Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) is remembered chiefly as a Czech nationalistic composer.
His nationalism expressed itself above all in his operas, but he also wrote symphonic tone poems after the example of Franz Liszt.
One of them, The Moldau, has become a beloved part of the international orchestral repertoire. He would probably not be happy that it’s known by that name. He called it Vltava
Ironically, his thoroughly middle-class family spoke exclusively German. Only peasants spoke Czech. His baptismal register records his first name as Friedrich.
He became serious about his Czech identity only in middle age. He first attempted to write a letter in Czech only in 1856, and his second only in 1860. In that letter he wrote,
I am not ashamed to reply to you in my mother tongue, however imperfectly, and am glad to be able to show that my fatherland means more to me than anything else.
From then on, he made improving his Czech a high priority. He knew his mission in life.
Smetana, the ardent Czech
The German-speaking Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled many ethnic groups, including the Czechs, with an iron hand.
These groups all wanted to become independent nations and independent cultures.
In fact, Smetana’s first taste of Czech nationalism came in the revolutionary year of 1848. He manned barricades against the Austrian army.
He wrote a patriotic song that year to a Czech text, even though he did not yet have any interest in learning the language.
German was not only the language of the Austrian overlords. It was also the dominant language of Central-European music.
Composers who wanted to create a national music first had to demonstrate competence in German forms. Only then could they get a serious hearing for their native music.
Smetana became friends with Franz Liszt, one of the earliest composers to suggest alternatives to German compositional techniques.
While visiting Liszt, he heard a conductor say that while many Czechs were gifted musicians, none composed original music. At that moment, Smetana knew his calling.
Smetana claimed to have created the Czech musical style. And unlike many other nationalistic composers, he did not limit his inspiration to indigenous folk music. Besides Liszt, he admired Chopin, Berlioz, Verdi, and Gounod among his non-German influences.
Smetana’s opera Libuše, first performed in 1872, concerned the foundation of the first Bohemian dynasty. (Bohemia is the largest historical Czech-speaking region.)
It ended with the queen’s declaration that the Czech nation would never perish. Smetana considered it his finest opera. Libuše’s nationalist appeal is so strong that the Nazis banned its performance.
At about the same time, he conceived a set of six tone poems, collectively called Má Vlast (My Fatherland).
Smetana composed Vyšehrad, the first piece in Má Vlast, in 1874 in tribute to a historic castle in Prague.
Shortly before he completed it, he began to go deaf.
His deafness didn’t leave him with a life without sound, however. He suffered from tinnitus, a persistent ringing in his ears.
Forced to give up his conducting positions, he turned his full attention to composition. He completed music much faster than before, until the tinnitus made concentration almost impossible.
Vltava, the second piece in Má Vlast, describes the historic river of that name. It is the longest river in Bohemia. A friend described his first visit to its headwaters:
Here he heard the gentle poetic song of the two rippling streams. He stood there deep in thought. Looking around the enchantingly lovely countryside he followed the otava (river), accompanying it in spirit to the spot where it joins the Vltava, and within him sounded the first chords of the two motives which intertwine, and increase, and later grow and swell into a mighty melodic stream.
Vltava has eight parts, played without a break. It begins with flutes suggesting the sound of the two streams. Other instruments join the texture until the strings state the calm and majestic river theme.
Smetana treats listeners to the sounds of hunters and a peasant wedding on Vltava’s banks before turning attention back to the river itself.
Besides the river theme, Smetana depicts both the calmness of the river in the moonlight and the excitement of its rapids. The river flows past Vyšehrad. So Smetana quotes its main theme before the Vltava empties into the Elbe at Mělník.
Given his efforts to create a music free of German dominance, it seems almost an insult to Smetana’s memory that his internationally most popular piece, Vltava, has become almost universally known by the German name for the river: Moldau.
Bedřich Smetana, The Moldau from Má Vlast (My Country) / Steve Ledbetter, Rockford Symphony Orchestra
Smetana, Bedřich / John Clapham, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London and Washington, 1980)
Smetana’s deafness and “The Moldau” / David Nelson, In Mozart’s Footsteps. October 30, 2011