1824 - 1884

Bedřich Smetana

Composer of The Moldau and The Bartered Bride, Smetana was an ardent nationalist whose music is still championed in the Czech Republic.

Vital Statistics

Born: March 2, 1824, Litomysl, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic)
Died: May 12, 1884, Prague
Nationality: Czech
Genre: Romantic
Performed as: Pianist, conductor
During the composer's lifetime: Bohemia is part of the Austrian Empire. But a Bohemian parliament (Diet) is established in Prague, in 1861. The “state rights program” — which led to the Czech independence movement — became the goal of Czech liberals.

Biographical Outline

  • Youth, 1824-1843: The son of a well-to-do master brewer, Smetana is given a good education, including music. When he abandons high school, he is dragged back by a schoolteacher cousin in Plzen, who sees to it that he graduates.
  •  Turning pro, 1843-1848: Smetana is hired as a music teacher to the children of Count Thun, while taking composition lessons in Prague. He departs the Thuns in 1847, for an unsuccessful concert tour. 
  • Marriage and the barricades, 1848-1851: In the year of revolutions, 1848, Smetana composes marches for the defenders of Prague. He joins the Citizens’ Army as Austrian troops approach to suppress rebellion, and fights at the barricades of the Charles Bridge. In the aftermath, he escapes prosecution and starts a piano institute in August 1848. With this financial stability, Smetana is able to marry. 
  • Battered by life’s struggles, 1852-1861: Despite the success of his school, Smetana is unrecognized as a composer and battered by tragedy. Three of his four daughters die (1854-1856) and his wife, Katerina, contracts tuberculosis, dying in 1859. In 1856, Smetana leaves Prague for the provincial town of Goteborg, Sweden, in search of opportunity. There, he opens up a music institute and a singing school for ladies and conducts the local amateur choral society. Visits to Liszt at Weimar help Smetana chart his new direction in composition, and he writes his first three symphonic poems. In 1860, he remarries. After two more attempts at a solo performing career, he returns to Prague. 
  • Emergence of the composer, 1862-1866: Following the semi-independence of Prague, in 1861, this long-time arts capital opens a new theater for Czech opera. Smetana writes The Brandenburgers in Bohemia (1863) for a competition, but by the time it wins the prize, three years later, it has already been produced, followed by The Bartered Bride (1866). Acutely aware that his education has been in German, Smetana takes Czech grammar lessons. Four years later, he earns the post of conductor of the Royal Provincial Czech Theater (the Provisional Theater, so-called because it was slated to be replaced by the permanent National Theater). 
  • The director, 1867-1874: Smetana presides over a period of experimentation at the new opera house, with a number of new Czech operas performed, including his own Dalibor (1868) and Libuse (1872). He is appointed artistic director in 1872, but has to resign, as he goes deaf within a few months in 1874.
  •  A new spring, 1874-1882: Smetana receives a pension from the theater and moves his household into the country to live with his oldest daughter, to reduce expenses. This proves a blessing, as he is able to compose undisturbed for the first time in his life. A string of masterpieces flows from his pen — the cycle of symphonic poems Ma Vlast (My homeland), the string quartet From My Life, choral works, a song cycle, and three operas. Libuse is first performed at the opening of the permanent National Theater, in 1881. Other national honors and recognition finally come. 
  • Final illness 1882-1884: By 1882, the deterioration of Smetana’s mind, probably due to syphilis, is evident. Eventually, with his family unable to care for him any longer, he is removed to a mental asylum, in April 1884. He dies three weeks later.

Fun Facts

  • Hard head: Although he was short and physically weak, Smetana was extremely determined, stubborn, and unyielding. He was determined to be successful, and some of his early compositions, such as the “Triumphal Symphony,” written for the marriage of the Austrian emperor, were transparent bids for recognition. But in later works, his native stubbornness allowed him to go his own way at a time when “national style” was a topic of hot debate.
  •  A little help from his friends: In 1872, when Smetana was nominated for promotion to artistic director of the National Theater, it took a petition from friends and fellow artists to secure him the post. His operas had been tagged by a few critics as “Wagnerian” (and therefore too German). 
  • Hometown hero: Smetana is a huge culture hero in the Czech Republic. The main tune of his symphonic poem, Vltava, is regularly broadcast over the public address system in Prague’s main rail station. His operas, rarely performed outside of that country, are regularly revived at the National Theater: In the two years 2010-2011, that theater has done The Bartered Bride 14 times, and revived Libuse, as well. This must be due to Smetana’s political nationalism and founding father status, because he’s not even close to the most famous or often-performed Czech-born composer, Antonín Dvořák. 
  • Getting his name on things: Prague has a Smetana Museum, which also houses an archive. ’It’s in a large, visible building right on the Vltava River; outside is a recreational embankment also named for the composer.

Recommended Biography

  • If you really need a book-length Smetana biography in English, try to find John Clapham’s 1972 entry in the Master Musicians series, Smetana (J.M. Dent and Sons, long out of print). But you’re probably better off with Wikipedia. Most of the studies of Smetana, predictably, are in Czech.

Explore the Music

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.

Recommended Websites

Moldau Moldau (Piano Solo). By Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884). Schott. 26 pages. Schott Music #ED4345. Published by Schott Music (HL.49004817)

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Aus Der Heimat look inside Aus Der Heimat (From The Native Country). By Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884). For violin and piano. Classical Period. Difficulty: medium. Set of performance parts (includes separate pull-out violin part). Solo part and piano accompaniment. 23 pages. Published by Edition Peters (PE.P02634)

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