard, harmony, and composition lessons when the boy requested them. His father tried to get Bedrich to apply himself in academics, but Bedrich was too focused on music to be a good student.

Bedrich Kittl, director Read more of the Prague Conservatory, in 1844 found Smetana a job as a music teacher to the family of Count Leopold Thun while continuing music studies. He remained with the count for three and a half years, but he quit to undertake a concert tour, which turned out to be a financial failure.

Franz Liszt aided Smetana in finding a publisher for some early piano music and in 1848, Smetana founded a successful piano school.

Although he established a strong local reputation as a pianist, his piano compositions (mostly lighter works) did not earn him any special distinction as a composer.

In 1860, the Austro-Hungarian Empire granted internal political autonomy to Bohemia. A movement began to search for a genuine Czech voice in arts, including the establishment of a national theater. In 1862-1863, Smetana composed The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, his first opera, which was a success at its premiere on January 5, 1866. His next opera was Prodaná nevesta (The Bartered Bride), his most famous and enduring opera today, but a failure when it premiered on May 30, 1866.

In 1866, Smetana became conductor of the Provisional Theater, re-forming its administration and attempting to raise standards. His next opera, Dalibor (1871), was criticized for its Wagnerian elements. He had also written Libuse, but could find no producer. But in 1874, he had a large success with a light, popular opera, The Two Widows.

However, a severe whistling in the ears (graphically depicted in his autobiographical string quartet From My Life) led to deafness by the end of that year, symptoms of tertiary syphilis. He continued to compose and wrote his orchestral masterpiece Má Vlast (My Country) from 1874 to 1879. Three more operas were premiered successfully, including Libuse, but the last was The Devil's Wall (1882). By now, Smetana was seriously ill. The brain damage from syphilis led to madness, and he was confined to an asylum where he died. National mourning was proclaimed and he was given a burial at the Vyshehrad, one of the national sites depicted in Má Vlast. Read less

Smetana: Complete Orchestral Works / Kuchar, Et Al
Release Date: 04/01/2008   Label: Brilliant Classics  
Catalog: 93634   Number of Discs: 3
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Dvorak, Smetana, Suk: Piano Trios / Sitkovetsky Trio
Release Date: 04/29/2014   Label: Bis  
Catalog: 2059   Number of Discs: 1
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Smetana: The Bartered Bride / Krombholc, Stratas, Kollo
Release Date:    Label: Eurodisc  
Catalog: 7795   Number of Discs: 2
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Smetana: Ma Vlast / Flor, Malaysian Philharmonic
Release Date: 01/25/2011   Label: Bis  
Catalog: 1805   Number of Discs: 1
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Janacek: String Quartets No 1 & 2; Smetana: String Quartet No  1 / Jerusalem Quartet
Release Date: 01/14/2014   Label: Harmonia Mundi  
Catalog: 902178   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: The Moldau

 

About This Work
The Moldau is the most popular six works comprising Bedrich Smetana's collection of symphonic poems assembled under the title Má Vlast (My Country). It is, in fact, one of the most widely performed symphonic poems ever written. Vltava is the Read more name of a river that runs through rural Czechoslovakia and Prague. Moldau is its German name and has come to be the preferred title for this piece, not least because Smetana himself was a German-speaking Czech. The Moldau was chronologically the second of the six works in Má Vlast. During its composition, the composer was plagued by severe headaches, symptoms of a condition that would cause him to go completely deaf in October 1874. Smetana had found his walks along the shores of the Moldau a source of compositional inspiration and thus decided to include a portrait of it in this series, which he began in 1872 with Vysehrad. He gave The Moldau a sort of Rondo structure and divided it into eight continuous sections. A pair of swirling flutes opens the work to represent the two sources (springs) of the Moldau, and then energetic clarinets soon join them before the famous main theme is presented. Played by the strings overtop busily swirling harmonies, this melody has a Czech folk-like character in its serene, proud character, and represents the Moldau River. Oddly, research supports the view that the source of this theme is a Swedish folk song, Ack, Värmland du sköna. After some development of the river theme, there follows the "Forest Hunt," wherein horns and trumpets impart a triumphant sense to the music. Another but quite lively and joyous folk-ish theme then depicts a "Peasant Wedding" celebration. "Moonlight: Dance of the Water Nymphs" ensues, bringing instrumentation of delicate textures and music of nocturnal serenity. The main theme briefly returns before "The Rapids," a lively, powerful section in some ways corresponding to the "Thunderstorm" in Beethoven's Symphony No. 6. Again, the river theme returns, but soon yields to the Vysehrad, wherein Smetana quotes the main theme from the set's first symphonic poem. This grandiose section leads to what would be a quiet ending, but for the two boisterous chords that spring up to close the work. The Moldau typically has a duration of about 12 to 13 minutes.

-- Robert Cummings Read less

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