Entertainment Music

Wednesday 22 May 2019

Bedřich Smetana - the father of Czech music

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Trailblazer: Czech composer Smetana
Trailblazer: Czech composer Smetana

George Hamilton

It was 195 years ago today that Bedřich Smetana was born, in a part of the world that would become, for most of the 20th century, Czechoslovakia.

Smetana blazed a trail, a partisan of the polka, a fighter for the furiant. He was a product of his time, a nationalist who railed against imperial domination.

The ancient Czech lands were then part of the Austrian empire. Vienna - the Habsburg capital - set the tone. German was the language spoken. Music followed the classical model.

Smetana saw the traditional tunes and rhythms and the folklore of his native place as one way of asserting identity, of making a political point.

He was for a time an activist. As Prague rose against Austrian control - one of many rebellions across Europe during 1848 - Smetana composed military marches for the insurgents. As government troops approached the city, he was among those manning the barricades on the Charles Bridge.

He escaped prosecution and was able to continue his career, building on his success as a piano teacher by opening a music school.

He had married Kateřina Kolářová, a pianist he'd known since childhood, but long-term happiness eluded them.

They had four daughters, but three died as infants.

During a spell in Gothenburg in Sweden, where he'd gone to escape the strictures of Prague under Austria, Kateřina fell ill with tuberculosis. She too died.

Six years passed before he felt able to return to the Czech capital. By now married to the sister-in-law of his brother, he found opportunities that hadn't existed before.

Austria's grip had loosened. Plans had been made for a National Theatre. A Provisional Theatre had already opened its doors, the first stage to host performances in Czech.

A competition was held, with the aim of delivering a specifically Czech opera.

Smetana entered his first effort at musical drama. The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, in accordance with the rules of the competition, was based on a historical theme. The result was slow in coming. The judges' deliberations went on for two years.

By the time he heard he had won, Smetana had already enjoyed the public's acclaim on foot of its first production.

The Bartered Bride soon followed, and while it didn't enjoy the same initial success as the composer's first effort, it has lasted the pace rather better.

The gorgeous music that Smetana composed later in life was in complete contrast to the trials and tribulations he was experiencing.

His second marriage was loveless, his health was failing and there were financial problems as well.

His string quartet From My Life was his artistic response to increasing deafness.

By the time he wrote his signature piece, Vltava - a tribute in melody to the mighty river that flows through the heart of Bohemia - he was, like Beethoven in later life, unable to hear the glorious soundscape he was creating.

There was to be no happy ending, sadly, for the man now deemed to be the father of Czech music. He died in 1884, at the age of 60.

On the evening of his funeral, a planned performance of The Bartered Bride went ahead at the National Theatre in Prague. The stage was draped in black.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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