Bedřich Smetana • by Agnes Selby

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Bedřich Smetana • by Agnes Selby

Post by Lance » Fri Oct 17, 2008 10:02 am

BEDŘICH SMETANA (1824-1884)
by Agnes Selby

Smetana was born at a time when the Czech language was regarded as the language of peasants. No educated person would be seen dead speaking Czech or Slovak, although many musicians in Vienna were of Czech and Slovak origin. The music of these peasants was regarded as barbaric and no compositions were written in that genre. In 1824 Beethoven and Schubert reigned in Vienna and their music was performed in all centres of the Austrian Empire. In Prague, only Germanic music could be heard with a sprinkling of Italian operas. Bedřich Smetana himself learned to read and write Czech only at a mature age and was never proficient in the Czech language. Yet, he was the first composer to bring forth the music of the Czechs with great grandeur and is today honoured as the “Father of Czech Music”.

Although the disdain for Czech music and language reigned supreme during the above mentioned period, the Czechs benefited from the reforms of Emperor Joseph II (1780-1790). These reforms introduced the era of Enlightenment into the backward provinces of the Austrian Empire. Native Czechs gained easier access to higher education and started their Czech National Revival at the beginning of the 19th century.

While the early impulse of the Czech National Revival was Rationalist, it soon gained a Romanticist orientation. They enthused over what they saw as a glorious Czech past, were vocal in their desire to resurrect the dormant Czech civilisation and proclaimed a brotherhood with all suppressed Slavonic peoples. This earned them nothing but stricter police oppression and the leaders of the nationalistic trend were imprisoned or exiled.

In the 1840s, in spite of the strong police oppression, Czech journalists started with gentle overtones to press for Nationalism, teaching people to read between the lines and to construe hidden meanings. During the time of the 1848 revolution, strict Government controls collapsed. Freedom of the press came into being and with it a call for National identity. This freedom lasted for one year only (1848-1849) and was followed by ten years of oppression. This oppression only heightened the Czechs’ determination to found their own nation.

This is the historical and cultural background to the work of Bedřich Smetana.

Born in Litomysl, he took violin lessons from his father and from several local teachers. He was sent to the Gymnasium at Plzen as his grades at the academic Gymnasium in Prague did not meet with his father’s approval. After graduation he had difficulty in making a living but his situation improved when he was appointed

Resident Teacher to Count Leopold Thun’s family. (The Thun family name appears predominantly in the lives of Mozart and Beethoven).

Smetana founded a music school in Prague. He also taught privately and played regularly in the home of the deposed Emperor Ferdinand. Finding himself in a more secure financial position, Smetana married his love of many years, Katerina Kolarova in 1849.

In the first six years of their marriage, the Smetanas had four daughters, three of whom died. It was the death of his eldest daughter, Bedriska (Fritzi), on September 6, 1855 then only five years old, that caused the composer to give vent to his grief in the intimacy of chamber music. The G minor Piano Trio was composed in memory of his daughter, Fritzi.

Smetana’s financial situation improved little in the years that followed, and the political uncertainty and domestic tragedy only added to his unrest. When he was offered a position in Goteborg, Sweden he jumped at the opportunity. In Sweden he was in demand as pianist, teacher and conductor. Inspired by Franz Liszt’s example, he composed his first symphonic poems. His wife’s health forced him to return to Bohemia with her in 1859. His wife died in Dresden on their way home.

After two more years in Goteborg, Smetana returned to Prague. He had married for the second time a twenty year old girl, Bettina Ferdinandova. The new Nationalistic awakening that followed the Austrian defeat by Napoleon III and his home sickness brought Smetana back to his homeland only to find himself no more successful than he was before his departure to Sweden.

All this changed with his first opera, “The Brandenburgers in Bohemia”, enthusiastically received in January 1866. This was soon followed by his opera, “The Bartered Bride”. The opera ignited pride in the nation’s peasant origins. Smetana was appointed principal conductor of the Provisional Theatre (1866 –1874).

He added 42 operas to the reportory, including his own “Dalibor” based on a heroic national theme and “The Two Widows”. “Dalibor” and “Libuse” were performed at the opening of the National Theatre in Prague in 1881 and are Smetana’s two most nationalistic operas. When completing the latter he also composed a vast orchestral monument to his nation which became the cycle of symphonic poems entitled “Ma Vlast” (My Fatherland), including the evocative and stirring “Vltava”, a symphonic picture of the river that flows through Prague. Both these composition played no small a part in the 20th century’s Velvet Revolution against communist oppression.

In 1874 there appeared the first signs of syphilis that was to result in Smetana’s deafness. The String quartet “From My Life” (1876) suggests in its last movement the piercing whistling that haunted him, making work almost impossible. He somehow managed to complete two more operas, a second string quartet and several other works, but in April 1884 he was taken to the Prague lunatic asylum, where he died the following month.

Smetana was the first major nationalist composer of Bohemia. He gave his people a new musical identity and self-confidence. He was a great inspiration to Dvorak and other Czech composers. His music sustained his countrymen during World War II and the Russian occupation and he is today known to every schoolchild in his beloved country as the Father of Czech Music.
___________________________________________

Agnes Selby is a distinguished member of Classical Music
Guide and is the author of Constanze, Mozart's Beloved.

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Re: Bedřich Smetana • by Agnes Selby

Post by Seán » Fri Oct 17, 2008 10:40 am

I love Smetana's music and I really enjoyed your article Agnes.
Seán

"To appreciate the greatness of the Masters is to keep faith in the greatness of humanity." - Wilhelm Furtwängler

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Re: Bedřich Smetana • by Agnes Selby

Post by Donaldopato » Fri Oct 17, 2008 10:48 am

Děkuji Agnes!
Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. - Albert Einstein

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Re: Bedřich Smetana • by Agnes Selby

Post by SONNET CLV » Fri Oct 17, 2008 11:18 am

Currently at Amazon, there's a good deal on a 10-CD box set of Smetana's music:

http://www.amazon.com/Bedrich-Smetana-B ... B000GFKUEA

I've bought this box but have yet to sample its wares, which I hope to do soon.


--SONNET CLV--

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Re: Bedřich Smetana • by Agnes Selby

Post by Agnes Selby » Fri Oct 17, 2008 1:26 pm

Donaldopato wrote:Děkuji Agnes!
My pleasure, Donald. I am sorry, but I have forgotten
the language of the country where I was born,
and can no longer respond to you in Slovak or Czech.
I have lived in Australia since 1949 and have not
spoken my native tongue since. It is a great pity.

However, Smetana's music brings tears to my eyes.
A few years ago, I sat next to my then 12 year old grandson
and during a Smetana performance, we looked
at each other and both of us were crying. I wonder
if preference for particular music is a genetic inheritance.

Regards,
Agnes.

Agnes Selby
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Re: Bedřich Smetana • by Agnes Selby

Post by Agnes Selby » Fri Oct 17, 2008 1:28 pm

Seán wrote:I love Smetana's music and I really enjoyed your article Agnes.
Thank you, Sean.

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Re: Bedřich Smetana • by Agnes Selby

Post by Donaldopato » Fri Oct 17, 2008 1:48 pm

Agnes Selby wrote:
Donaldopato wrote:Děkuji Agnes!
My pleasure, Donald. I am sorry, but I have forgotten
the language of the country where I was born,
and can no longer respond to you in Slovak or Czech.
I have lived in Australia since 1949 and have not
spoken my native tongue since. It is a great pity.

However, Smetana's music brings tears to my eyes.
A few years ago, I sat next to my then 12 year old grandson
and during a Smetana performance, we looked
at each other and both of us were crying. I wonder
if preference for particular music is a genetic inheritance.

Regards,
Agnes.
Don't worry Agnes, that is the only word I know in Czech and had to look up the spelling. :?

I do love Smetana's musc, it has an appeal that to me transcends the nationalistic elements. One does not have to be Czech to appreciate its power and poetry, or admire its inspiration.
Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. - Albert Einstein

TopoGigio

Re: Bedřich Smetana • by Agnes Selby

Post by TopoGigio » Fri Oct 17, 2008 4:01 pm

Thank you,Agnes.
How "old" can be the soul of a child,,,
--
BTW,I dislike the hearing of MaVlast as a set...every piece so fantastic and
devastating,,, :cry:
(about a concert of Ivan Fischer,,,)

Smetana composed his six-part cycle of symphonic poems Má vlast ("My Country") between 1874 and 1879. The component pieces were introduced separately, all in Prague. The three parts we hear in the present concerts, Nos. 4, 3 and 2 of the cycle, were composed between November 1874 and October of the following year. From Bohemia's Woods and Fields, the fourth part, was given its premiere on December 10, 1876, and enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts. Although composed a bit earlier, Šárka, the third part, was not introduced until March 17, 1877; the NSO's only prior performances of it were conducted by Zdenek Macal on March 23 and 24, 1989. The well beloved second part, Vltava ("The Moldau"), actually composed in just three weeks, was first heard on April 4, 1875; Hans Kindler conducted the NSO's first performance of it on February 24, 1935, and subsequently recorded it with the orchestra for RCA Victor,,,

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Re: Bedřich Smetana • by Agnes Selby

Post by Agnes Selby » Fri Oct 17, 2008 5:54 pm

Thank you for that, Topo. Actually, I can't imagine
how old is the soul of a child, perhaps as old as
the age of humanity. There dwells in each of us
part of our inheritance and in the case of my
now 16 year old grandson, an affinity to Slavonik
music. He seems to find echos of Slavonik music even
when he reads Mahler's works, something I certainly
cannot hear. But then, I only listen but he reads
the entire symphonies like a book. It is a very special
gift.

I love the entire Ma Vlast.

Regards,
Agnes.
-------------

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Re: Bedřich Smetana • by Agnes Selby

Post by Scott Morrison » Fri Oct 17, 2008 5:59 pm

Thank you, Agnes. Your article brought up very warm memories of my childhood.

Although not of Czech descent, I was born in Prague -- Prague, Oklahoma, a town founded in 1901 (not long after the Oklahoma land rush) by Bohemians. My first piano teacher, after my mother, was a Mrs Hrdy, who had been born in Bohemia. (Mrs Hrdy's daughter, Olinka Hrdy, became a noted artist.) Some of my early piano pieces were some little bagatelles and dances by Smetana*. His music remains very special for me. In school we learned Bohemian folksongs (e.g., 'Aj, lučka, lučka', and 'Andulko šafařova') as many of my classmates spoke Czech at home. I learned to dance at the Bohemian Hall and the ZCBJ Lodge** .

* Coincidentally, local cooks used a lot of smetana in their Bohemian dishes. 'Smetana' means 'sour cream'. :-)
** ZCBJ stands for Zapadni Cesko Bratrske Jednota which means, in English, Western Bohemian Fraternal Association. The ZCBJ lodge was one of the social centers of the town.
Der Himmel hängt voller Geigen. - Bavarian folksong

Agnes Selby
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Re: Bedřich Smetana • by Agnes Selby

Post by Agnes Selby » Fri Oct 17, 2008 9:18 pm

Scott Morrison wrote:Thank you, Agnes. Your article brought up very warm memories of my childhood.

Although not of Czech descent, I was born in Prague -- Prague, Oklahoma, a town founded in 1901 (not long after the Oklahoma land rush) by Bohemians. My first piano teacher, after my mother, was a Mrs Hrdy, who had been born in Bohemia. (Mrs Hrdy's daughter, Olinka Hrdy, became a noted artist.) Some of my early piano pieces were some little bagatelles and dances by Smetana*. His music remains very special for me. In school we learned Bohemian folksongs (e.g., 'Aj, lučka, lučka', and 'Andulko šafařova') as many of my classmates spoke Czech at home. I learned to dance at the Bohemian Hall and the ZCBJ Lodge** .

* Coincidentally, local cooks used a lot of smetana in their Bohemian dishes. 'Smetana' means 'sour cream'. :-)
** ZCBJ stands for Zapadni Cesko Bratrske Jednota which means, in English, Western Bohemian Fraternal Association. The ZCBJ lodge was one of the social centers of the town.
---------

Thank you, Scott. You have some very nice memories. I must
admit, I too used a lot of "smetana" in my cooking. It was
just too delicious but soon I realized what it was doing to my family's
cholesterol.

Kind regards,
Agnes.

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Re: Bedřich Smetana • by Agnes Selby

Post by Ralph » Fri Oct 17, 2008 10:50 pm

I love "Ma Vlast," the entire work. As I posted quite a few years ago, before the Soviet Union imploded I attended a performance of "Ma Vlast" in Carnegie Hall with the Czech Philharmonic. The people around me in the Dress Circle were largely older men and women from what was then Czechoslovakia. During a quiet passage I became very conscious of a virtual exhalation of sighs and I could see tears streaming down the faces of those nearest me. It was an unforgettable performance.

Thank you so much, Agnes, for again enriching my knowledge!
Image

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Re: Bedřich Smetana • by Agnes Selby

Post by Agnes Selby » Sat Oct 18, 2008 12:37 am

Ralph wrote:I love "Ma Vlast," the entire work. As I posted quite a few years ago, before the Soviet Union imploded I attended a performance of "Ma Vlast" in Carnegie Hall with the Czech Philharmonic. The people around me in the Dress Circle were largely older men and women from what was then Czechoslovakia. During a quiet passage I became very conscious of a virtual exhalation of sighs and I could see tears streaming down the faces of those nearest me. It was an unforgettable performance.

Thank you so much, Agnes, for again enriching my knowledge!

----

My pleasure, Ralph. Ma Vlast elicits the same reaction from me.
Yet, when I visited Czechoslovakia with Kathy for her recordings
for Naxos, I experienced no special feelings for the country and
was happy to be on the plane back to Sydney.

Regards,
Agnes.

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Re: Bedřich Smetana • by Agnes Selby

Post by val » Sat Oct 18, 2008 3:05 am

Ma Vlast, the First Quartet are remarkable works. But I think that the best of Smetana is in his operas. I heard The Barthered Bride, The Two Widows, Libuse, Dalibor and soon I'll be listening to The Kiss. Dalibor is avery strong and powerful work, and the Two Widows a delightful comedy that reminds Cosi fan tutte.
They would deserve to be better known.

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