Smetana, Bedřich

views updated May 23 2018

Smetana, Bedřich (b Litomyšl, 1824; d Prague, 1884). Bohem. composer, pianist, and conductor, regarded as the founder of Czech music. Played in str. qt. at age 5, pf. recital at 6, and wrote first comp. at 8. Settled in Prague in 1843, working as teacher to aristocratic family while having lessons from J. Proksch. Heard Liszt play and became close friend. Took part in fighting at barricades during abortive 1848 nationalist uprising. Set up mus. sch. but in 1856 went to Sweden as dir. of Göteborg Phil. Soc. Visited Liszt in Weimar and comp. 3 symphonic poems on Lisztian lines, incl. Wallenstein's Camp (1858–9). Returned to Prague 1861 but, through financial instability, toured Europe as concert pianist until 1863, coinciding with reawakening of Cz. nationalist fervour after Austria's defeat by Hungary. Became cond. of a Prague choral soc. and critic for daily newspaper. His patriotic opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, was prod., after much controversy, at Prague Provisional Th. (est. 1862) in 1866 and won him public success. Smetana was appointed cond. of the th. and dir. f.p. of The Bartered Bride (1866), which was a failure. For laying of foundation-stone of permanent Prague Nat. Th. in 1868 he comp. the opera Dalibor. This, too, was a failure and was criticized as insufficiently nationalist because of Wagnerian influences on score, but his comic opera The Two Widows was a success in March 1874. Resigned conductorship of Provisional Th. in 1874 because of total deafness, the result of venereal disease. Over next 5 years comp. his cycle of 6 symphonic poems Má Vlast (My Country) and in 1876 wrote his E minor str. qt. subtitled ‘From My Life’, in which the high-pitched note heard in finale represents the noise in his head which he experienced continually during onset of deafness. Living in isolation in the country, he comp. choral pieces and two operas, The Kiss and The Secret. During 1880s nat. celebrations marked his achievement and his opera Libuše was chosen to inaugurate Prague Nat. Th. in 1881. Encouraged, comp. last opera, The Devil's Wall, but this was a failure in 1882, though it contains some of his best mus. He worked on Viola, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night which had occupied him for many years, but wrote only 363 bars before he became insane and died in asylum.

Smetana was buried as a nat. hero. With The Bartered Bride he wrote the incomparable masterpiece of folk-opera. His other operas had to wait until many years after his death for a proper appreciation of their virtues. Inevitably there was a Germanic influence on his work, since he grew up under Austrian domination of Czech culture, but although Janáček and later composers are more truly ‘Czech’, the ground was furrowed by Smetana, and his mus. has freshness and strength which ensure its popularity. Prin. works:OPERAS: The Brandenburgers in Bohemia (Branibori u Čechách) (1863); The Bartered Bride (Prodaná Nevěstá) (1863–6, rev. 1869 and 1869–70); Dalibor (1865–7, rev. 1870); Libuše (1869–72); The Two Widows (Dvě vdovy) (1873–4, rev. 1877, 1882); The Kiss (Hubička) (1875–6); The Secret (Tajemstvì) (1877–8); The Devil's Wall (Čertova Stěna) (1879–82); Viola (unfinished, 1874, 1883–4).ORCH.: Triumph Symphony in E (1854); sym.-poems: Richard III (1858), Wallenstein's Camp (1858–9), Hakon Jarl (1861); Festival Overture (1868); Má Vlast (1872–9); Carnival in Prague (1883).CHAMBER MUSIC: pf. trio in G minor (1855, rev. 1857); str. qts.: No.1 in E minor (Z mého života, Eng. From my Life, Ger. Aus meinem Leben) (1876); No.2 in D minor (1882–3); From my Home, duets, vn., pf. (1880).VOCAL: Male vv.: The Three Horsemen (1882), The Renegade (1864), The Farmer, Peasant Song (1868), Sea Song (1877), The Dower, Prayer (1880). Female vv.: 3 Choruses (1878). Mixed vv.: Song of the Czechs, cantata with orch. (1878), Our Song (1883).PIANO: 6 Characteristic Pieces (1848), Album Leaves (1851), Sketches (1856–7), 3 Polkas, 3 Poetical Polkas (1855), Memories of Bohemia (1859–60), At the Seashore (1862), Dreams (1874–5), 14 Czech Dances (1877–9, orch. by others).

Smetana, Bedřich

views updated Jun 11 2018


Romanticist composer considered the founder of modern Czech music; b. Litoměřice, Bohemia, March 2, 1824; d. Prague, May 12, 1884. Although he wrote little church music, he was a figure of spiritual as well as historic importance in the development of romanticism and Czech nationalism. While studying at the Praemonstratensian Gymnasium at Plezeň he revealed exceptional pianistic gifts, and thereafter was active as virtuoso and chamber player. He became a friend of Robert and Clara Schumann and a disciple of liszt, and participated enthusiastically in romanticist and liberal movements. After five years in Göteborg, Sweden, he returned to Prague in 1861 to lead the National Theater orchestra and establish a conservatory. Bearing with nobility both personal affliction (total deafness from 1874; later, mental illness) and public calumniation, he emerged a national artist-hero. Best known for his comic opera The Bartered Bride, the cycle of six symphonic poems My Fatherland, and the string quartet From My Life, he composed also eight other operas, additional chamber and symphonic works, and a quantity of vocal, choral, and piano music, while active as conductor, critic, and educator. Devotion to family and fatherland and a joyous optimism animated his life and art alike.

Bibliography: v. helpert, Die schöpferische Entwicklung Friedrich Smetanas, Ger. tr. (from Czech) b. liehm (Leipzig 1956). e. rychnovsky, Smetana (Berlin 1924). z. nejedlÝ, Frederick Smetana, 4 v. (Prague 192433); abr. Eng. tr. 1 v. (London 1924). r. newmarch, The Music of Czechoslovakia (London 1942). r. newmarch and g. ČernuŠak, Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. e. blom 9 v. (5th ed. London 1954) 7:843849. p. andraschke, "Über die Gestaltung von Smetanas Vyšehrad, " International Journal of Musicology 1 (1992) 12737. t. barfoot, "Dalibor " in International Dictionary of Opera 2 vols., ed. c. s. larue (Detroit 1993). j. clapham, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians ed. s. sadie (New York 1980). c. headington, "The Bartered Bride " in International Dictionary of Opera, ed. c. s. larue (Detroit 1993). r. pecman, "Smetanovská Miscellanea," Sborník Prací Filosofické Fakulty Brnenské University 4 (1969) 130. m. stroeher, "Bedrich Smetana's Dalibor: A Study in Czech Cultural Nationalism," The Opera Journal 24/2 (1991) 323.

[f. j. burkley]

Bedřich Smetana

views updated May 11 2018

Bedřich Smetana

The Czech composer Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884), founder of Bohemian national music, is most known for his symphonic poems and operas. His music combines a strong symphonic technique with melodic and rhythmic ideas derived from Bohemian folk traditions.

Born into a large family in the small town of Leitomischel, Bedřich Smetana showed exceptional musical talent as a child, performing on the violin and piano at the age of 5 and writing his first compositions at 8. Despite his father's opposition to his musical training, he quickly gained a reputation as a pianist through his performances of the works of Franz Liszt. After moving to Prague in 1844, Smetana became music teacher to the family of the wealthy Count Thun but left after 4 years. With the help of Liszt, Smetana founded his own piano school.

In 1856 Smetana accepted a position as conductor of the Philharmonic Society of Göteborg, Sweden. While there he wrote his first important symphonic poems, including Wallenstein's Camp (1859) after Friedrich von Schiller's great dramatic trilogy. During this time, events were changing in Bohemia. Austria, weakened from futile attempts to maintain control over Italy, granted Bohemia political autonomy in 1860, which elicited strong national feelings from the Bohemians. The following year Smetana returned to Prague to become a leader in the new movement, the first substantial result of which was the establishment in 1862 of a theater where opera and drama could be presented in the Czech language.

Smetana's first major operatic success, The Bartered Bride (1866), instantly raised him to the status of Bohemia's leading composer and won for him international success as well as the position as first conductor of the Prague theater. The opera, a humorous tale of peasant life, is full of dance sequences based on Bohemian folk rhythms. The overture, polka, and furiant are often heard in concert. His next opera, Dalibor (1868), was more serious, with the hero conceived as a symbol of the Czech soul. Smetana's symphonic orchestration upset some critics, who accused him of imitating Richard Wagner, and throughout his life his serious operas were attacked by many who preferred his lighter works. Today Dalibor is considered one of the greatest Czech operas, although it is virtually unknown outside its own country.

Eventually Smetana developed a nervous disorder, continually hearing noises in his head and at times suffering memory lapses. In 1874 he was forced to resign from his conducting position, and at the end of that year he became permanently deaf. From 1874 to 1879 he occupied himself with the composition of a cycle of six symphonic poems titled My Country, of which the best-known are The Moldau (1874) and From Bohemia's Meadows and Forests (1875). In 1876 he completed his most important chamber work, the string quartet From My Life. This composition is unique in the repertoire because of its autobiographical subject matter, reflected in the harrowing screech in the high violin that interupts the dance in the last movement, representing Smetana's own physical disability. In the spring of 1884 he was committed to a mental institution, where he died a few months later.

Further Reading

Two important biographies of Smetana are Liam Nolan and Joseph Bernard Hutton, The Life of Smetana: The Pain and the Glory (1968), and Brian Large, Smetana (1970), the last of which contains musical analysis as well as biographical material. For general background see Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (1960), and Kenneth B. Klaus, The Romantic Period in Music (1970).

Additional Sources

Large, Brian, Smetana, New York: Da Capo Press, 1985. Maly, Miloslav, Bedřich Smetana, Prague: Orbis, 1976. □

Smetana, Bedřich

views updated May 21 2018

Smetana, Bedřich (1824–84) Czech composer. His masterpiece, The Bartered Bride (1866), is one of the greatest folk operas. Among other popular works by Smetana is the cycle of symphonic poems Má Vlast (My Country, 1874–79), which includes the Vltava.