Category: Musician or composer
Bedřich Smetana (2 March 1824 – 12 May 1884) was a Czech composer who attempted to capture in his music something of his country's aspirations to independent statehood.
Smetana’s Second String Quartet: Voice of Madness or Triumph of Spirit? – Derek Katz
The most important Czech nationalist demonstration of the second half of the 19th century took place in Prague on the 16th May 1868, when the foundation stone for the national Theater was sunk in an embankment in the side of the Moldau river. The celebration turned into a 3 day festival attended by over 60,000 visitors. Amongst the dignitaries was a single musician, Bedrich Smetana, who solemnly intoned the words ‘In music is the life of the Czechs’.
Except that this was an aspiration not a reality. All during his career he tried to capture the patriotic feelings and pride he had for his native land, but that very pride seems to have constantly been a block to inspiration not a source for it, and in the end his most inspired music – music that can justifiably give him some claim to be ‘a giant of Czech music’ was written when he was stricken by deafness and tinnitus, reviled by critics, almost destitute, despised by his wife and drifting towards insanity. By the end of 1874, Smetana had become completely deaf but, freed from his duties and the related controversies, he began a period of sustained composition that continued for almost the rest of his life and produced some of his most imaginative and serene work.
The music writer Michael Steen has questioned whether "nationalistic music" can in fact exist: "We should recognise that, whereas music is infinitely expressive, on its own it is not good at describing concrete, earthly objects or concepts." And in Smetana we have this belief verified, for in his last works – the series Ma Vlast – written when he was deaf and beaten, he finds God and it was God that helped him produce exquisite music, of great feeling and depth.
so that finally with Him you will always be victorious.
Smetana's reputation as the founding father of Czech music has endured in his native country, where advocates have raised his status above that of his contemporaries and successors. However, relatively few of Smetana's works are in the international repertory.
Interestingly, throughout his career, Smetana was the butt of constant criticism and most of it was based on his lack of inspiration. For example, when he met Robert and Clara Schumann, and showed them his G minor sonata, they were unimpressed saying they detected too much of Berlioz in it. Rejection due to lack of originality – the copying of other composer’s styles – is, as we will see, a constant theme.
From around 1844 to 1847, Smetana studied theory and composition under Proksch. The works he composed in these years include songs, dances, bagatelles, impromptus and the G minor Piano Sonata.
For a brief period in 1848, Smetana was a revolutionary. In the climate of political change and upheaval that swept through Europe in that year, a pro-democracy movement in Prague led by Smetana's old friend Karel Havlíček was urging an end to Habsburg absolutist rule and for more political autonomy. A Citizens' Army ("Svornost") was formed to defend the city against possible attack. Smetana wrote a series of patriotic works, including two marches dedicated respectively to the Czech National Guard and the Students' Legion of the University of Prague, and The Song of Freedom to words by Ján Kollár. In June 1848, as the Habsburg armies moved to suppress rebellious tendencies, Prague came under attack from the Austrian forces led by the Prince of Windisch-Grätz. As a member of Svornost, Smetana helped to man the barricades on the Charles Bridge. The nascent uprising was quickly crushed, but Smetana avoided the imprisonment or exile received by leaders such as Havlíček. During his brief spell with Svornost, he met the writer and leading radical, Karel Sabina, who would later provide libretti for Smetana's first two operas.
Album Leaves and other patriotic works
In 1850, notwithstanding his revolutionary sentiments, Smetana accepted the post of Court Pianist in Ferdinand's establishment in Prague Castle. He continued teaching and devoted himself increasingly to composition. His works, mainly for the piano, included the three-part Wedding Scenes, some of the music of which was later used in The Bartered Bride. He also wrote numerous short experimental pieces collected under the name Album Leaves, and a series of polkas. During 1853–54 he worked on a major orchestral piece, the Triumphal Symphony, composed to commemorate the wedding of Emperor Franz Joseph. The symphony was rejected by the Imperial Court. Undeterred, Smetana hired an orchestra at his own expense to perform the symphony at the Konvikt Hall in Prague on 26 February 1855. The work was coolly received, and the concert was a financial failure. A revised version was performed in Prague in 1882, without the "triumphal" tag, under Adolf Čech. The piece is now sometimes called the Festive Symphony.
Piano Trio in G minor
In the years between 1854 and 1856 Smetana suffered a series of personal blows. In July 1854 his second daughter, Gabriela, died of tuberculosis. A year later his eldest daughter Bedřiška, who at the age of four was showing signs of musical precocity, died of scarlet fever. Smetana wrote his Piano Trio in G minor as a tribute to her memory; it was performed in Prague on 3 December 1855 and, according to the composer, was received "harshly" by the critics, but it is a piece that captures the grief he felt and is possibly the first indication of a style that was his own.
Fröjda Benecke inspired works
Whilst he was in Sweden, Smetana found among his new pupils a young housewife, Fröjda Benecke, who briefly became his muse and his mistress. In her honour Smetana transcribed two songs from Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin cycle, and transformed one of his own early piano pieces into a polka entitled Vision at the Ball. He also began composing on a more expansive scale. In 1858 he completed the symphonic poem Richard III, his first major orchestral composition since the Triumphal Symphony. He followed this with Wallenstein's Camp, inspired by Friedrich Schiller's Wallenstein drama trilogy, and began a third symphonic poem Hakon Jarl, based on the tragic drama by Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger. Smetana also wrote two large-scale piano works: Macbeth and the Witches, and an Étude in C in the style of Liszt.
He conducted performances of Richard III and Wallenstein's Camp in the Žofín Island concert hall in January 1862, to a muted reception. Critics accused him of adhering too closely to the "New German" school represented primarily by Liszt.
In 1861, it was announced that a Provisional Theatre would be built in Prague, as a home for Czech opera. Smetana saw this as an opportunity to write and stage opera that would reflect Czech national character. With no useful model on which to base his work, Smetana had to create his own style. He engaged Karel Sabina, his comrade from the 1848 barricades, as his librettist, and received Sabina's text in February 1862, a story of the 13th century invasion of Bohemia by Otto of Brandenburg. In April 1863 he submitted the score, under the title of The Brandenburgers in Bohemia.
Smetana was eventually declared the winner of Harrach's opera competition. But before then, on 5 January 1866, The Brandenburgers had been performed to an enthusiastic reception at the Provisional Theatre. The opera was eventually staged under the composer's own direction. "I was called on stage nine times," Smetana wrote, recording that the house was sold out and that the critics were full of praise. Music historian Rosa Newmarch has noted that The Brandenburgers ‘has not stood the test of time’.
In July 1863, Sabina had delivered the libretto for a second opera, a light comedy entitled The Bartered Bride, which Smetana composed during the next three years. Because of the success of The Brandenburgers, the management of the Provisional Theatre readily agreed to stage the new opera, which was premiered on 30 May 1866 in its original two-act version with spoken dialogue. The opera went through several revisions and restructures before reaching the definitive three-act form that in due course established Smetana's international reputation.
The opera's first performance was a failure; it was held on one of the hottest evenings of the year, on the eve of the Austro-Prussian War, with Bohemia under imminent threat of invasion by Prussian troops. Unsurprisingly the occasion was poorly attended, and receipts failed to cover costs. When presented at the Provisional Theatre in its final form, in September 1870, it was a tremendous public success.
When The Bartered Bride was produced in Saint Petersburg, however, in January 1871, the audience was enthusiastic, but the critics were hostile, one describing the work as "no better than that of a gifted fourteen-year-old boy."
On 16 May 1868 Smetana, representing Czech musicians, helped to lay the foundation stone for the future National Theatre; he had written a Festive Overture for the occasion. That same evening Smetana's third opera, Dalibor, was premièred at Prague's New Town Theatre. Although its initial reception was warm its reviews were poor, and Smetana resigned himself to its failure.
František Pivoda, the Director of the Prague School of Singing, once a supporter of Smetana's, claimed that Smetana was using his position to further his own career, at the expense of other composers and then took issue with Dalibor, calling it an example of extreme "Wagnerism" and thus, unsuited as a model for Czech national opera.
By 1872, he had completed his monumental fourth opera, Libuše, his most ambitious work to date, but was withholding its premiere for the future opening of the forthcoming National Theatre. The long-delayed premiere of Smetana's opera Libuše finally arrived when the National Theatre opened on 11 June 1881. He had not initially been given tickets, but at the last minute was asked into the theatre director's box. The audience received the work enthusiastically, and Smetana was called to the stage repeatedly.
His fifth opera, The Two Widows, was composed between June 1873 and January 1874. After its first performance at the Provisional Theatre on 27 March 1874, Smetana's supporters presented him with a decorative baton.
Three more operas: The Kiss, The Secret and The Devil's Wall, all received their first performances between 1876 and 1882 and were written when he was ill. Of his later operas, The Two Widows and The Secret were warmly received, while The Kiss was greeted by an "overwhelming ovation".
Under Habsburg rule, German was the official language of Bohemia. Bedřich’s father František knew Czech but, for business and social reasons, rarely used it; and his children were ignorant of the correct literary Czech. To overcome these linguistic deficiencies Bedřich’s studied Czech grammar, and made a point of writing and speaking in Czech every day. He became Chorus Master of the nationalistic Hlahol Choral Society soon after his return from Sweden, and as his fluency in the Czech language developed, he composed patriotic choruses for the Society; The Three Riders and The Renegade were performed at concerts in early 1863. In March of that year Smetana was elected president of the music section of Umělecká Beseda, a society for Czech artists.
Apart from his 1848 Song of Freedom, Smetana composed numerous works for the Hlahol choral society, mostly for unaccompanied male voices. Smetana's choral music is generally nationalistic in character, ranging in scale from the short Ceremonial Chorus written after the death of the composer's revolutionary friend Havlíček, to the setting of Song of the Sea, a substantial work with the character of a choral drama.
Towards the end of his life Smetana returned to simple song-writing, with five Evening Songs (1879) to words by the poet Vítězslav Hálek. His final completed work, Our Song (1883), is the last of four settings of texts by Josef Srb-Debrnov. Despite the state of Smetana's health, this is a happy celebration of Czech song and dance. The piece was lost for many years, and only received its first performance after rediscovery in 1924.
The last song cycles
In June 1876, Smetana, deaf and in very poor health, went with Bettina his second wife and their two daughters to Jabkenice, the home of his eldest daughter Žofie from his first wife. There, in tranquil surroundings, Smetana was able to work undisturbed.
Before leaving Prague he had begun a cycle of six symphonic poems, called Má vlast ("My Fatherland"), and had completed the first two, Vyšehrad and Vltava, which had both been performed in Prague during 1875. In Jabkenice Smetana composed four more movements, the complete cycle being first performed on 5 November 1882 under the baton of Adolf Čech. After the first performance of the complete Má vlast cycle in November:
"Everyone rose to his feet and the same storm of unending applause was repeated after each of the six parts ... At the end of Blaník [the final part] the audience was beside itself and the people could not bring themselves to take leave of the composer."
In his last decade Smetana composed three substantial piano cycles. The first, from 1875, was entitled Dreams. It was dedicated to former pupils of Smetana's, who had raised funds to cover medical expenses. Other major works composed in these years included the E minor String Quartet, From My Life.
Smetana's last major piano works were the two Czech Dances cycles of 1877 and 1879. The first of these had the purpose, as Smetana explained to his publisher, of "idealising the polka, as Chopin in his day did with the mazurka." The second cycle is a medley of dances, each given a specific title so that people would know "...which dances with real names we Czechs have."
Bedřich Smetana was born as Friedrich Smetana on 2 March 1824, in Litomyšl, east of Prague near the traditional border between Bohemia and Moravia, then provinces of the Habsburg Empire. He was the third child, and first son, of František Smetana and his third wife Barbora Lynková; he and Barbora had ten more children, of whom seven reached adulthood. František had initially learned the trade of a brewer, and had acquired moderate wealth during the Napoleonic Wars by supplying clothing and provisions to the French Army.
František had a natural gift for music and played in a string quartet. Bedřich was introduced to music by his father and in October 1830, at the age of six, gave his first public performance. In 1831, the family moved to Jindřichův Hradec in the south of Bohemia. Here, Smetana attended the local elementary school and later the gymnasium. He also studied violin and piano, and began composing simple pieces.
In 1835, František retired to a farm in the south-eastern region of Bohemia. There being no suitable local school, Smetana was sent to the gymnasium at Jihlava, where he was homesick and unable to study. He then transferred to the Premonstratensian school at Německý Brod, where he was happier and made good progress.
With František's approval, he enrolled at Prague's Academic Grammar School under Josef Jungmann, a distinguished poet and linguist who was a leading figure in the movement for Czech national revival. Smetana arrived in Prague in the autumn of 1839. However, ‘finding Jungmann's school uncongenial’ he soon began missing classes. He attended concerts, visited the opera, listened to military bands and joined an amateur string quartet for whom he composed simple pieces. However, the Prague idyll ended when František discovered his son's truancy, and removed him from the city. Smetana was placed temporarily with his uncle in Nové Město, where he enjoyed a brief romance with his cousin Louisa.
An older cousin, Josef Smetana, a teacher at the Premonstratensian School in Plzeň (Pilsen), then offered to supervise the boy's remaining schooling, and in the summer of 1840 Smetana departed for Plzeň. He remained there until he completed his schooling in 1843. His skills as a pianist were in great demand at the town's many soirées, and he enjoyed a hectic social life. This included a number of romances, the most important of which was with Kateřina Kolářová, whom he had known briefly in his early childhood. Smetana was entirely captivated with her, writing in his journal: "When I am not with her I am sitting on hot coals and have no peace".
In August 1843, Smetana departed for Prague and was introduced by Kateřina Kolářová's mother to Josef Proksch, head of the Prague Music Institute – where Kateřina was now studying. In January 1844 Proksch agreed to take Smetana as a pupil, and at the same time, he secured an appointment as music teacher to the family of a nobleman, Count Thun.
In June 1847, he resigned his position in the Thun household. He then set out on a tour of Western Bohemia, hoping to establish a reputation as a concert pianist. It was not a great success, so he abandoned it and returned to Prague, where he made a living from private pupils and occasional appearances as an accompanist in chamber concerts.
Smetana started a Piano Institute in late August 1848, with twelve students. After a period of struggle the Institute began to flourish and became briefly fashionable, particularly among supporters of Czech nationalism in whose eyes Smetana was developing a reputation. In 1849, the Institute was relocated to the home of Kateřina's parents, and began to attract distinguished visitors; Liszt came regularly, and the former Austrian emperor Ferdinand, who had settled in Prague, attended the school's matinée concerts. Smetana's performances in these concerts became a recognised feature of Prague's musical life. In this time of relative financial stability Smetana married Kateřina, on 27 August 1849.
Four daughters were born to the couple between 1851 and 1855. In 1854 his second daughter, Gabriela, died of tuberculosis. In 1855, his eldest daughter Bedřiška died. Just after Bedřiška's death a fourth daughter, Kateřina, had been born but she, too, died in June 1856. By this time Smetana's wife Kateřina had also been diagnosed with tuberculosis. In July 1856, Smetana received news of the death in exile of his revolutionary friend Karel Havlíček.
Despite the good name of the Piano Institute, Smetana's status as a concert pianist waned. Critics acknowledged Smetana's "delicate, crystalline touch", but believed that his ‘physical frailty’, or more correctly his emotional state after all the grief he had suffered, was a ‘serious drawback to his concert-playing ambitions’.
Smetana decided to go to Sweden, away from the criticism and the scenes of grief. On 11 October 1856, he departed for Gothenburg. Smetana initially went to Gothenburg without Kateřina. Within a few weeks of his arrival, he had given his first recital, opened a music school that was rapidly overwhelmed by applications, and become conductor of the Gothenburg Society for Classical Choral Music. In a few months Smetana had achieved both professional and social recognition in the city, although he found little time for composition.
In summer 1857, Smetana came home to Prague and found Kateřina in failing health. In June, Smetana's father František died. That autumn Smetana returned to Gothenburg, with Kateřina and their surviving daughter Žofie.
Kateřina's health gradually worsened and in the spring of 1859 failed completely. Homeward bound, she died at Dresden on 19 April 1859. Smetana wrote that she had died "gently, without our knowing anything until the quiet drew my attention to her." Žofie went to live with Kateřina's mother.
Later that year he stayed with his younger brother Karel, and met Karel's sister-in-law Barbora (Bettina) Ferdinandiová, sixteen years his junior. He proposed marriage, and having secured her promise returned to Gothenburg for the 1859–60 winter. The marriage took place the following year, on 10 July 1860, after which Smetana and his new wife returned to Sweden for a final season. This culminated in April 1861 with a piano performance in Stockholm, attended by the Swedish royal family. The couple's first daughter, Zdeňka, was born in September 1861 and not long after Bettina gave birth to another daughter, Božena. His marriage to Bettina has been described as ‘loveless’, and effectively broke down altogether in the years of illness and relative poverty towards the end of his life, but it is clear that Kateřina’s death and those of his children by her left him stunned.
The criticism of Smetana was unrelenting for years and years and he was not a robust man. His opponents claimed that under Smetana "Czech opera sickens to death at least once annually." In December 1872, a petition signed by 86 subscribers to the theatre called for Smetana's resignation. Strong support from vice-chairman Antonín Čísek, and an ultimatum from prominent musicians among whom was Antonín Dvořák, ensured Smetana's survival. In January 1873 he was reappointed. Smetana gradually brought more operas by emergent Czech composers to the theatre, but little of his own work.
Eventually these verbal attacks, had their effect. By the summer of 1874, Smetana was ill; a throat infection was followed by a rash and an apparent blockage to the ears. By mid-August, unable to work, he transferred his duties to his deputy, Adolf Čech. A press announcement stated that Smetana had "become ill as a result of nervous strain caused by certain people recently."
In September, Smetana told the theatre he would resign his appointment unless his health improved. He had become totally deaf in his right ear, and in October lost all hearing in his left ear also. After his subsequent resignation the theatre offered him an annual pension of 1,200 gulden for the continued right to perform his operas, an arrangement Smetana reluctantly accepted. Money raised in Prague by former students, and by Fröjda Benecke in Gothenburg, amounted to 1,244 gulden. This allowed Smetana to seek medical treatment abroad, but to no avail.
In January 1875, Smetana wrote in his journal: "If my disease is incurable, then I should prefer to be liberated from this life."
His spirits were further lowered at this time by a deterioration in his relationship with Bettina, mainly over money matters.
"I cannot live under the same roof as a person who hates and persecutes me", Smetana informed her. Although divorce was considered, the couple stayed unhappily together.
As Smetana’s illness worsened, he achieved more recognition as the principal exponent of Czech national music. This status was celebrated by several events during Smetana's final years. On 4 January 1880, a special concert in Prague marked the 50th anniversary of his first public performance. In May 1882. The Bartered Bride was given its 100th performance, an unprecedented event in the history of Czech opera. A gala concert and banquet was arranged to honour Smetana's 60th birthday in March 1884, but he was too ill to attend.
In 1879, Smetana had written to a friend, the Czech poet Jan Neruda, revealing fears of the onset of madness. By the winter of 1882–83 he was experiencing depression, insomnia, and hallucinations, together with giddiness, cramp and a temporary loss of speech. In 1883 he began writing a new symphonic suite, Prague Carnival, but could get no further than an Introduction and a Polonaise. He started a new opera, Viola, based on the character in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, but wrote only fragments as his mental state gradually deteriorated.
In October 1883 his behaviour at a private reception in Prague disturbed his friends; by the middle of February 1884 he had ceased to be coherent, and was periodically violent. On 23 April his family, unable to nurse him any longer, removed him to the Kateřinky Lunatic Asylum in Prague, where he died on 12 May 1884.
There is speculation about the cause of his death. But the patent medicines of the day often contained cocktails of heavy metals and the symptoms all seem to point to this. His family appear to think he had syphilis, and the standard treatment for syphilis was mercury, so he probably died from doctor prescribed mercury poisoning.
Smetana's funeral took place on 15 May, at the Týn Church in Prague's Old Town. The subsequent procession to the Vyšehrad Cemetery was led by members of the Hlahol, bearing torches, and was followed by a large crowd. The grave later became a place of pilgrimage for musical visitors to Prague.
Smetana was survived by Bettina, their daughters Zdeňka and Božena, and by Žofie. Bettina lived until 1908; Žofie, died in 1902. The younger daughters eventually married, living out their lives away from the public eye.
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.
- Smetana - Bartered Bride - Overture
- Smetana - Concert Etude in G-sharp minor Op. 17
- Smetana - Dreams
- Smetana - Evening songs [small excert]
- Smetana - Haakon Jarl, symphonic poem, Op 16
- Smetana - Ma Vlast - Blaník
- Smetana - Ma Vlast - Moldau
- Smetana - Ma Vlast - Šárka
- Smetana - Ma Vlast - Tábor
- Smetana - Ma Vlast - Vyšehrad
- Smetana - Ma Vlast - Z českých luhů a hájů
- Smetana - Piano Trio in G minor Opus 15
- Smetana - String Quartet No 1 in E minor (From My Life)
- Smetana - String Quartet No 2 in D minor
- Smetana - The Czech dances
- Smetana - The Kiss - A ty mé robe Hajej můj andílku
- Smetana - The Kiss - Hajej, můj andílku