Bedřich Smetata (1824-1884)
Overture from The Bartered Bride
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO performed: 2011
Until the 1850s Smetana was known mainly as a teacher and composer of salon music. This was frustrating for a man who had counted Liszt among his early supporters. In 1856, hearing that opportunities were easier to come by in Sweden, he left Prague for Gothenberg. There he worked as a teacher and choirmaster, while beginning to write large-scale music that he hoped would improve his reputation.
His incentives for leaving Bohemia were not entirely musical. There was no independent Czech state at this time, Bohemia being a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1848 there had been an uprising in Prague against the conservative and repressive regime. Smetana had briefly participated in this revolt. After its failure, the political climate became even more poisonous, and so it was wise for someone with nationalist sentiments to seek a life elsewhere.
In 1857 Smetana visited his old mentor Liszt in Weimar. While there he met the Austrian conductor Johann von Herbeck. Herbeck commented that in his opinion the Czech people were incapable of producing a distinct national music. This incensed Smetana, and he determined to prove Herbeck wrong: “I swore there and then that no other than I should beget a native Czech music.” This provocation was to prove the making of Smetana.
By the 1860s the political climate was thawing slightly in Prague, and Smetana decided to return. He was encouraged by the news that an opera house was to be built there, and saw this as an opportunity to create an authentic Czech musical style. First he had to overcome a rather unfortunate handicap: he did not actually speak Czech very well. As a subject of Austria he had been educated almost entirely in German, and had to work hard to gain fluency in what was supposed to be his native language. Eventually he improved enough to gain a job as a music critic. Meanwhile he composed his opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, on the subject of the invasion of Prague by Otto of Brandenburg in the 13th century.
The Brandenburgers was a hit, and the opera house readily accepted Smetana’s next opera for performance, a light comedy called The Bartered Bride. Its première in 1866 was less successful. This was partly due to the fact that Prague was under threat of invasion by the Prussian army, a tense situation that would shortly explode into war.
However, after revisions The Bartered Bride was restaged in 1870. This time it was a huge success. It quickly established itself as the Czech national opera, and was a great inspiration to the nascent independence movement. The distinct rhythms and inflections of the Czech language and Czech folk dances were an important part of the style of the music, and this is heard to great effect in the bustling overture, which unusually was the first part of the opera to be written.
Note © 2011 by Peter Nagle.