Although he’s known as a “nationalist” composer, the biggest outside influence on Smetana’s style was probably Franz Liszt. Smetana’s tone poems came out of his meeting with the Hungarian great, and the “progressive” elements of his style (like deriving all melody elements of a composition from a single theme) are more Lisztian than Wagnerian. Smetana had a good head for melody, and he did use Czech dances in his music, but he was really a mainstream Romantic composer, who came from one of the longtime centers of the European musical tradition.
- Find the “folk”: You’ll discover a lot less folk traditional music in Smetana than you might suppose. But he loved dancing, and the available printed collections of Czech dances, both composed and traditional, had a big effect on his music. Polkas, the most popular genre at the time, are prominent. The dances from The Bartered Bride are among the most played of Smetana’s pieces.
- Down to the river: The cycle of symphonic poems titled Ma vlast (My country) is from the late, great period, and is the music that has done the most traveling, especially Vltava, named for the river on whose banks Prague is built. The famous piece begins with little murmurings in the woodwinds that gradually build to a grand statement of the main theme, representing the broad river as it flows through the capital.
- A life in music: Smetana rarely used his life experiences as a subject of compositions, so his First String Quartet, “From My Life,” is especially interesting. It is one of the few string quartets with a program or storyline.