Smetana: Vltava

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)

Czech nationalism was a sentiment borne more on hope than experience in the 19th century. The country then known as Bohemia was a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it would not emerge with any autonomy until the creation of Czechoslovakia in the wake of the First World War: true independence had to wait until the Czech republic disconnected itself from Slovakia in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the last century.

So music was one of the few areas that offered any palpable outlet for patriotic expression, and Smetana, as the leading Czech composer of his day, found himself at the head of a movement, and his music emulated as the basis for a Czech school of composition. The cycle of six tone poems called Má Vlast [My Homeland] that he composed between 1872 and 1879 represent a self-conscious attempt to encapsulate the essence of Bohemia in music.

The original title of the cycle was the more demonstrative Vlast; the later addition of the pronoun perhaps suggests an unease with the idea of being a spokesman for the nationalist cause at a time when he was the subject of increasing hostility from critics. The project must also have taken on a great personal significance as the composition of the first part, Vyšehrad, coincided with the sudden loss of Smetana's hearing. For a composer this was serious enough, but the deafness itself was a symptom of undiagnosed syphilis, which would eventually kill him. Má Vlast therefore represents a remarkable fusion of the political and the personal.

Vltava is the second part of the cycle. It depicts the flow of the eponymous river from its source in the Šumava Mountains to Prague and beyond. On the way it passes a hunting party and a village wedding, and sprites dance on its moonlit waters before the current builds as the river reaches the St. John rapids, then flows broadly through Prague, past Vyšehrad Castle and disappears into the distance where it will flow into the Elba.

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