Personalities | Bedřich Smetana | Late Romantic | Classical
(Be’-der-zhikh Sma’-ta-na) 1824–84
Smetana was the founding father of the Czech national musical revival. Born to middle-class parents on 2 March 1824, he showed considerable talent as a pianist by the time he was six. He went to study in Prague in 1839, subsequently making a living as a teacher and player.
In 1848 he opened a music school, but it did not prosper. With nationalistic fervour, he helped man the barricades in the revolution of 1848 but, depressed by the lack of political emancipation and a stagnant musical scene in Prague over the next five years, he left for Göteborg in Sweden in 1856, where he had considerable success as a conductor and performer.
The Provisional Theatre
Inspired by the prospect of a theatre for the performance of opera in Czech (Prague Provisional Theatre, opened 1862), Smetana returned to Prague in 1861. Although he failed to become the theatre’s first conductor, and experienced considerable antagonism from Prague’s artistic establishment, he spent the next few years at work on two operas for its stage. In 1866 his first opera, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, was a great success, winning first prize in a competition for new operas for the theatre; following this, he became the Provisional Theatre’s chief conductor. This work was followed by The Bartered Bride and six more operas.
Smetana’s operas provided the backbone for the development of a native Czech repertory. The success of The Brandenburgers in Bohemia was crucial for his career and the health of Czech opera at an early stage, but The Bartered Bride, with its national dances and use of popular elements, set the agenda for Czech comic opera for the next 40 years and influenced numerous composers, including Dvořák. The rural setting and pungent characterization of Sabina’s libretto created a vogue for the depiction of comic events in the Bohemian countryside, which was only supplanted by the realism favoured by Janáček in his opera Jenůfa (1904). It is interesting that in an opera which seems to epitomize nationalism, the word setting is often very awkward. Like many of his contemporaries, Smetana was primarily a German-speaker and learnt Czech only as the national revival gained impetus; with the accent on the first syllable, Czech proved a problematic language for many native composers brought up with fundamentally German musical precepts.
In 1874, as a result of syphilis, Smetana became rapidly and completely deaf. Forced to retire from his post as conductor he experienced hardship but continued to compose, including the cycle of symphonic poems Má vlast (‘My Country’). Towards the end of his life composition became difficult, though Smetana had the consolation of seeing his festival opera, Libuse, performed at the opening of the National Theatre in 1881. He died in an asylum in Prague on 23 April 1884.
The Bartered Bride, soloists, Czech PO & Chorus (cond) Zdeněk Košler (Supraphon)
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