Bedrich Smetana

Category: Musician

Learn more about Bedrich Smetana

Friedrich Smetana (March 2, 1824 – May 12, 1884), later known as Bedrich Smetana, was born in Litomysl near the traditional border between Bohemia and Moravia, which were then provinces of the Habsburg Empire. He was the third child and first son of Frantisek Smetana, a moderately wealthy brewer who played violin in a string quartet, and his third wife, Barbora Lynkova, a dancer. Frantisek had fathered eight children in two earlier marriages, five of whom (all daughters) survived infancy. He and Barbora had ten more children, seven of whom reached adulthood. German was the official language of Bohemia in the nineteenth century, as the region was then under Habsburg rule. Frantisek knew Czech, but for business and social reasons, he rarely used it, and his children were ignorant of correct Czech until much later in their lives.

In 1835, Frantisek retired to a farm in the south-eastern region of Bohemia. Because there was no suitable local school, Friedrich was sent to the gymnasium at Jihlava, where he was homesick and unable to study. He then transferred to a school at Nemecky Brod, where he was happier and made good progress. Among the friends he made there was the future Czech revolutionary poet Karel Havlicek, whose departure for Prague in 1838 might have encouraged young Friedrich to pursue life in the capital. The following year, with his father’s approval, he enrolled at Prague’s Academic Grammar School under Josef Jungmann, a distinguished poet and linguist who was a leading figure in the Czech national revival.

Friedrich found Jungmann’s school uncongenial. He was mocked by his classmates for his country manners, and he soon began missing classes, instead attending concerts and opera performances, listening to military bands, and composing for and performing in an amateur string quartet. After having heard a series of piano recitals from Franz Liszt, Friedrich became convinced that he would find satisfaction only in a musical career.

Frantisek did not initially support his son’s desire to pursue music as a vocation, and he removed Friedrich from Prague. Josef Smetana, a teacher at the Premonstratensian School in Plzen, and an older cousin of Friedrich’s, then offered to supervise the boy for the remainder of his schooling. In the summer of 1840 Friedrich departed for Plzen, where he remained until he completed his studies in 1843.

Friedrich was an in-demand pianist at parties in Plzen, and his father came to support his ambitions as a musician. But by the middle of the 1840’s, Frantisek had lost most of his wealth and could not help his son materially. Fredrich left for Prague in 1844 with almost no money and no clear plan for the future.

In Prague, a family friend (and his future mother-in-law) introduced Smetana to Josef Proksch, the head of the Prague Music Institute. Friedrich studied composition under Proksch, and he supported himself by serving as the tutor for a wealthy nobleman’s children.

For a brief period in 1848, Smetana was a revolutionary. In the climate of political change and upheaval that swept through Europe in that year, a pro-democracy movement in Prague led by Smetana’s old friend Karel Havlicek was urging an end to Habsburg absolutist rule and for more political autonomy. A Citizens’ Army (“Svornost”) was formed to defend the city against possible attack. Smetana wrote a series of patriotic works, including two marches dedicated respectively to the Czech National Guard and the Students’ Legion of the University of Prague, and The Song of Freedom to words by Jan Kollar. In June 1848, as the Habsburg armies moved to suppress rebellious tendencies, Prague came under attack from the Austrian forces led by the Prince of Windisch-Gratz. As a member of Svornost, Smetana helped to man the barricades on the Charles Bridge. The nascent uprising was quickly crushed, but Smetana avoided the imprisonment or exile received by leaders such as Havlicek. During his brief spell with Svornost, he met the writer and leading radical, Karel Sabina, who would later provide libretti for Smetana’s first two operas.

Early in 1848, Smetana wrote to Franz Liszt, whom he had not yet met, asking him to accept the dedication of a new piano work, Six Characteristic Pieces, and recommend it to a publisher. He also requested a loan of 400 gulden, to enable him to open a music school. Liszt replied cordially, accepting the dedication and promising to help find a publisher, but he offered no financial assistance. This encouragement was the beginning of a friendship that was of great value to Smetana in his subsequent career. Despite Liszt’s lack of financial support, Smetana was able to start a Piano Institute in late August 1848, with twelve students. After a period of struggle the Institute began to flourish and became briefly fashionable, particularly among supporters of Czech nationalism, in whose eyes Smetana was developing a reputation.

While 1848 was a momentous year for Europe, the year following was significant for Smetana. The Institute was relocated to the family home of Katerina Kolarova, the young woman whose mother had introduced him to Proksch, and it began to attract distinguished visitors, such as Liszt and the former Austrian Emperor Ferdinand, who had settled in Prague. In this time of relative financial stability Smetana married the aforementioned Katerina, a talented pianist.

In 1850, notwithstanding his revolutionary sentiments, Smetana accepted the post of Court Pianist in Ferdinand’s establishment in Prague Castle. He continued teaching in the Piano Institute, and devoted himself increasingly to composition. His works, mainly for the piano, included the three-part Wedding Scenes, some of the music of which was later used in The Bartered Bride. He also wrote numerous short experimental pieces collected under the name Album Leaves, and a series of polkas.

The 1850’s were for Smetana a time of great setbacks, both personal and professional. Three of his four daughters died in infancy at the start of the decade, and his wife succumbed to tuberculosis in 1859. From  1853–54 he had worked on a major orchestral piece, the Triumphal Symphony, composed to commemorate the wedding of Emperor Franz Joseph, which was ultimately rejected by the Imperial Court. Undeterred, Smetana hired an orchestra at his own expense to perform the symphony at the Konvikt Hall in Prague on February 1855. The work was coolly received, and the concert was a financial failure.

The general public was slow to recognize Smetana. As a young composer and pianist, he was well regarded in Prague musical circles, and he had the approval of Liszt, Proksch and others. But the public’s lack of acknowledgement was a principal factor behind his self-imposed exile in Sweden from 1856 to 1861. After his return to Prague he was not taken particularly seriously, and he had difficulty finding audiences for his new works.

Smetana’s first noteworthy public success was his initial opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, in 1866 when he was already 42 years old. His second opera, The Bartered Bride, survived the unfortunate mistiming of its opening night and became an enduring popular triumph. The different style of his third opera, Dalibor, closer to that of Wagnerian music drama, was not readily understood by the public and was condemned by critics who believed that Czech opera should be based on folk-song. It disappeared from the repertory after only a handful of performances. Thereafter the machinations that accompanied Smetana’s tenure as Provisional Theatre conductor restricted his creative output until 1874.

In his final decade, the most fruitful of his compositional career despite his deafness and increasing ill-health, Smetana belatedly received national recognition. Of his later operas, The Two Widows and The Secret were warmly received, while The Kiss was greeted even more enthusiastically. The ceremonial opera Libuse was received with thunderous applause for the composer; by this time (1881) the disputes around his music had declined, and the public was ready to honor him as the founder of Czech music. Nevertheless, the first few performances in October 1882 of an evidently under-rehearsed The Devil’s Wall were chaotic, and Smetana was left feeling discouraged. This disappointment was swiftly mitigated by the acclaim that he received in November, following the first performance of the complete Ma vlast (My Homeland) cycle, which portrays the history, legends, and landscape of his native Bohemia. The latter work contains the famous symphonic poem “Vltava,” which is popularly known by its German name “Die Moldau.”

Smetana died on May 12, 1884, survived by his second wife, Bettina, their daughters Zdenka and Bozena, and Zofie, the sole daughter from his first marriage to reach adulthood. His funeral took place on May 15, at the Tyn Church in Prague’s Old Town. The subsequent procession to the Vysehrad Cemetery was followed by a large crowd. The grave later became a place of pilgrimage for musical visitors to Prague. On the funeral evening, a scheduled performance of The Bartered Bride at the National Theatre proceeded as planned, with the stage draped with black cloth as a mark of respect. Today, Smetana is remembered as a composer who developed a musical style that became closely identified with his nation’s aspirations to independent statehood.

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