Smetana: Vltava from Má Vlast

Vltava (The Moldau), No. 2 from Má Vlast (My Country)

Bedřich SMETANA
BORN: March 2, 1824. Litomyšl, Bohemia
DIED: May 12, 1884. Prague

COMPOSED: Begun November 20, completed December 8, 1874, in Prague. The piece is dedicated to that city

WORLD PREMIERE: It was premiered in Prague on April 4, 1875, with Adolf Čech conducting the Prague Provisional Theatre orchestra

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1913. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—May 1997. Libor Pešek conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, harp (or piano), and strings

DURATION: About 12 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Bedřich Smetana was a prodigy, turning heads as a promising pianist by the time he was six and confounding his early teachers by always seeming to be a step ahead of them. He managed to get himself transferred briefly to a high school in Prague, where he immersed himself in as much music as he could, composed a string quartet for friends to play, and marveled at a piano recital Liszt performed when passing through on an 1840 tour.

By the time he graduated from the school, Smetana had achieved considerable musical prowess; but he also knew that his native musical talent left technical gaps that only rigorous training could fill. He returned to Prague, spent three years as live-in piano teacher for a wealthy family, and used his earnings to finance further study of harmony, counterpoint, and composition. By 1851, thanks to a kind word from Liszt, Smetana saw one of his compositions accepted by a publisher. Finally he had hope of being a professional composer. But times were difficult. Civil war had broken out in many areas of the Habsburg Empire, including Bohemia, and Smetana found himself stirred to political activism. The installation of a repressive regime played a part in his decision to leave Bohemia in 1856 to seek opportunities in Sweden. He remained there five years, but success eluded him. When he returned to Prague, in 1862, he set about promoting his work in a more consistent way, and within a few years he occupied a prominent place in the Czech musical world, as a conductor, a critic, and, increasingly, a composer. In 1866, he was named principal conductor of the Provisional Theater, where he built an orchestra that included among its ranks the violist—and fledgling composer—Antonín Dvořák.

In 1874, he began losing his hearing, and within a few months he grew substantially deaf. An immediate upshot was that he had to curtail his conducting activities, and in a letter that September he informed the Provisional Theatre’s management of what was happening: “It was in July. . . that I noticed that in one of my ears the notes in the higher octaves were pitched differently than in the other and that at times I had a tingling feeling in my ears and heard a noise as though I was standing by a mighty waterfall. My condition changed continuously up to the end of July when it became a permanent state of affairs and it was accompanied by spells of giddiness so that I staggered to and fro and could walk straight only with the greatest concentration.” In August, he began to experience aural hallucinations and then, he reported to his devoted friend Josef Srb-Debrnov, “on the 20th of October I lost my hearing completely.”

THE MUSIC  Although he could no longer perform music, he could still write it. He immediately plunged into composing the first two movements of Má Vlast (My Country). The second, Vltava (The Moldau), occupied him from November 20 through December 8—a span of nineteen days (he noted in his diary). Its subject is the Bohemian river that flows north through Prague on its way to join the Elbe, which in turn leads its waters to the North Sea. The idea for this tone poem dates to August 1867, when Smetana traveled with his musician friend Mořic Anger to the western edge of Bohemia, near its border with Germany. Their friend R.G. Kronbauer later published Anger’s account:

Great and unforgettable was the impression made on Smetana by our outing to Čenek’s sawmill in Hirschenstein, where the Křemelná joins the River Vydra. It was there that the first ideas for his majestic symphonic poem Vltava were born and took shape. Here he heard the gentle, poetic song of the two streams. He stood there, deep in thought. He sat down and stayed there, motionless as though in a trance. Smetana looked around at the enchantingly lovely countryside, at the confluence of the streams, he followed the Otava, accompanying it in spirit to the spot where it joins the Vltava, and within him sounded the first chords of the two motives which intertwine and increase and later grow and swell into a mighty melodic stream.

The composer penned brief commentaries to explain the specific content of each of the six tone poems of Má Vlast, probably in May 1879. The points of his description are reinforced by still shorter “chapter headings” in the score. He begins: “The composition depicts the course of the river, from its beginning where two brooks, one cold, the other warm, join a stream. . . .” The two flutes introduce an ascending motif, interweaving as they bubble up, accompanied by plucked violins and harp. The clarinets add their voices, but descending, rather in mirror image to the flutes, thus expressing the opposites of the cold brook and the warm one. Finally, violins, oboes, and bassoons sing out the broad “Vltava” theme itself, surging majestically. It sounds quite like a folk tune, and indeed Czech words from another folk song were later grafted on to make it, effectively, a “new” folk song in its own right. The melody is adapted from a folk source, but not a Czech one; it appeared in a collection of Swedish folk songs assembled in the early nineteenth century. (Smetana likely became acquainted with the song during his time living in Sweden.)

 Back to Smetana’s description. The two brooks “join a stream, running through forests and meadows and a lovely countryside where merry feasts are celebrated.” The horns issue a hunting tattoo and are joined by the plangent oboes and bassoons in an arpeggiated tune to launch the peasant gaiety. The notation in the score adds that the river passes by a rustic village wedding; the whole orchestra joins in a polka, the sounds of which eventually recede into the distance. “Water-sprites dance in the moonlight; on nearby rocks can be seen the outline of ruined castles, proudly soaring into the sky.” We have penetrated deep into the world of Romanticism. Again, flutes and clarinets play leap-frog (ondeggiate—“wavelike”—advises the score) in rhythms that don’t quite correspond; the flutes divide their beats into four notes each, the clarinets into three.

“Vltava swirls through the Saint John Rapids and flows in a broad stream toward Prague.” There, indeed, is the Moldau theme resurgent (in the violins and oboes at first and eventually the whole orchestra), spiky as it crashes through the rapids and finally achieving grand magnificence. “It passes the Vyšehrad”—the promontory castle on the city’s outskirts, a site of historical importance to the Czechs—“and disappears majestically into the distance, where it joins the Elbe.” The texture thins, eventually diminishing to just the violins, rising in an arpeggio, smorzando (“dying away”)—and, with two fortissimo (very loud) chords from the full orchestra, we have reached our terminus.

James M. Keller

MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC
Recordings: Jakub Hrůša conducting the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (Tudor)  |  James Levine conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Rafael Kubelík conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (Supraphon)  |  Ferenc Fricsay conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon; get this one in its recent Blu-ray audio re-release)  |  Antoni Wit conducting the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Naxos)

ReadingSmetana, by Brian Large (Duckworth)  |  Smetana: Letters and Reminiscences, edited by František Bartos (Artia-Prague)  |  Bedřich Smetana: Myth, Music, and Propaganda, by Kelly St. Pierre (Eastman Studies in Music, University of Rochester Press)

(October 2017)