Saturday 20 January 2018

Classical: Bedrich Smetana - the Beethoven of Bohemia

Composer Bedrich Smetana
Composer Bedrich Smetana

George Hamilton

More years ago than I care to remember, I first made the acquaintance of Bedrich Smetana and his masterpiece Má Vlast. Smetana wrote much more than this, but it's become something of a signature tune. A set of six tone poems - stories told in music, Má Vlast ('my country' in his native tongue) is a hymn to Bohemia, today the western part of the Czech Republic.

By the time he came to write Má Vlast, begun as he was approaching 50, Smetana had had a successful career. Born in 1824, he'd developed as a violinist of some considerable talent, and had hopes of emulating Franz Liszt, whose piano-playing put him at the forefront of European performance at the time.

But things didn't work out as he'd hoped, and he ended up in virtual exile. Smetana was a Czech nationalist at a time when his Bohemia was still part of a German-speaking empire.

It was Liszt, with whom he'd started exchanging letters, who suggested he try his luck in Sweden. Smetana went to Gothenburg, where he conducted the orchestra and developed as a composer. Richard III, his first attempt at a tone poem, was written in Sweden as a tribute to Liszt.

Back in Prague, things eased, and he felt able to return. But it wasn't until the opening of the Provisional Theatre - created especially for works in Czech - that his star began to shine.

In post as chief conductor, he created The Bartered Bride, a down-to-earth village love story with plenty of comedy, and a slate of Czech tunes, from drinking songs to dance numbers.

He hit the jackpot. Not only was his opera hugely popular in Prague, it became the first Czech production to make the breakthrough when all around was German.

Sadly, this was as good as it got for Smetana. It was around the time that he was completing the first part of his ode to Bohemia that his health started to fail.

He'd contracted syphilis. He woke one morning unable to hear clearly with "the fateful ringing" of high-pitched tones in his ears, an incessant roaring in his head "like a mighty waterfall".

There's a musical expression of this in the haunting conclusion of his string quartet From My Life. This tone picture of his experience, he said, described how his deafness had condemned him to a sad future which, after the promise of his early career, left him with a feeling of painful regret.

Yet, like Beethoven, he had won the battle with his incapacity and produced the stunning Má Vlast in spite of it.

The second piece in the cycle is its lyrical highlight, painting a picture of Bohemia's principal river - Vltava, or in German Die Moldau - the perfect subject to sum up his feelings of patriotic pride.

Smetana came upon the idea while he was having a picnic beside two little streams that came together, then bubbled and gurgled off into the distance.

A gentle pirouette on the woodwind starts this musical tale, gradually developing the theme. The music matches the scenes on the riverbank as it makes its way across country - folk tunes passing by a gypsy wedding, majestic orchestration as it sweeps below Prague Castle.

Then the thundering conclusion, the white water, as Vltava becomes one with the River Elbe on its way to the North Sea.

Some 430 kilometres of Smetana's own water music. Sadly, he was never able to hear it. Thankfully, the wider audience can delight in its melodic magnificence.

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

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