Smetana - Ma Vlast - Vyšehrad
Type of Spiritual Experience
Má vlast (meaning "My homeland" in the Czech language) is a set of six symphonic poems composed between 1874 and 1879 by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. While it is often presented as a single work in six movements and – with the exception of Vltava – is almost always recorded that way, the six pieces were conceived as individual works.
The first poem, Vyšehrad (The High Castle), composed between the end of September and 18 November 1874 and premiered on 14 March 1875, describes the Vyšehrad castle in Prague which was the seat of the earliest Czech kings.
During the summer of 1874, Smetana began to lose his hearing, and total deafness soon followed; he described the gradual, but rapid loss of his hearing in a letter of resignation to the director of the Royal Provincial Czech Theatre, Antonín Čížek. In July 1874 he began hearing anomalous noise and then a permanent buzzing. Not long after the onset he was unable to distinguish individual sounds. At the beginning of October he lost all hearing in his right ear, and finally on 20 October in his left.
His treatment was based on maintaining isolation from all sounds, but was unsuccessful. The poem begins with the sounds of the harp of the mythical singer Lumír, and then crosses over into the tones of the castle's arsenal. This section of the music introduces the main motifs, which are used in other parts of the cycle. A four note motif (B♭-E♭-D-B♭) represents the castle of Vyšehrad; this is heard again at the end of 'Vltava' and once more, to round the whole cycle off, at the conclusion of 'Blaník'.
In the score two harps are required to perform the opening arpeggios. After a dominant seventh chord, the winds take up the theme, followed by the strings, before the whole orchestra is employed to reach a climax. In the next part, Smetana recalls the story of the castle, using a faster tempo which becomes a march. A seemingly triumphant climax is cut short by a descending passage depicting the collapse of the castle, and the music falls quiet. Then the opening harp material is heard again and the music reminds again of the beauty of the castle, now in ruins. The music ends quietly, depicting the River Vltava flowing below the castle.
Conceived between 1872 and 1874, it is the only piece in the cycle to be mostly completed before Smetana began to go noticeably deaf in the summer of 1874. Most performances last approximately fifteen minutes in duration.
A description of the experience
Bedrich Smetana, composer
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik
Studio Recording, 1952 (Mercury Living Presence)