By Marc Richard
Father Of Czech Opera
September 15th 1999
While the Czech Republic is renowned for its rich cultural heritage, in the field of classical music the ‘Czech-sound’ was rather late on the scene compared to the other great music centers in Europe. Its ultimate birth is very much due to the pioneering efforts of Bedrich Smetana, who set the stage for the more widely recognized Antonin Dvorak and others who would come later.
Born in 2 March 1824 in Litmysl, Czechoslavakia, Smetana was a gifted child prodigy, playing in a string quartet at the age of five and debuting on the piano a year later. Although his music-loving father encouraged the boy in his efforts, he was expected to settle down and follow in the family business as a brewer. Bedrich had other ideas however, and despite lacking any formal musical education, moved to Prague in his late teens.
From a big fish in a small pond he quickly found himself very much a sprat in a much larger ocean. Failing to be recognized as a virtuoso performer, Smetana concentrated his efforts on composing, while at the same time gaining a pittance as a music teacher. Life was hard though, and making ends meet in Prague was becoming difficult. Needing money to keep body and soul together, Smetana wrote to his inspiration, the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, attaching the manuscript of his Six Characteristic Composition in the hope that Liszt would accept the dedication and have the work published in Germany, as well as send some money. Impressed though Liszt was - and he replied with the most glowing of praise - he too was far from affluent at the time. However, he did arrange for the work to be published by the Leipzig firm of Franz Kistner.
Being an unknown newcomer Smetana received no fee for the publication. However, Liszt’s enthusiastic response, plus the publication of his work, imbued Smetana with a fresh impetus, a new self-confidence. Spiritually refreshed, he mobilized himself once more for the battle to gain recognition. Other, more violent battles were to occur however, those which had nothing to do with music.
Europe was in turmoil once more, with revolution shaking Bohemia. Smetana’s experiences at the barricades, and the subsequent, violent suppression by the Austrians were to raise fresh questions in his mind. German remained the official language of Bohemia. It was also the language he used for conducting his business and composition, for he couldn’t even write his native tongue. Smetana was suddenly aware of how important it was for him to fully master the Czech language, for without this his efforts to truly express his Bohemian roots would be forever compromised.
This nationalistic seed took time to germinate however, and it was not until after he had returned from a period as a conductor and performer in Sweden that nationalism came to the fore in his work. His first opera - The Brandenburgers in Bohemia - was not very successful though, partly due to the public’s lack of familiarity with his work, but even more so to the new political tensions brought about by the Austro-Prussian War. Although these tensions still cast a shadow over his second, and most cherished opera - The Bartered Bride - it found its natural audience and immediately became a popular hit.
In the remaining years of his life Smetana wrote six more operas, all based on national subjects. However, while these played to national acclaim they met with stern resistance from the Austrian-controlled opera establishment. Not for the first time - nor the last - political will was the arbiter of artistic talents.
If, in retrospect, Bedrich Smetana’s career was a success as the father of Czech opera, his personal life was forever tinged with tragedy. In 1849 he had married a former pupil Katerina Kolerova, yet only one of their four children survived infancy. Worse was to follow, for Katerina died during his sojourn in Sweden in 1859, having contracted tuberculosis four years earlier while they were living in Prague. Although he was to remarry before returning to Prague in 1861, his later success in his native land was to be tempered by ill-health and declining hearing brought on by syphilis.
Though he continued to work another affliction struck him whilst composing a cycle of the six symphonic poems Ma Vlast - a high-pitched whistling in one ear that sent him to near madness, This tintinnabulation is conveyed through the last movement, Vivace, of his autobiographical string quartet From My Life. Despite much money spent in vain, there was no medical cure for his condition, and sharing the fate of Beethoven, complete deafness was to follow. Living quietly in the country with his daughter and second wife, Smetana’s powers of innovation never left him. Finally however, his sanity did. Seriously ill in 1882, and again in 1883, he was taken to the Pargue asylum on 23 April 1884, and died there on the afternoon of 12 May. Buried in Vsehrad cemetery in Prague, Bedrich Smetana’s tomb still attracts visitors to this day.
This homage is not without justification, for although harmonically and structurally influenced by the works of Liszt and Berlioz, Smetana’s works reflect the uplifting character of his homeland. Although sadly, few of his works are widely known outside the Czech Republic, without his music from the heart it would have been far more difficult for the likes of Dvorak, Suk, Janacek, Martinu and other fine composers from this tiny country, to have made their mark.
Published In Roving Insight Magazine