Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

6.11: Music of Bedřich Smetana

  • Page ID
    54793
  • Bedřich Smetana (b. 1824-1884) was born in Litomsyl, Bohemia while under Austrian rule (now the Czech Republic). Smetana was the son of a brewer and violinist and his father’s third wife. Smetana was a talented pianist who gave public performances from the age of six. Bohemia under Austrian rule was politically very volatile. In 1848 Smetana aligned himself with those seeking independent state- hood from Austria. After that revolution was crushed, Prague and the surrounding areas were brutally suppressed—especially those areas and people suspected of being sympathetic to Bohemian nationalism. In 1856, Smetana left for Sweden to accept a conductorship post. He hoped to follow in the footsteps of such music predecessors as Liszt. He thus expresses his admiration, “By the grace of God and with His help, I shall one day be a Liszt in technique and a Mozart in composition.”(footnote 1)

    footnote 1 Taken from his diary, 23 January, 1845 found at www.quotesquotations.com/biography.

    As a composer, Smetana began incorporating nationalist themes, plots, and dances in his operas and symphonic poems. He founded the Czech national school after he left Sweden and was a pioneer at incorporating Czech folk tunes, rhythms, and dances into his major works. Smetana returned to Bohemia in 1861 and assumed his role as national composer. He worked to open and establish a theatre venue in Prague where performances would be performed in their native tongue. Of his eight original operas, seven are still performed in native tongue today. One of these operas, The Bartered Bride, was and is still acclaimed. To hear Smetana’s Bartered Bride Overture, go to www.52composers.com/smetana.html and click on the link. He composed several folk dances, including polkas for orchestra. These polkas incorporated the style and levity of his Bohemian culture. To hear his Louisa’s Polka, go to www.52composers.com/smetana.html and click on the link.

    Smetana also is known for composing the cycle of six symphonic poems en- titled My Country. These poems are program music, representing the beautiful Bohemian countryside, Bohemian folk dance and song rhythms, and the pageantry of Bohemian legends. The first of these symphonic poems is called Má vlast (My Fatherland) and is symbolic program music representing his birthplace. To hear Smetana’s My Fatherland, go to www.52composers.com/smetana.html and click on the link.

    The second of these, Vltava, (The Moldau) is recognized as Smetana’s greatest orchestral work. Notes in the conductor’s score state

    The Moldau” represents an exceptional expression of patriotic or nationalistic music. The musical poem reflects the pride, oppression, and hope of the Bohemian people. . . .

    Two springs pour forth in the shade of the Bohemian Forest, one warm and gushing, the other cold and peaceful. Their waves, gaily flowing over rocky beds, join and glisten in the rays of the morning sun. The forest brook, hastening on, becomes the river Vltava (Moldau.) Coursing through Bohemia’s valleys, it grows into a mighty stream. Through thick woods it flows, as the gay sounds of the hunt and the notes of the hunter’s horn are heard ever nearer. It flows through grass-grown pastures and lowlands where a wedding feast is being celebrated with song and dance. At night wood and water nymphs revel in its sparkling waves. Reflected on its surface are fortresses and castles—witnesses of bygone days of knightly splendor and the vanished glory of fighting times. At the St. John Rapids the stream races ahead, winding through the cataracts, heaving on a path with its foaming waves through the rocky chasm into the broad river bed— finally. Flowing on in majestic peace toward Prague—finally. Flowing on in majestic peace toward Prague and welcomed by time-honored Vysehrad (castle.) Then it vanishes far beyond the poet’s gaze.” (footnote 2)

    footnote 2:Preface to the original score, Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York, The Concert Companion p. 672

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 11.25.16 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): A panoramic view looking north-west across the Vltava River to Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge by User “Diliff.” Source: Wikimedia.

    Listening Guide

    For audio, go to:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hY0BJOcEiOM

    Featuring Vilem Tausky conducting the BBC Symphony

    Composer: Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)
    Composition: The Moldau (Vlatava)
    Date: 1874
    Genre: Symphonic poem
    Form: Symphonic Poem (Tone Poem)
    Performing Forces: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes , two clarinets, two bassoons, four French horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, harp, strings

    What we want you to remember about this composition:

    • The Moldau (Vlatava) is a programmatic symphonic poem portraying the story of the main river in Bohemia as it flows through Smetana’s homeland countryside. Each section portrays a different scene, often contrasting, that the river encounters.
    • This piece is a good representation of Czech nationalism and also of a romantic setting of nature.
    • The composer wrote the work following a trip he took down the river as part of a larger cycle of six symphonic poems written between 1874 and 1879 entitled Má Vlast (My Country).
    • Note that each section of the work has its own descriptive title in bold print.
    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Texture

    0:00

    Two Springs.(Source of the river)
    Flutes begin with a flowing/rippling melodic passage soon joined by the clarinets. The harp and strings (pizzicato) are heard periodically.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 11.29.40 PM.png

    1:06 Rippling notes moves to lower strings that lead to the main river theme.

    1:16

    The River Theme.
    Violins present the river theme in a minor key (e minor). Melody moves step-wise with running-note accompaniment in strings. Repeated.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 11.30.08 PM.png

    1:31 River theme repeated.
    1:46 Melodic answer to the river theme.
    2:11 The river theme is expanded (note the triangle with orchestral crescendos).
    2:18 Return of the river theme.
    2:35 Answer to river theme.
    2:52 Expansion/elaboration of river theme.
    3:01 Return of the river theme.

    3:20

    Forest Hunting Scene. French horns and trumpets, hunting calls.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 11.30.43 PM.png

    4:10

    Rippling continues (in strings); dies down to gently rocking motion. Transition to next section (strings). Repeated notes in strings lead to rustic folk tune, staccato in strings and woodwinds

    4:38

    Peasant Wedding. Strings present a dance-like tune (polka). Closes with repeated single note in strings

    6:15

    Moonlight: Dance of Water Nymphs. Woodwinds, sustained tones.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 11.30.43 PM.png

    6:35

    Flute passage (similar to opening of work). Rippling figures in flutes; muted string theme with harp, punctuated by French horn; brass crescendo, fanfare

    7:02 Muted violins in high register with a legato melody.
    9:06 Intensification.
    9:29 Violins present the river theme. Played in the minor mode
    10:17 River theme reappears in the major mode
    10:29 St. John’s Rapids. Full orchestra, ff. Brasses, timpani roll, piccolo, cymbal crashes.

    12:09

    River theme, Full orchestra, Loudest dynamic/volume. The River at its Widest Point.
    Full orchestra, river theme in major key. Faster tempo.

    12:45

    The Ancient Castle. The brasses and woodwinds portray Vyšehrad, the ancient castle in a hymn-like melody.

    Slow then Accelerates

    14:05 River Dies Away, Strings slow down, lose momentum
    Final Cadence Two forceful closing chords.
    • Was this article helpful?