Bedrich Smetana | Biography


Beyond Czech-speaking countries Smetana is best known for his cycle of six orchestral tone poems, Má vlast (‘My Country’), especially ‘Vltava’, his depiction of the river that flows through Prague. In the Czech Republic, he is widely regarded as the father of Czech musical nationalism. Although he was not the first to write operas in the Czech language, the eight he wrote were the first to have survived in the repertoire. Czech folk music pervades Smetana’s theatre and concert music and did much to distinguish it from the standard Germanic music of his day. As a young man, Smetana was a gifted pianist and composer. His father, a successful businessman with musical leanings, did not encourage his son to take up music professionally but Smetana’s inclinations prevailed. His career started in the 1840s with his ambitious declaration that he wished to be a Liszt on the piano and a Mozart in composition. In fact, it was Liszt’s music that became a model for some of Smetana’s compositions, to the vexation of some of his fellow nationalists, and the flamboyant Hungarian composer was a crucial supporter of Smetana’s career and ambitions. In pursuit of work and success Smetana moved to Gothenburg in 1856. Unfortunately the Swedish city proved hostile to his advanced compositions and too provincial to appreciate his musical aspirations. The most valuable aspect of this period was the development of his conducting career, although there was great sadness too with the death of his wife. In 1862 he returned to Prague for good, gradually securing greater appreciation and a firmer hold on the development of Czech musical life. In Prague, Smetana founded a short-lived teaching institution but failed to be appointed director of the Prague Conservatoire. In 1866 he became the principal conductor of the Royal Provincial Czech Theatre, where his opera Brandenburgers in Bohemia was performed after he had entered it anonymously for a competition. After its success, he was commissioned to write what would, after substantial revisions, become his most famous opera The Bartered Bride (1866–1870). He further embedded himself in Czech culture by learning to speak the language – his own first language, as was usual among the middle classes in the Habsburg empire, was German. In 1874, Smetana resigned his conductorship of the Prague Theatre after losing his hearing in one ear. In the same year, he began work on Má vlast, completing the cycle five years later. It was relatively late in life that he composed his two string quartets. The first came in 1876. He subtitled it ‘From My Life’, intending it as a kind of musical autobiography. At one point, a long, held high note on the violin represents the chronic, piercing tinnitus in his ears. Smetana’s fame increased with the 100th performance of The Bartered Bride, and in 1881 his new opera Libuše was chosen to open the new National Theatre. He continued to compose but grew terrified of madness and spoke of experiencing hallucinations. In 1884, he was committed to an asylum, where he died within three months.