The long journey to becoming Czech

The composer Bedřich Smetana

Bedřich Smetana, coloured photo, ca.1880
(Photo: akg-images,)

Bedřich Smetana is considered the Czech national composer par excellence. From today’s perspective, it seems that no one else was able to express the longings, hopes and dreams of the Czech people with their newly awakening national consciousness better than he was – whether in the captivating, folk-music based opera The Bartered Bride, or in the poetically evocative tone poem The Moldau, which is part of the symphonic cycle Má vlast and is probably Smetana’s best-known and most frequently performed work. “I am Czech in body and soul,” the composer declared, “and am proud to call myself a son of our glorious nation”.

Má Vlast in the Digital Concert Hall

Live: Smetana’s masterpiece with Daniel Barenboim and the Berliner Phlharmonikern

To the Digital Concert Hall

A fan of Wagner and Liszt

However, the path to achieve this was not straightforward. Smetana was born into a world whose society was shaped by the values of the Habsburg monarchy. His birthplace Litomyšl belonged to the Kingdom of Bohemia, which in turn was part of the Austrian Empire. There, German was spoken – at home, at school, and in public. His father gave him the German name Friedrich. The musical role models of the young Smetana, whose extraordinary talent showed itself early on, were Beethoven, Schumann, Berlioz, Chopin, Wagner and above all Franz Liszt, who later became his mentor and friend. Nothing at first suggested the fervent patriot he would one day become. Only as an adult – under the influence of the 1848 revolution, which he witnessed in Prague – did he develop this national consciousness, began to learn the Czech language, and adapted his first name to the Czech spelling.

Awakening national consciousness

As a composer, he tried to give expression to this national feeling on two levels: on the one hand, he was inspired by the rhythms and melodies of Czech folk music, but without copying them. “By imitating the melodic fall and rhythm of our folk songs, you do not create a national style,” was his motto. “At best a weak imitation of those very same songs, not to mention the dramatic truth.” He listened to the folk songs and blended them with his personal style to create the lively, dancing and poetic musical language he became famous for. On the other hand, in his operas and symphonic works, he devoted himself to themes from Czech history and mythology. The best example of this is the cycle Má vlast, in which he encapsulated in six symphonic poems what the Czech attitude to life was at that time: nature, history, mythology, and faith. He depicts the beauty of the Bohemian countryside in TheMoldau and Z českých luhů a hájů, and commemorates events and symbols of Czech history in Vyšehrad and Tábor. He conjures up folk legends in Šárka and finally in Blaník, he pays homage to St. Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czechs. In Má vlast, Smetana realised his vision of giving his Czech homeland its own musical language.

Prague in 1848 during the June uprising
(Photo: Historisches Museum Wien)
The Moldau near Prague. Smetana is said to have been inspired by this view when composing his work of the same name.
(Photo: Andrew Mayovsky / Alamy Stock Foto)