Bedrich Smetana


And now it's time for this week' edition of Czechs in History, in which we look at some of the great figures in the history of the Czech Lands. This week, Nick Carey takes a look at Czech composer Bedrich Smetana...

I thought I would start off this week's Czechs in History on the banks of the Vltava River. Why? Well, as today's programme is about Bedrich Smetana, who is widely considered to be the Czech Republic's national composer, this seemed appropriate. Possibly his best known composition, the set of symphonic poems called Ma Vlast, or My Homeland, contains a piece dedicated to this river. As Vltava is probably Smetana's most famous piece, and also my favourite one, it seemed ideal for an introduction to the programme...

Bedrich Smetana was born on March 2nd 1824 in the East Bohemian town of Litomysl, the seven child of a fairly wealthy man who was the head brewer in the Litomysl castle brewery. An interesting point about Smetana's childhood is that although he is the Czech Republic's national composer and wrote several operas in Czech, as a child he was not taught the language, as Jarmila Gabrielova, an associate professor of musicology at Charles University told me:

From a very early age he showed a great talent for music, which was encouraged within the family, and he played the piano at his first concert at the age of eight. Throughout his childhood, he also performed in a quartet at home, playing first violin, his father second. When Smetana's thoughts turned to studying music at a higher level, this was, however, not encouraged:

Once he completed his studies, Smetana obtained work as a music teacher, and began composing, but following the events of 1848, the year of revolutions around Europe, and political oppression in the 1850s, Smetana decided to leave Prague. In 1856 he moved to Gothenburg in Sweden to become a music teacher, and this was a time of mixed blessings for him:

Smetana's wife died on route to Prague in 1859. He did not settle in Prague permanently at first, and spent his time travelling back and forth to Gothenburg, before making Prague his home in 1863. During this time, Smetana composed his historical opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, which was first performed in 1864, and was an instant success. This was followed in 1866 by perhaps his most famous opera, the comedy The Bartered Bride.

The Bartered Bride was an instant and enduring success. It was in the same year that Smetana became a conductor at the Provisional Theatre, the first theatre in Prague to hold performances in Czech, and he held this position until he went deaf in 1874. As a composer, how did Smetana deal with this situation? Jarmila Gabrielova:

Amongst the many compositions from this period were Ma Vlast, My Homeland, possibly Smetana's best known piece, a set of symphonic poems which evoked the beauty of the Czech countryside, plus the opera The Kiss, and a piece called The Czech Dances. Towards the end of the 1870s, Smetana's health continued to fail, and in 1883 he apparently suffered a mental breakdown, and was placed in a mental asylum in Prague, where he died shortly after his sixtieth birthday, on May 12th 1884. It is widely believed that in actual fact he died of syphilis.

Now, we have heard about some of the pieces that Smetana composed, but what sort of style did he adhere to, and which composers influenced this style? I put this question to Jarmila Gabrielova:

As I mentioned at the beginning of the programme, Smetana is widely considered as being the Czech Republic's national composer. This was the task that he set himself, and in general his works were well received during his lifetime, with a few exceptions, such as his tragic opera Dalibor, written in 1867, which was heavily criticised. When did the Czechs begin to perceive him as their national composer?:

And what about today, does Bedrich Smetana still maintain this importance amongst the Czech people, does his music still have the same impact?: