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Bedřich Smetana: Nationalist, Naturalist, Revolutionary

Antonin Dvořak may be considered the first Czech composer to achieve international fame, but it was Bedřich Smetana that blazed the trail for subsequent generations of Czech composers seeking to infuse their ethnic identity into their music. During his lifetime, Smetana’s designation as the “father of Czech music” was often far from guaranteed, but his most well-known works have stood the test of time and solidified that distinction. However, above all else, it was Smetana’s love of Nature and activist mentality that made him a fitting choice to include on the program of our recentconcert, "Take a Stand: A Concert for Climate Action.”

A Decidedly Czech Childhood

Smetana was born and raised in Bohemia, then an ethnically Czech province of the Austrian Empire. As such, his first language was German and his birth name was Friedrich—only as an adult would he fully embrace his Czech identity by learning to speak Czech fluently and changing his name to Bedřich (the Czech equivalent of Friedrich). Smetana’s upbringing was decidedly middle class, and his parents were both artistic types: His mother was a dancer, and his father was a well-to-do brewer and amateur violinist who played in a local string quartet. Smetana demonstrated a natural gift for music from a young age and learned to play piano and violin from his father. He gave his first public performance at age six and went on to write several simple compositions during his formative years. However, despite Smetana’s budding talent, his father initially dissuaded him from pursuing a career in music, which he viewed as more hobby than profession.

Revolutionary Rising

Smetana first moved to Prague for high school, where he befriended several key future leaders of the nascent Czech National Revival, an artistic and literary movement that would reject the Germanic cultural dominance of Bohemia’s Austrian overlords. Smetana’s time in the big city was cut short when his father recalled him to the countryside—the renegade young Smetana established a reputation for skipping class to go to the opera and local concerts—but after finishing his schooling, he returned to the capital in 1848, a pivotal year of revolutions across the Habsburg Empire. Smetana reunited with his liberal nationalist friends, even joining the barricade of the emblematic Charles Bridge during the populist Prague Uprising against the Austrian military. Although this impromptu revolt was ultimately quashed, Smetana avoided imprisonment and, like Giuseppe Verdi in Italy, began to use his compositional voice to musically advocate for Czech sovereignty.

Smetana became a prominent music educator and concert pianist in Prague, but he soon grew disenchanted with the city, where the Austrians once again ruled with an iron fist. Authoritarian repression of Czech culture, combined with the deaths of three of his daughters, spurred the despondent Smetana to expatriate to Sweden. He relocated to Gothenburg, where he worked as a conductor, performer, and teacher, but he nevertheless felt out of place in a small city he considered a bit too far off the beaten path. To assuage his depression, Smetana frequently traveled to Weimar, where he found a friend and mentor in renowned Hungarian composer and legendary pianist Franz Liszt. Liszt’s tutelage would revitalize Smetana’s spirits and revolutionize his entire musical worldview. After five years abroad, Smetana caught word of a renewed liberal climate in his homeland; reinvigorated and optimistic, he decided to return to Prague.

“My home has rooted itself into my heart so much that only there do I find real contentment. It is to this that I will sacrifice myself.”

Although he was not without his critics—opponents claimed Smetana’s friendship with Liszt and his admiration of Wagner and Berlioz made his progressive style too avant-garde and too German—Smetana stuck to his guns and carved out a niche as a composer whose voice was uniquely and quintessentially Czech. Just as Liszt’s Hungarian heritage permeated his compositions, Smetana drew inspiration from the folk music traditions of his native Bohemia, incorporating Slavic harmonies, boisterous rhythms, and raucous percussion into his scores. Notably, he is considered the progenitor of Czech-language opera, which was practically nonexistent as a genre until Smetana became its determined champion—his most famous is Prodaná nevěsta (more commonly referred to by its English title, The Bartered Bride), whose vigorous and rustic overture is often performed as a standalone work.

The Birth Of 'Má vlast'

The pinnacle of Smetana’s compositional career would not arrive until the final decade of his life. Tragically, he suffered from rapid onset hearing loss that began with painful earaches and tinnitus; he was forced to retire from his conducting post and within just a few months became completely deaf. Yet as with Beethoven before him, this late period characterized by total silence would yield his most creative and iconic works, including the epic symphonic cycle Má vlast, “My Fatherland,” a series of six quasi-Lisztian tone poems that serve as Smetana’s musical tribute to his beloved homeland. At around 75 minutes in duration, the full cycle is one of Smetana’s longest symphonic works—our concert features the second of the six tone poems, Vltava, (ironically) better known by its German name, Die Moldau.

This movement is a musical painting of the Vltava River’s winding 267-mile route across the Bohemian landscape towards Prague. A friend of Smetana’s describes the composer’s transcendent first encounter with the river on a trip to visit friends in the country:

“Great and unforgettable was the impression made on Smetana by our outing to Čenek’s sawmill in Hirschenstein, where the Křemelná joins the River Vydra. It was there that the first ideas for his majestic symphonic poem Vltava were born and took shape. 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.”

Die Moldau: Journey Through Bohemia

Our journey begins in the village of Chlum, where two springs, represented by a sinuous flute duet, converge to form the Vltava River. Here and throughout much of the piece, the score is marked “sempre ondeggiante,” “always undulating,” asking the strings to ebb and flow like rushing waves and lending a sense of constant movement to the piece. Interestingly, this earworm of a melody is not original! Some listeners may find it similar to the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, first set to music in 1888. The tune is actually much older, derived from a madrigal dating to 1600, La mantovana, attributed to Giuseppino del Biado. However, it is likely that Smetana’s melodic inspiration came from the remarkably similar Swedish folk song Ack Värmeland, du sköna, which he almost certainly heard sung during his five years in Gothenburg.

Vltava continues on its path through the Bohemian forest. We pass a party of hunters (represented by a rollicking horn quartet) returning from a successful outing and make our way to a peasant wedding, where partygoers dance a celebratory polka. The revelry fades as we move to a calm, glassy section of the river bathed in moonlight; ethereal strings shimmer as mythical sprites frolic and splash in the rippling water. One has to wonder if this moment of serene beauty inspired the younger Dvořak, who regularly played viola under Smetana’s baton in opera pits, to pen his opera Rusalka and its eponymous mermaid’s famous Song to the Moon.

Now the river begins to pick up pace, “[swirling] into the St. John’s Rapids” as indicated in Smetana’s annotations. We can picture the plight of a small boat caught in the current, tossed about in the churning water, narrowly avoiding craggy rocks and cascading cataracts. After our harrowing whitewater rafting adventure, Vltava widens and the main theme returns, now in the resplendent key of E major—we have finally arrived in Prague. The imposing fortress Vyšehrad dominates the skyline from its perch on the bluffs overlooking the river, which Smetana represents musically by hearkening back to the triumphant “castle motif” from Vyšehrad, the first tone poem in the cycle. Once home to the medieval Kings of Bohemia, Vyšehrad is now a public park and is also home to the cemetery where Smetana is interred. After the music reaches its climax, Vltava carries on undeterred into the distance. The music gradually fades as the river meanders away towards the town of Mělník, where it joins the Elbe River and reaches its terminus with a resolute conclusion.

A Modern Approach To Smetana

Bearing in mind what we know about Smetana—especially his admiration for Nature and his revolutionary spirit—we can conjecture that he would take a stand and do his part to protect the environment he loved so dearly. It is no coincidence that, like Prague, most of our world’s major cities sprang up along coastlines and waterways: Because civilizations lacked motorized transportation, access to aquatic thoroughfares became synonymous with commercial and financial success. Yet left unchecked, global industrialization has led to widespread pollution of our precious waterways—from the Passaic River in New Jersey to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—and climate change is wreaking havoc on our weather patterns, causing severe droughts and wildfires on the West Coast while the East Coast regularly floods due to major storms that are increasing in frequency and intensity.

In the spirit of Smetana, PROTESTRA urges you to embrace your inner activist and advocate for sound environmental policy and climate justice in your community! Please consult our Resource List for some easy ways that you can take action in your everyday life.

This blog post was written by Ian Vlahović, PROTESTRA Co-founder, Director of Operations & Board Chair.

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