Bedřich Smetana

Bedřich Smetana

Composer

• 1824 1884

Editor's Choice

Considered by many Czechs to be the father of their musical heritage, Bedrich Smetana is perhaps less well known outside his native country than his fellow composers Antonin Dvořák and Leoš Janáček. However, his contribution to the Czech classical music canon was profound, and his work in opera, as both a composer and conductor, are significant. Smetana's travels could have influenced his ability to characterise the Bohemian landscape so vividly in music; spells in Sweden and tours in Germany and the Netherlands as a conductor may have given him a special appreciation for the beauty of his homeland. Coupled with his efforts to perfect his Czech - German was the language of education in what was then part of the Habsburg Empire - his strong nationalist sentiment resulted in 'Ma Vlast'. Composed in the 1870s, this suite of six tone poems conjures pictures of timeless landscapes and the folk traditions of a region in flux. A recording featuring a Malaysian orchestra and German conductor from a Swedish record label may seem a left-field choice, but this 2011 release shows that you don't have to be Czech to create or appreciate Smetana's fantastic music.

Biography

Bedrich Smetana was one of the great composers of his country's history and one of the leaders of the movement toward musical nationalism. His father was a violin teacher who gave Bedrich his first lessons and referred him to keyboard, harmony, and composition lessons when the boy requested them. His father tried to get Bedrich to apply himself in academics, but Bedrich was too focused on music to be a good student.

Bedrich Kittl, director of the Prague Conservatory, in 1844 found Smetana a job as a music teacher to the family of Count Leopold Thun while continuing music studies. He remained with the count for three and a half years, but he quit to undertake a concert tour, which turned out to be a financial failure.

Franz Liszt aided Smetana in finding a publisher for some early piano music and in 1848, Smetana founded a successful piano school.

Although he established a strong local reputation as a pianist, his piano compositions (mostly lighter works) did not earn him any special distinction as a composer.

In 1860, the Austro-Hungarian Empire granted internal political autonomy to Bohemia. A movement began to search for a genuine Czech voice in arts, including the establishment of a national theater. In 1862-1863, Smetana composed The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, his first opera, which was a success at its premiere on January 5, 1866. His next opera was Prodaná nevesta (The Bartered Bride), his most famous and enduring opera today, but a failure when it premiered on May 30, 1866.

In 1866, Smetana became conductor of the Provisional Theater, re-forming its administration and attempting to raise standards. His next opera, Dalibor (1871), was criticized for its Wagnerian elements. He had also written Libuse, but could find no producer. But in 1874, he had a large success with a light, popular opera, The Two Widows.

However, a severe whistling in the ears (graphically depicted in his autobiographical string quartet From My Life) led to deafness by the end of that year, symptoms of tertiary syphilis. He continued to compose and wrote his orchestral masterpiece Má Vlast (My Country) from 1874 to 1879. Three more operas were premiered successfully, including Libuse, but the last was The Devil's Wall (1882). By now, Smetana was seriously ill. The brain damage from syphilis led to madness, and he was confined to an asylum where he died. National mourning was proclaimed and he was given a burial at the Vyshehrad, one of the national sites depicted in Má Vlast.

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