Bedřich Smetana: Vltava

We humans, are creatures of habit.

As much as we cast our vision into our environment, we are very much forged by it- given to search subconsciously for the path of least resistance as a puddle of water gently finds its way down to nestle as close to the Earth's core as the soil will allow.

It is not as lazy as it sounds though.

I am given to reflect on Karl Husa and his Music for Prague 1968 as an example of this.  His work (which you can read about through the link) describes the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in the winter of 1968.  It paints a picture of a people given a glimmer of hope, but crushed in spirit at the hands of an overwhelming majority of force.

A people forced into the path of least resistance.

Sadly for the city of Prague and the land of Bohemia, this sort of thing isn't alien.  Over the past 200 years or so alone they've experienced similar fates, wars and struggles for the freedom to express and live free and faced overwhelming odds pushing them back.  This particular environment has given birth to a great number of revolutionaries, artists, and composers and one such composer we'll explore today is Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884).  In 1848 eastern Europe was in a state of social and political upheaval, occasionally referred to as "Spring" or sometimes "Summer".

Smetana was born to a relatively wealthy family, his father was a brewer and also a decent amatuer musician. Bedřich himself took to the piano at an early age and grew in popularity as a gifted performer.  Despite a promising childhood, he struggled to gain notoriety as an adult in the highly cultured city of Prague.  After the loss of of three of his daughters, the lack of any progress as a professional composer, and the suffocating political climate, Smetana left Prague to try and establish his career elsewhere.

He eventually settled in Gothenburg, a "musically unsophisticated" city where he was able to quickly rise to the top of his local contemporaries.  He began a school, gained notoriety and respect in a matter of a few months.  After about five years, the political climate had again shifted in Prague and the need for a Czech national identity was created.  Smetana returned, emboldened by his success in Sweden, and took the creation of a new national opera company as a sign to help generate that identity by inventing the Czech opera.  

He would meet challenges as many in musical power in the city of Prague felt his work bordered too close to the side of radicalism.  He embraced Liszt and Wagner which was considered eccentric for the time.  Many in the city felt a more conservative approach was warranted and Smetana would struggle through the remainder of his life to etch out his place in history.

And etch he would.  Now internationally, Dvořák is considered the senior Czech national composer, however within the Czech Republic and Prague itself Smetana holds a special place.

From 1874 to 1879, Smetana composed six symphonic poems (we talked about this style before with Camille Saint-Saëns and his Danse Macabre) under the caption of Má vlast, translated: My Homeland.  In this work he quotes historical tales and physical places of the Czech countryside and Prague itself.  The most famous of these poems is Vltava also known by its German title, Die Moldau.

The Vltava (or Moldau) is a large river that travels through the heart of the Czech countryside, beginning from two small springs and eventually growing massive and weaving through the city. Through music, Smetana describes a journey along the river, passing a farm where a wedding is taking place, past ruins and castles, echoes of Bohemian history, and finishes by passing through the great city into the distance beyond.

It's clear in studying Smetana that the man had a great and deep love of his country.  He had an early desire to create a national identity, a unifying ideal through his music.  Whether those desires rose out of a call to fame or fortune or simply because he wanted to fight oppression of thought is debatable. One thing I kept returning to was the fact that despite his contemporaries in Prague criticizing and reviling his work, he maintained a perpetual optimism that his diligence would in fact stand the test of time.  That perseverance could override the resistance he faced in achieving his goal.  Smetana might not have lived to see the scope of his work fulfilled, but with his love of his people and his homeland, he changed his environment.

For the better.

See you next Friday.