Smetana, Bedrich

views updated

Smetana, Bedřich

Smetana, Bedìich , great Bohemian composer; b. Leitomischl, March 2, 1824; d. Prague, May 12, 1884. His talent manifested itself very early, and although his father had misgivings about music as a profession, he taught his son violin; Bedřich also had piano lessons with a local teacher, making his first public appearance at the age of 6 (Oct. 14, 1830). After the family moved to Jindrichův Hradec in 1831, he studied with the organist František Ikavec; continued his academic studies in Jihlava and Německý Brod, then entered the Classical Grammar School in Prague in 1839; also had piano lessons with Jan Batka, and led a string quartet for which he composed several works. His lack of application to his academic studies led his father to send him to the gymnasium in Pilsen, but he soon devoted himself to giving concerts and composing. He met a friend of his school days there, Kateřina Kolářová, whom he followed to Prague in 1843; he was accepted as a theory pupil of Kolářová’s piano teacher, Josef Proksch, at the Music Inst. To pay for his lessons, Bedřich Kittl, director of the Prague Cons., recommended Smetana for the position of music teacher to the family of Count Leopold Thun. He took up his position in Jan. 1844, and for 3–½ years worked earnestly in the count’s service; also continued to study theory and to compose. Bent on making a name for himself as a concert pianist, Smetana left the count’s service in the summer of 1847 and planned a tour of Bohemia; however, his only concert in Pilsen proved a financial disaster, and he abandoned his tour and returned to Prague, where he eked out a meager existence. He wrote to Liszt, asking him to find a publisher for his op.l, the 6 Characteristic Pieces for piano; Liszt was impressed with the score, accepted Smetana’s dedication, and found a publisher. In 1848 Smetana established a successful piano school, and on Aug. 27, 1849, he married Kolářová. In 1850 he became court pianist to the abdicated Emperor Ferdinand. His reputation as a pianist, especially as an interpreter of Chopin, grew, but his compositions made little impression. The death of his children and the poor health of his wife (who had tuberculosis) affected him deeply; he set out for Sweden in 1856; gave a number of successful piano recitals in Göteborg, where he remained. He soon opened his own school, and also became active as a choral conductor. His wife joined him in 1857, but the cold climate exacerbated her condition; when her health declined, they decided to return to Prague (1859), but she died en route, in Dresden, on April 19, 1859. Stricken with grief, Smetana returned to Göteborg. Before his wife’s death, he had composed the symphonic poems Richard III and Valdštýnův tabor (Wallenstein’s Camp); he now began work on a third, Hakan Jarl. On July 10, 1860, he married Betty Ferdinandi, which proved an unhappy union. During Smetana’s sojourn in Sweden, Austria granted political autonomy to Bohemia (1860), and musicians and poets of the rising generation sought to establish an authentic Bohemian voice in the arts. Agitation for the erection of a national theater in Prague arose; although earlier attempts to write operas in a Bohemian vein had been made by such composers as František Škroup and Jiřì Macourek, their works were undistinguished. Smetana believed the time was ripe for him to make his mark in Prague, and he returned there in May 1861. However, when the Provisional Theater opened on Nov. 18, 1862, its administration proved sadly unimaginative, and Smetana contented himself with the conductorship of the Hlahol Choral Soc., teaching, and writing music criticism. In his articles he condemned the poor musical standards prevailing at the Provisional Theater. In 1862–63 he composed his first opera, Braniboři v Čechách (The Brandenburgers in Bohemia), conducting its successful premiere at the Provisional Theater on Jan. 5, 1866. His next opera, Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride), proved a failure at its premiere in Prague under his direction on May 30, 1866, but eventually it was accorded a niche in the operatic repertoire at home and abroad. Smetana became conductor of the Provisional Theater in 1866. He immediately set out to reform its administration and to raise its musical standards. For the cornerstone laying of the National Theater on May 16, 1868, he conducted the first performance of his tragic opera Dalibor, which was criticized as an attempt to Wagnerize the Bohemian national opera. In 1871, when there was talk of crowning Emperor Franz Josef as King of Bohemia, Smetana considered producing his opera Libuše for the festivities; however, no coronation took place and the work was withheld. Hoping for a popular success, he composed the comic opera Dvě vdovy (The 2 Widows), which proved to be just that at its premiere under his direction on March 27, 1874. Smetana’s success, however, was short-lived. By the autumn of 1874 he was deaf and had to resign as conductor of the Provisional Theater. In spite of the bitter years to follow, marked by increasingly poor health, family problems, and financial hardship, he continued to compose. Between 1874 and 1879 he produced his 6 orch. masterpieces collectively known as Má Vlast (My Country): Vyšehrad (referring to a rock over the river Vltava, near Prague, the traditional seat of the ancient kings of Bohemia), Vltava (The Moldau), Šárka (a wild valley, near Prague, depicting the legendary story of the maiden Sarka), Z Českych luhů a hàjů (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields), Tàbor (the medieval town in southern Bohemia, the seat of the Hussites, and thus the traditional symbol of freedom and religion; the work is based on the chorale Ye Who Are God’s Warriors), and Blanìk (the mountain that served as a place of refuge for the Hussites; the previously mentioned chorale serves as the foundation of the work). From 1876 dates his famous String Quartet in E minor, subtitled Z mèho života (From My Life), which he described as a “remembrance of my life and the catastrophe of complete deafness.” His opera Hubička (The Kiss) was successfully premiered in Prague on Nov. 7, 1876. It was followed by the opera Tajemstvi (The Secret), which was heard for the first time on Sept. 18, 1878. For the opening of the new National Theater in Prague on June 11, 1881, his opera Libuše was finally given its premiere performance. The ailing Smetana attended the opening night and was accorded sustained applause. His last opera, Čertova stěna (The Devil’s Wall), was a failure at its first hearing in Prague on Oct. 29, 1882. By this time Smetana’s health had been completely undermined by the ravages of syphilis, the cause of his deafness. His mind eventually gave way and he was confined to an asylum. At his death in 1884, the nation was plunged into a state of mourning. The funeral cortege passed the National Theater as Smetana was carried to his final resting place in the Vyšehrad cemetery.

Smetana was the founder of the Czech national school of composition, and it was through his efforts that Czech national opera came of age. The centenary of his death in 1984 was marked by numerous performances of his music in Czechoslovakia and a reaffirmation of his revered place in the history of his nation.


DRAMATIC: Opera (all first perf. in Prague): Braniboři v Čechách (The Brandenburgers in Bohemia; 1862–63; Jan. 5, 1866, composer conducting); Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride; 1863–66; May 30, 1866, composer conducting; 2 revs., 1869; final version, 1869–70; Sept. 25, 1870, composer conducting); Dalibor (1865–67; May 16, 1868, composer conducting; rev. 1870); Libuše (1869–72; June 11, 1881, A. Čech conducting); Dvě vdovy (The 2 Widows; March 27, 1874, composer conducting; final version, 1877; March 15, 1878, Čech conducting); Hubička (The Kiss; Nov. 7, 1876, Čech conducting); Tajemstvi (The Secret; Sept. 18, 1878, Čech conducting); Čertova stěna (The Devil’s Wall; 1879–82; Oct. 29, 1882, Čech conducting); Viola (sketches begun in 1874; fragment from 1883–84 only). ORCH.: Minuet (1842); Galop bajadérek (Bajader’s Galop; 1842); Pochod Pražké studentské legte (March for the Prague Students’ Legion; 1848; arranged for Military Band by J. Pavlis); Pochod Nàrodni gardy (March for the National Guard; 1848; arranged for Military Band by J. Pavlis); Polka (1849; later known as Našini devànt [To Our Girls]); Overture (1849); Prelude (1849; 3 unconnected fragments only); Frithjof (i857; unfinished fragment only); Slavnostni Symfonie (Festival or Triumphal Sym.; 1853–54; Prague, Feb. 26, 1855, composer conducting); Plavba vikingu (The Viking’s Voyage; 1857; unfinished fragment only); Richard III, symphonic poem after Shakespeare (1857–58; first perf. in an arrangement for 4 Pianos, Göteborg, April 24, 1860; first orch. perf., Prague, Jan. 5, 1862, composer conducting); Valdštýnuv tabor (Wallenstein’s Camp), symphonic poem after Schiller (1858–59); Hakon Jarl, symphonic poem after Oehlenschläger (1860–61; Prague, Feb. 24, 1864, composer conducting); Doktor Faust, prelude to a puppet play by M. Kopecký for Chamber Orch. (1862); Oldřich a Božena, prelude to a puppet play by M. Kopecký for Chamber Orch. (1863); Pochod k slavnosti Shakespearove (March for Shakespeare Festival; 1864); Fanfàry k Shakespearovu dramatu Richard III (Fanfares for Shakespeare’s Drama Richard III; 1867); Slavnostni predehra (Ceremonial Prelude; 1868); Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride), tableau vivant for Chamber Orch. (1869); Rybar (The Fisherman), tableau vivant after Goethe’s Der Fischar for Chamber Orch. (1869); Libušin soud (Libuše’s Judgment), tableau vivant for Chamber Orch. (1869); Divertissement na slovanské napevy (Divertissement on Slavonic Songs) for Solo Flugelhorn and Military Band (1869; not extant); Mà Vlast (My Country), cycle of 6 symphonic poems: 1, Vyšehrad (1872–74; Prague, March 14, 1875), 2, Vltava (The Moldau; 1874; Prague, April 4, 1875), 3, Šárka (1875; Prague, March 17, 1877), 4, Z Českych luhu a háju (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields; 1875; Prague, Dec. 10, 1876), 5, Tábor (1878; Prague, Jan. 4, 1880), and 6, Blanìk (1878–79; Prague, Jan. 4, 1880) (first complete perf. of the entire cycle, Prague, Nov. 5, 1882, Čech conducting); Venkovanka (The Peasant Woman), polka (1879); PražskÝ karneval (Prague Carnival), introduction and polonaise (1883; Prague, March 2, 1884); Grosse Sinfonie (1883–84; sketch for part of the first movement only). CHAMBER: Polka for String Quartet (1839–40; not extant); Osmanen Polka for String Quartet (1839–40; not extant); 3 string quartets: No 1 (1839–40; not extant), No. 1, Z mého života (From My Life; 1876), and No. 2 (1882–83); Waltz for String Quartet (1839–40; first violin part only extant); Overture for String Quartet (1839–40; not extant); Fantasia on motifs from Bellini’s Il Pirata for String Quartet (1840); Fantasia on Sil jsem proso (I Sowed Millet) for Violin and Piano (1842–43); Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello (1855; rev. 1857); Z domoviny, 2 duets for Violin and Piano (1880); also numerous piano pieces. choral: Jesu meine Freude, chorale (1846); Ich hoffe auf den Herrn, fugue (1846); Lobet den Herrn, introduction and fugue (1846); Heilig, Heilig, ist der Herr Zabaoth for Double Chorus (1846); Scapulis suis obumbrabit tibi Dominus, offertory for Chorus, Horns, Strings, and Organ (1846); Meditabitur in mandatis tuis (Offertoriunt à la Händel) for Chorus, Horns, Strings, and Organ (1846); Písrà svobody (Song of Freedom) for Unison Voices and Piano (1848); Česká piseřt (Song of the Czechs) for Men’s Voices (1860); Tři jezdci (The 3 Riders) for Men’s Voices (1862); Odrolilec (The Renegade) for Double Chorus of Men’s Voices (1863); Rolnická (Farming) for Men’s Voices (1868); Slavností sbor (Ceremonial Chorus) for Men’s Voices (1870); Píseřt na moři (Song of the Sea) for Men’s Voices (1877); Má hvězda (My Star) for Women’s Voices (1878); Přiletěly vlaštorvičky (The Swallows Have Gone) for Women’s Voices (1878); Za hory slunce zapadá (The Sun Sets behind the Mountain) for Women’s Voices (1878); Věno (Dedication) for Men’s Voices (1882); Modlitba (Prayer) for Men’s Voices (1880); Dvě hesla (2 Slogans) for Men’s Voices (1882); Naše piseň (Our Song) for Men’s Voices (1883).


K. Teige, Přispěvky k žvotopisu a umělecké ˇinnosti mistra B.a Smetany, I: Skladby Smetanovy (S.’s Works; Prague, 1893) and II: Dopisy Smetanoy (S.’s Letters; Prague, 1896); O. Hostinský, B. S. a jeho boj o moderni českou hudbu (S. and His Struggle for Modern Czech Music; Prague, 1901; second ed., 1941); W. Ritter, S. (Paris, 1907); Z. Nejedlý, Zpěvohry Smetanovy (S.’s Operas; Prague, 1908; third ed., 1954); V. Balthasar, B. S. (Prague, 1924); V. Helfert, Tvůrči rozvoj B.a Smetany (S.’s Creative Development; Prague, 1924; third ed., 1953; Ger. tr., 1956); Z. NejedlÝ, B. S. (4 vols., Prague, 1924–33; second ed., 7 vols., 1950–54; additional vol. as S.: Dobá zrání [S.: The Period of Maturity], Prague, 1962); J. Tiersot, S. (Paris, 1926); F. Bartoš, B. S. (Prague, 1940); J. Teichman, B. S.: Žlivot a dilo (S.: Life and Work; Prague, 1944); O. Šourek, Komorni skladby B.a Smetany (S.’s Chamber Music; Prague, 1945); P. Pražák, Smetanovy zpěvohry (S.’s Operas; Prague, 1948); M. Malý, B. S. (Prague, 1954; Eng. tr., 1956); J. Plavec, Smetanova tvorba skorova (S.’s Choral Works; Prague, 1954); H. Boese, Zwei Urmusikanten: S.—Dvořák (Zürich, 1955); M. Očadlík, Klavirni dilo B.a Smetany (S.’s Piano Works; Prague, 1961); B. Karásek, B. S. (Prague, 1966; Eng. tr., 1967); C. Thörnqvist, S. in Göteborg, 1856–1862 (in Eng.; Göteborg, 1967); B. Large, S. (N.Y., 1970); J. Clapham, S. (London, 1972); K. Janeček, Smetanova komorni hudba (S.’s Chamber Music; Prague, 1979); H. Séguardtová, B. S. (Leipzig, 1985); A. Neumayr, Musik und Medizin: Chopin, S., Tschaikowsky, Mahler (Vienna, 1991); G. Erismann, S.: L’éveilleur (Arles, 1993); M. Ottlová and M. Pospíšil, B. S. a jeho doba: Vybrane Studie (Prague, 1997).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire