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Bedrich Smetana

1824 - 1884

Bedřich Smetana ( 2 March 1824 – 12 May 1884) was a Czech composer who pioneered the development of a musical style which became closely identified with his country's aspirations to independent statehood. He is thus widely regarded in his homeland as the father of Czech music. Internationally he is best known for his opera The Bartered Bride and for the symphonic cycle Má vlast ("My Homeland"), which portrays the history, legends and landscape of the composer's native land.

Smetana was naturally gifted as a composer, and gave his first public performance at the age of 6. After his conventional schooling, he studied music under Josef Proksch in Prague. His first nationalistic music was written during the 1848 Prague uprising, in which he briefly participated. After failing to establish his career in Prague, he left for Sweden, where he set up as a teacher and choirmaster in Gothenburg, and began to write large-scale orchestral works. During this period of his life Smetana was twice married; of six daughters, three died in infancy.

Smetana, often regarded as the founder of Czech classical music, was born in Litomysl in Bohemia. Although his parents' eleventh child, he was the first son to survive infancy, and his father, an avid amateur violinist, lavished attention on his musical education. By the age of six he had played in a string quartet and given his first piano recital; two years later lie was writing music. When the family moved to Nemecky Brod — a centre of political and cultural thought - Smetana developed an interest in philosophy and literature.

In 1843 he settled in Prague and earned a living as tutor to an aristocratic family, at the same time studying composition and piano privately. His diary records his early ambition: "By the grace of God and with His help I shall one day be a Liszt in technique and a Mozart in composition."

After taking part in the fighting at the barricades during the abortive 1848 nationalist uprising in Prague, he made the first of many visits to Sweden in 1856 and opened a music school there. His friendship with Liszt (whom he had met several years earlier) led in 1858 to an invitation to visit Leipzig where he attended concerts of contemporary music by composers such as Wagner.

In 1866 Smetana conducted his first successful large-scale composition, The bartered bride, which is one of his most popular works. Its overriding mood is uncharacteristically one of joyous optimism, and Smetana later related how many of the delightful melodies were inspired by his habitual evening walks along the banks of the Vltava river. Also in 1 866 he was appointed to the coveted post of principal conductor of the Prague Provisional Theatre orchestra (in which Dvorak was principal violist). Тhis allowed him to promote new works by fellow Czech composers as well as to include more French and Italian music, rather than the almost exclusive diet of Austrian and German music performed in most Czech concert halls.

Smetana's massive orchestral work Ma Vlast (My Fatherland) occupied the composer for seven years. Completed in 1879. this cycle of six tone poems soon became one of his best-loved pieces, and was performed frequently throughout Europe and America. It represents the struggles of the politically and culturally oppressed Czech people, expressing in music their long-held desire for independence.

During these years, Smetana's health began to deteriorate seriously. The onset of venereal disease brought increasing deafness and badly affected his ability to concentrate. Over the next few years, living in virtual isolation, he composed two operas - The kiss (1876), an attractive blend of serious, romantic and comic elements, and The secret (1877). Theautobiographical string quartet, From my life, also composed during these years, includes a piercing whistling sound in the last movement which graphically depicts the effects of Smetana's deafness.

Throughout his last years Smetana's mental health degenerated as well, and in 1884 he was committed to a Prague lunatic asylum. With his death, two months later, Czechoslovakia lost its first truly nationalist composer, one who would provide a source of inspiration for generations of artists to come.

Key Works

The Moldau (from Ma vlast)

Ma Vlast

"From My Home" no.1 in A major

String Quartet N.1 in E minor ("From My Life")

0:00 I. Allegro vivo appasionato
8:00 II. Allegro moderato a la Polka
13:47 III. Largo sostenuto
22:11 IV. Vivace. Meno presto

Dances from The Bartered Bride (Polka)

Dance of the Comedians from "Bartered Bride"

Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15

Bedřich Smetana Among his Friends, 1865;
oil painting by František Dvořák

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