Bedrich Smetana

(2 March 1824, Leitomischl - 12 May 1884, Prague)


Bedrich Smetana was a Czech composer who pioneered the development of a musical style which became the core of the Czech national school of music. He is thus widely regarded in his homeland as the father of Czech music. Bedrich came in contact with music from an early age, his father František, was an amateur violinist and played in a string quartet. He first studied under his father, after which he took up piano under a professional teacher, at the age of 6 gave his first public performance.
One year later, along with his family, he moved to Jindrichuv Hradec where he attended the local elementary school and later the gymnasium. In this period he got acquainted with the works of Mozart and Beethoven, and began composing simple pieces. Bedrich also continued studying the violin and piano.

In 1839, having received his father's approval, he enrolled at the Prague's Academic Grammar School under Josef Jungmann, a distinguished poet and linguist who was a leading figure in the movement for Czech national revival. After Liszt gave a series of piano recitals in the city, Smetana became convinced that he would find satisfaction only in a musical career. However, the Prague idyll ended when his father found out that he was skipping class, and removed him from the city.

One of Smetana's earliest composition that has survived is Louisa's Polka, dedicated to his cousin Louisa with whom he enjoyed a brief romance. Around 1843 he composed several pieces, among which are two Quadrilles, a song duet, an incomplete piano study for the left hand and his first orchestral piece, a B flat minuet.

Having persuaded his father, in August 1843 Smetana departed for Prague to follow his musical career. He was introduced by Katerina Kolárová's mother to Josef Proksch, head of the Prague Music institute and in January 1844 Smetana became his pupil. His father's fortunes had declined and so he had to provide for himself. That same year, he secured an appointment as music teacher to the family of Leopold, Count von Thun. 

For the next 3 years he continued to study theory and composition under Proksch. In this period he composed songs, dances, bagatelles, impromptus and his G minor Piano Sonata. In June 1847 he resigned his position in the Thun household and set out on a tour of Western Bohemia, hoping to establish a reputation as a concert pianist. Smetana's concert tour didn't go as he had hoped, lacking support, he returned to Prague where he secured his financial situation with private lessons and occasional public appearances. He also began work on his first major orchestral work, the Overture in D major. In late August 1848, encouraged by Franz Liszt, he opened a piano school in Prague and the next year married the pianist Katerina Kolárová. In 1856 he wrote his first symphonic poems and in the same year was appointed conductor of the philharmonic society of Gothenburg (Sweden), where he remained until 1861. He then returned to Prague, where he played the leading part in the establishment of the national opera house.

His first opera, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, was produced in Prague on 5 January 1866 and was well received by the public and critics establishing Smetana's reputation as a distinctively Czech composer. A second opera, The Bartered Bride, was composed over a period of 3 years and premiered on 30 May 1866. The opera's first performance was a failure; it was held on one of the hottest evenings of the year, on the eve of the Austro-Prussian War with Bohemia under imminent threat of invasion by Prussian troops. Unsurprisingly the occasion was poorly attended, and receipts failed to cover costs. After several revisions and restructures (the two-act version was added another act), the work was finally presented at the Provisional Theater in its final form, in September 1870, achieving a tremendous public success. Dalibor, written under the influence of Wagner, was performed in 1868. Libuše, named after a legendary figure in the history of Prague and intended to celebrate the projected coronation (which never took place) of the emperor Francis Joseph as king of Bohemia, was not produced until 1881.

In 1874, for reasons that concerned his health, Smetana resigned his conductorship of the Prague Opera. He became totally deaf in late 1874, but between that year and 1879 he wrote the cycle of six symphonic poems bearing the collective title Má vlast (My Country), which includes Vltava (The Moldau), Z ceských luhu a háju (From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests), and Vyšehrad (the name of a fortress in Prague). From this period also came the string quartet to which he gave the title Z mého života (From My Life), considered among his finest works; Hubicka (The Kiss), successfully produced in 1876; Certova stena (The Devil’s Wall), performed in 1882; and a number of piano solos, including many polkas.

Smetana had been, from early in life, a virtuoso performer on the piano, and for many years most of his works were composed for it. Those compositions, augmented by the more mature piano pieces of his difficult last years, constitute an important body of piano literature. Following attacks of depression and symptoms of mental instability, Smetana entered an asylum at Prague and died there.

The basic materials from which Smetana fashioned his art, according to Newmarch, were nationalism, realism and romanticism. A particular feature of all his later music is its descriptive character (a strong characteristic of the program music). Smetana's champions have recognized the major influences on his work as Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz – the "progressives" – while those same advocates have often played down the significance of "traditionalist" composers such as Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and Meyerbeer.

Here  you can find a list of Bedrich Smetana's works.