Smetana – The Moldau, from Má Vlast (My Country)

Bedřich Smetana
The Moldau, from Má Vlast (My Country)
Bedřich Smetana, whose first name is recorded in the baptismal register as Friedrich, was born in Leitomischl (Litomyšl), Bohemia, on March 2, 1824, and died in Prague, insane, on May 1, 1884. Vltava (The Moldau) was written between November 20 and December 10, 1874. The full cycle of six tone poems, entitled Má Vlast (My Country) was completed on March 9, 1879. The parts were performed individually at first. The premiere of The Moldau took place on April 4, 1875. Adolf Cech led the first performance of the complete cycle of six tone poems on November 5, 1882, in Prague. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, bass drum, harp, and strings (cellos being divided into two sections). Duration is about 12 minutes.

It was Smetana’s proud claim to have created the Czech style in music, at a time when virtually every ethnic enclave of the gigantic Austro-Hungarian Empire was pushing at the seams, trying to create new nations (and the national cultures that went with them) and to get out from under the hegemony of German culture. Since the musical language of the nineteenth century was above all Germanic in its character, having grown out of the tradition of the Bachs, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, and Brahms, it was against German traditions that the nationalist composers most strongly rebelled. But in all of the “peripheral” cultures—the ones newly demanding recognition as having something of their own to offer—whether they were in Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, Denmark, Russia, England, or even America—the composers first had to demonstrate their complete mastery of the German style so as to be taken seriously as musicians. Then, and only then, could they create home-grown native music.

Though Smetana was to become a leading spokesman for Czech nationalism, his first language was German (Czech was the language of peasants, and Smetana’s family was firmly in the middle class). From an early stage of his career he had received support from Franz Liszt, who found him a publisher for some early piano pieces. And it was while visiting Liszt that Smetana found his true calling when he heard the conductor Johannes von Herbeck remark that there were many gifted musicians among the Czechs, but no original composers. Smetana determined to make himself just such an original Czech composer. More than a quarter-century later, he wrote his great cycle of Czech tone-poems Má Vlast.

He first embarked on the creation of a music for his people through opera; the medium allowed him the opportunity to pick grand, patriotic historical themes, as in Libuše or The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, or to find charming and delightful stories of village life among the peasants, as in his single most famous work, the winning comedy The Bartered Bride. He also took a leading role in Prague’s musical life, serving as principal conductor at the National Theater, a position that gave him considerable power and made him the object of criticism as well, not only for his own music, but for his sponsorship of the modern composers, Berlioz, Liszt, and even Wagner. But all of his public musical activities came to a crashing halt one terrible day, October 20, 1874, when he awoke suddenly deaf.

His response was to turn whole-heartedly to full-time composition. He noted three years later that “in these three years of deafness I have completed more music than I had otherwise done in ten.” The flow of compositions began with the first four tone poems that make up his cycle Má Vlast, a charming opera, The Kiss (second only to The Bartered Bride in popularity in his native country), the biographical string quartet in E minor, subtitled From my life, which dramatically depicts the ringing of a high E in his ears that foreshadowed the onset of his deafness. Smetana had just begun work on the first of the tone poems that make up Má Vlast before the deafness set in. He completed that first piece and wrote all of the remaining five, in the first months of his deafness.

Vltava (The Moldau) has always been far and away the most popular movement of the cycle. It vividly imagines actual sites along the river, and we can hardly be surprised to learn that Smetana had visited these places long before and that the visits may have inspired the idea for the work. The Moldau has a kind of “narrative” that follows the course of the river from its source in the mountains until, grand, and majestic, it flows through Prague. Yet it makes wonderful musical sense without any reference to this description. Its melodic freshness, harmonic shape, and interaction of contrasting tempos make for a delightful musical experience.

Still, we know specifically that Smetana had visited the spot where two small streams combine to create the larger stream that eventually becomes the great Moldau. And we know that he visited the St. John Rapids “where I sailed in a boat through the huge waves at high water.”

He recreated these experiences in his score.

The Moldau begins with the tiny trickle of water in two mountain brooks. These join and merge into a larger flow, becoming a continuing stream. The melody that characterizes the full-fledged river has the character of folk music, though it has not been identified as a Czech song. (The words now sung to this tune seem to have been added later.) That is bears a striking resemblance to the Hatikva, the national anthem of Israel, has also been remarked, though it appears that this is sheer happenstance.

The episodes that the river voyager passes include a forest scene with the sounds of a hunt (horns predominating), a village wedding (a country dance in 2/4 time), and a quiet night with the moon shimmering on the still waters. Soon the stream passes the Rapids of St. John, then becomes a great river, flowing toward the capital of Prague. In the climactic final pages, Smetana takes us past the historic Vyšehrad castle and reintroduces, as a climactic figure for full orchestra, the theme first heard in the harps at the opening of the Vyšehrad movement that had opened Ma Vlast. The river passes the castle and flows off into the distance.

Program Notes (c) by Steve Ledbetter