Má Vlast (“My Fatherland”) – Bedřich Smetana

Josef Mánes

 

Bedřich Smetana (2 March 1824 – 12 May 1884) was better known as the founding father of Czech music though posterity seems to have favoured fellow Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. Personally, I rate both their works as excellent although I’m not particularly fond of nationalistic music as a whole. Smetana was plagued with deafness when he wrote the six symphonic poems which formed the entire cycle of ‘Má Vlast’, which I believe to be his magnum opus.

A composer’s greatest nightmare is probably their discovery that they are going deaf but from such hardship flowed a sense of determination to stamp their mark in the pages of history. Ludwig van Beethoven struggled with deafness until his death but produced the inspired ‘Choral Symphony’ and Smetana also suffered from tinnitus which was somewhat descriptively reproduced in his String Quartet no. 1 in E minor “Z mého života” (“From My Life”) whereby a high ringing passage on the violin seems to describe his agonizing illness. Evidently, both men drew quiet strength and perseverance from within themselves to produce splendid works which has endured to this current age and time.

In the current classical music repertoire, Smetana’s other claim to fame would be his opera ‘Prodaná nevěsta’ (‘The Bartered Bride’) and a handful of other symphonic works and piano pieces, of which I think the polka ‘Vzpomínka na Plzeň’ (‘Memory of Pilzen’) is a delightful trifle. Had he not penned “My Fatherland”, it may have been quite a forgone conclusion that he would only be as familiar as Bohuslav Martinu.

 

Structure

Six symphonic poems comprise the entire set of ‘My Fatherland’. Each of these had its own respective premieres (as they were completed separately) and the most well-know of these works would be the 2nd in the set – ‘Vltava’.   

(i) Vyšehrad – describes the Old Castle in Prague which is still in existence today and is not a mythological inspiration by the composer. In the Czech Wikipedia, ‘the poem begins with the sounds of harps played by Lumíra (a medieval bard) which wafts over the fort’s armory’. The poem describes ‘the glory, splendour, battles and with its final decay and ruin.’

Most noteworthy, of course, are the two harps which introduce the entire symphonic cycle which is accentuated during a life performance of the entire work. I’m ok with this particular poem – it has its moments of glory and reflective periods but overall, it was a fitting introduction.

The Vltava river, which flows beside the castle provides the intrada for the next movement.   

vysehrad-ceklovy-pohled

 

 

(ii) Vltava (German: ‘Die Moldau’) – is the name of the famous river which runs through the capital city, Prague. Smetana is obviously not the only composer to look at a river and draw musical inspiration from it. Johann Strauss II wrote the ‘On the Beautiful Blue Danube’ waltz op. 314, the ‘Yellow River Piano Concerto’ was conceived by two Chinese composers: Yin Chengzong & Chu Wanghua, and Mily Balakirev amassed a collection of songs which includes the shanty song ‘Эй, ухнем!’ (‘Yo, Heave-ho!’) or better known as the ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’. Had someone composed music about the Klang River, I’d be most eager to hear it out.

vltava praha

Again, with reference to the Czech Wikipedia, Smetana describes the ‘Vltava’ as ‘depicting the course of the Vltava, at first with two small springs: the cold and the warm Vltava which joins into a single stream, and then the flow of the river through meadows and forests, landscapes where a joyful wedding feast is celebrated, the frolic of the river nymphs in the moonlight, and from nearby rocks looms mighty castles palaces and ruins.

The Vltava continues to flow through the St. John’s currents (depicted below).

Svatojanske_proudy_1896_Liebscher 

The river widens and continues on to Prague, past the Vyšehrad whereupon it vanishes in the distance, finally merging with the mighty Elbe river.

The famous theme in E minor (which is repeated once towards the end of the poem) is the most noticeable landmark. The rustic wedding ceremony overflows with joy and the pensive melody thereafter suggests water nymphs playing among the banks of the river. Towards the end, an excerpt from ‘Vyšehrad’ can be heard and the exuberance sweeps home with two affirmed chords.

 

(iii) – Šárka – here comes one of my favourite of these six poems. Fiery, passionate and best of all, unpredictable.

Sarka-a-CtiradThe basis for this symphonic poem comes from the legend of the Maiden’s War. You could spend some time to read the outlay of the legend though it may take a fair bit of fantasy imagination to make some head or tail out of it.

The programme notes for this poem are as follows-

“In this piece, we do not mean the country but the story, a fable, about a female warrior named Šárka. The composition begins with the angry Šárka swearing revenge for the transgression of her male lover, and she vows to destroy all men. When there was news that the knight Ctirad was coming to the woods with his band of men, Šárka ties herself to a tree and awaits Ctirad to free her. She deceives Ctirad into believing that she was an unwilling captive herself from the rebelling women and Ctirad, who found himself falling in love with her, sets her free. Šárka then prepares drugged mead for the men to drink, which they do, and found themselves falling asleep. She then blows a hunting horn as a signal to the other women warriors to come out from their hiding places and massacre the men. The poem ends with Šárka and her followers slaughtering all of the sleeping men and satiating her revenge.”

Brutal but a lovely piece nonetheless.  

 

(iv) Z českých luhů a hájů (‘From Bohemian Woods and Fields’)

This poem is somewhat average in my opinion but for the lively Czech festival music in the middle. Everything after that is hunky dory.

p1100837

The programme notes are as follows-

“And we draw a bright feeling at the sight of the Czech country. From all around, warm feelings of song can be heard, both joyful and melancholic. In the forest, solo horn players – and in the lowlands around the Elbe, there were the trumpets. Each of their songs are rendered as they like – the poet has a vision and the songs are to their own.”  Erm ,right.

 

(v) Tabor

This is the poem linking the earlier movements with the final one. The famous first two lines of the Hussite hymn ‘Ktož jsú boží bojovníci’ (‘Ye Who are Warriors of God”) is the main theme which runs through the entire poem. The hammering theme ends the piece and which will continue on in the very next.

bojovnici

The entire movement is tense – there is little in terms of comfort in this piece. Smetana writes “Motto: Ye Who are God’s Warriors! The piece consists of lofty construction works (the city of Tábor in the Czech Republic today was supposedly founded by the Hussites). From the main headquarters rang this theme and certainly the barracks. The composition also depicts strong will, perseverance and winning the battle, and it is with this steely insistence that the piece concludes with. The details are uncertain at this point, but there is general praise and glory in the resilience of the Hussites in battle and of their brave nature.”

Mikoláš_Aleš_-_Husitský_tábor

 

(vi) Blaník

The poem commences at the exact point where the previous ‘Tabor’ movement ends – with the same theme. The title alludes to a mountain in the Czech Republic, where a famous legend says that King Wenceslaus sleeps inside the mountain with his army and ready to awake and to battle against invading Czech enemies which are said to pour in from the four cardinal directions. 

Cerny-Jirasek

Smetana comments on the poem as follows: “This is the continuation from the previous work, Tabor. The Hussites wait in heavy sleep for the moment to come to the country’s aid. So, the same theme ‘Ye Who are God’s Warriors’ as in ‘Tabor’ further develops in the ‘Blanik’. On the basis of this melody, lies the resurrection of the Czech nation and its future happiness and glory!”

Indeed, the symphonic poem contains some of Smetana’s most inspired moments – the spirit and the pride of the Czech nation and the amalgamation of the final lyrics of the hymn which reads: “so that finally with Him, you will always be victorious.”

 

Recommended recordings

There is a polished performance conducted by Libor Pešek on a Virgin Records CD with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. For such a nationalistic composer as Smetana, it might be unthinkable if someone as stiff as an English conductor would be called upon to direct the music but the English orchestra surprisingly did ok. I also have the complete set of mp3 recordings from an unidentifiable orchestra which I think is the best version of all – it had enough power, passion and pride. Of course, there are some lousy ones which I’ve heard before, but I’d leave it at that. If you’re interested in the said mp3s, just PM me. I also have one by the Czech State Philharmonic Orchestra but I think it lacked execution and that little extra. But if you could catch “My Fatherland” in a live orchestra performance, just go for it. The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2008 interpretation was splendid and definitely memorable.      

 

 

 

 

      

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