Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)

Born March 2, 1824 in Litomyšl, Bohemia (Austrian Empire).
Died May 12, 1884 in Prague.

Selections from Má vlast

Composed 1872-1879.

First complete performance: November 5, 1882 in Prague under Adolf Čech.

Vltava (Die Moldau) was composed in three weeks during November 1874 (November 20 to December 8, 1874) and premiered in Prague on April 4, 1875, under Adolf Čech

Sàrka, was completed on February 25, 1875 and was premiered on March 17, 1877.

Z Českých luhů a hájů was completed October 18, 1875 and was premiered on December 10, 1878.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp (Vltava), and strings.

Smetana moved to Prague as a young man to study music. He supported himself as piano teacher for the family of Count Leopold Thun. He unsuccessfully tried to found a music school and was equally unsuccessful at launching a concert career. He then took a teaching position in Göteborg, Sweden. In the early 1860s he moved back to Prague where the nationalist movement was growing, Vienna having rejected demands for basic rights from Bohemia. Upon his return he focused his works on the history, myths, legends and the countryside of his home country. His example was carried on into the 20th century by Antonin Dvorák, Leoš Janácek and Bohuslav Martinů.

He was appointed director of the Provisional Theater. Besides his administrative duties he began writing operas, of which the most well-known, The Bartered Bride made him famous. In 1872 he completed his opera Libuše based on the legend of her 8th century founding of Prague. During the composition he envisioned a series of tone poems. He soon began writing Vyšehrad which is a castle in Prague on the right bank of the Vtlava (Moldau) river which was the stronghold of the princess Libuše. This was followed by three more works: a tone painting of the river Vltava (better known by its German name Die Moldau), the legend of Šárka, and a depiction of the countryside in Zceskjàh lukûv a hájûr (From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests). With the success of these first four pieces written from 1874-5, Smetana added two further pieces to complete the cycle with Tábor (named after the city) in 1878 and Blaník in 1879

Having lost three of his young daughters as well as his wife, he was no stranger to personal tragedy. He lost his hearing on the night of October 19, 1874. On the last page of the score for Vtlava he wrote “composed in complete deafness.” Unfortunately things did not get better for Smetana. He eventually became insane and died only a few weeks after being committed to the asylum.

Today’s concert will present three works from the suite.

Vltava (Die Moldau)

Šárka

Z Českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields)

Vltava (Die Moldau)

The vivid tone painting in this work has made it Smetana’s most well known and performed piece.

Smetana provides this description of this work:

The composition portrays the flow of the Vltava, beginning with the two initial small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, followed by the merger of the two creeks into a single stream, and the flow of the Vltava through groves and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, nymphs dance at night in the moonlight : castles, palaces and ruins perch proudly on nearby cliffs. The Vltava whirls in the St. John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe (Elbe).

We hear the two springs depicted by flutes and clarinets intertwining in perpetual motion. As the streams merge we hear the main river theme first in E minor then in major. This melody is based on a folk song that in turn was based on an early Baroque piece La Mantovana by Gasparo Zannetti. If it sounds familiar it is the basis of another folk song that was arranged by Moldavian Samuel Cohen which became the Israeli national anthem. The form of the work is a Rondo. This theme recurs between each episode.

Example 1. Vltava (Moldau) theme

The sections described above are marked in the score as well as a forest hunt where we hear horn calls, and a village wedding.

As we hear the river pass the Vyšehrad we hear its motif from the first piece (not on the program today), which occurs in each piece in the cycle in one form or another.

Šárka

The piece depicts the story of the girl Šárka, dealing with events in the “Maidens’ War” in seventh-century Bohemia. These events supposedly took place in a valley near Prague that now bears her name.

Smetana writes: “The title is not indicated to mean a locality but a plot, the legend of the girl Šárka . The composition opens with the portrayal of a furious girl who swears revenge on all males for her lover’s infidelity. From afar, we can hear the approach of Ctriad and his warriors, coming to subjugate and punish the young women. When still a distance off, they hear the cunning lament of the girl bound to a tree, and seeing her, Ctriad admires her beauty – becomes enamored of her, unties her, and Šárka uses a prepared potion to entertain Ctriad and his warriors, and to drink them down to sleep. At a hunting-horn signal responded to by girls hiding at a distance, the latter hasten to commit a sanguinary deed; the horror of mass slaughter, the viciousness of Šárka’s fulfilled revenge – that is the composition’s finale.”

The movement is a series of variations of the introductory theme which is itself based on the Vyšehrad motif (in inversion). This theme is Šárka’s raging monologue.

Example 2. Šárka’s rage

Smetana alternates between two types of setting: a portrayal of action and spoken dialog. After her initial fulminations we have an action scene. We hear a cavalry march for the first variation as Ctriad’s men approach from a distance. They have arrived when we hear a clarinet solo followed by a ‘cello solo. The second variation – Moderato, ma con calore (but with heat i.e. passion)- is the dialog between Šárka and Ctriad where he is drugged and falls for her. The third variation returns to an action setting which portrays the warrior’s drunken party. The party settles down as the warriors fall asleep (listen for the low C on the bassoons!). A short horn call lead to a reprise of the clarinet solo to begin the Molto Vivo-frenetico conclusion which combines these two methods: spoken dialog and action as the men are slaughtered.

From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields

Smetana writes “This is a general portrayal of one’s feelings at contemplating the Bohemian Countryside. From all sides there sounds a song full of warmth, both merry and melancholy, from groves and fields. The forest regions – in the French horn solos – and the cheerful lowlands along the Elbe, and other and other parts, all is sung here – Anyone can find anything he likes in the composition – the poet if free, but naturally he must follow the details of the composition.”

Entering the forest we hear long sustained phrase G minor in the brass while the woodwinds and strings are in constant motion. We come to a clearing and the motion continues in the lower strings as a G major melody appears in the woodwinds “as if a naïve peasant girl is going for a walk.” After a pause, an allegro fugato is introduced high in the strings portraying “the charm of being in the forest in the summer around noontime, with the sun at its apex.” Then a long cantando theme appears in the clarinets and horns as we enter the “shade of the woods.” We hear the fugato taking turns with the cantando. Finally we hear a stately full orchestra statement of the cantando theme.

Example 3. “stately” version of cantando theme

Then after a few halting hints, we are launched into a joyous allegro polka (actually related to the opening motif) which is “a harvest feast or a village feast in general.” The polka continues while we hear a reappearance of the “peasant girl theme” in the winds. A presto coda brings the work to an exuberant close.

Example 4. Polka theme

The cycle was dedicated to the city of Prague. The premiere of the entire cycle took place in 1882 and was a resounding critical and popular success.

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