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Smetana, Bedřich

  • MusicCzech
  • Author:
    Campo-Bowen, Christopher
  • Title:
    Smetana, Bedřich
  • Text:

    Bedřich Smetana (Litomysl 1824 – Prague 1884; birth name: Friedrich) was born into a trading family and during his school days encountered Karel Havliček and Josef Jungmann. He studied music privately and became a music teacher to the children of the nationally-minded nobleman Count Thun. In his attempts to make his living as a performer and composer, he secured the patronage of Liszt in 1848, but struggled to find a secure institutional footing in the repressive official climate of the post-1848 years. He left Prague for Gothenburg in 1856, where he had some secured professional standing but met with tragic setbacks in his private life. The opening of a concert venue in the more relaxed political climate post-1861 offered an opportunity to return; Smetana responded by submitting his national-historical opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, which, though delayed in production, ultimately established his prominent, albeit never uncontested, position in Czech musical life. He became choirmaster of the Hlahol society and improved his – non-native – command of Czech, and in his further operative career was closely linked to the attempts to establish a National Theatre and Opera building. His opera Libuše premiered, again after a long production delay, to inaugurate the first National Theatre in 1881; after its partial destruction by fire he was linked to its reconstruction and re-inauguration in 1883. Plagued by ill health, he died in Prague in 1884.

    Although others had preceded him in setting Czech texts to music (witness František Škroup with his Singspiel Drateník, “The tinker”, 1826), it was Smetana who, through the quality and stylistic variety of his works, as well as his personal commitment to nationalist ideals, gained the mantle of creator of Czech music. He considered it his duty to create a national Czech style of music, especially through opera. However, unlike many other composers with similar ambitions, Smetana was adamant that folk-songs could not serve as a primary basis for a national musical style. Instead, Smetana wrote in a much more Pan-European, progressive style, influenced heavily by Liszt and Wagner. Smetana’s national position is linked mainly to his eight operas: Braniboři v Čechách (“The Brandenburgers in Bohemia”, 1866), Prodaná nevěsta (“The bartered bride”, 1866), Dalibor (1867), Libuše (1872), Dvě vdovy (“The two widows”, 1874, rev. 1878), Hubička (“The kiss”, 1876), Tajemství (“The secret”, 1878), and Čertova stěna (“The devil’s wall”, 1882). These operas, the bulk of Smetana’s output, vary in their connection to explicitly nationalist discourse. The national-historicist contest entry “The Brandenburgers in Bohemia” won first prize for its depiction of the 13th-century subject matter and served a nationalist popularization and glorification of the Czechs’ historical trials and heroism. Dalibor and Libuše were composed in this same vein, both referring to the mythic past of the Czech lands. An additional national overlay for Libuše was its twofold link to the opening of Prague’s National Theatre and its successor building in 1881 and 1883.

    “The Bartered Bride” was frequently referred to as the most national of all Czech operas, in part through critics’ claims that it represented the essence of village life in the Czech lands. Its highly popular examples of Czech dances, though stylized imitations of folk-dances, also allowed commentators to point out its connection to a Czech self-image. Smetana’s opera “The Kiss” was another opera primarily set in the context of a rural village, and Smetana termed the work a “national-folk” (prostonárodní) opera. Smetana’s other operas rely on less explicitly nationalist material: “The two widows” took its libretto from a Czech translation of a French conversation play, Les deux veuves. Nevertheless, because of their Czech-language librettos and Smetana’s widely recognized nationalist views, all his operas are to some extent viewed as nationalist.

    Internationally, Smetana’s reputation primarily rests on his cycle of tone poems entitled Má vlast (“My fatherland”, 1874-79), of which Vltava (known mainly by its German title, Die Moldau) is the most frequently performed. The cycle features six tone poems that draw their programmes from a combination of Czech geographical features and legends. They are: Vyšehrad (1874), which depicts bardic songs and courtly deeds at the ancient Czech stronghold of Vyšehrad; Vltava (1874), which follows the course of the river Vltava through the Czech lands; Šárka (1875), which was based on a Czech legend of a warrior maiden named Šárka who led a band of Amazon warriors; Z českých luhů a hájů (“From Bohemia’s woods and fields”, 1875), which evokes the Czech countryside, forests, and a village dance; Tábor (1878), the entirety of which is based on the monothematic development of the Hussite battle hymn Ktož jsú boží bojovníci (“Ye who are warriors of God”); and finally Blaník (1879), which depicts the legend of the mountain Blaník, under which the knights of St Wenceslas slumber until they are needed to defend the Czech lands in their direst hour.

    While each piece stands on its own as an independent symphonic poem, there is some thematic recall among the various works: the main theme of Vyšehrad, which represents the ancient fortress, recurs at the end of Vltava, representing the castle as the river flows by it on the outskirts of Prague. “Ye who are warriors of God” appears in both Tábor and Blaník. The Hussites and their history were hugely important for 19th-century Czech nationalists as a historical example of Czech resistance to outside oppression, and the use of their music was an obvious signal of sympathy to nationalist ideals. At the end of Blaník “Ye who are warriors of God” is combined with a recurrence of the Vyšehrad motif.  Thus the cycle combines landscape, legend, folk-life and historical references to evoke a holistic sense of Czechness.

    Word Count: 944

    Göteborg (SE)

    Prague (CZ)

    Litomyšl (CZ)

    Havliček Borovský, Karel

    Jungmann, Josef

    Liszt, Franz

    Škroup, František Jan

    Wagner, Richard

    Thun-Hohenstein, Leopold (Count)

    History-writing : Czech

    Oral literature : Czech

    Mythology : Czech

    National-classical music : Introductory survey essay

    National-classical music : Czech

  • Article version:
    1.1.1.1/a
  • Project credit:

    Part of the “Music and National Styles” project, funded
    by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences

    Word Count: 16

  • Beckerman, Michael; 1986. “In search of Czechness in music”, 19th-century music 10.1: 61-73

    Clapham, John; 1972. Smetana (London: J.M. Dent & Sons)

    Large, Brian; 1970. Smetana (New York, NY: Praeger)

    Ottlová, Marta, Milan Pospíšil; 1997. Bedřich Smetana a jeho doba (Prague: Knižnice Dějin a Současnosti) [“B.S. and his time”]

    St. Pierre, Kelly; 2013. “Smetana’s «Vyšehrad» and mythologies of Czechness in scholarship”, 19th century music 37.2: 91-112

    Taruskin, Richard; 2005. The Oxford history of Western music (vol. 4 New York, NY: Oxford UP)

    Tyrrell, John; 1988. Czech opera (New York, NY: Cambridge UP)


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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Campo-Bowen, Christopher, 2018. "Smetana, Bedřich", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version 1.1.1.1/a, last changed 12-09-2018, consulted 20-11-2018.