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Composed: 1879

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

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 30, 1964, Rafael Kubelik conducting

About this Piece

Nationalism was a pervasive force in late Romantic music, but no composer was more ardently diligent in putting his country’s history, legends, and geography to musical use than Bedřich Smetana. The first major Bohemian nationalist composer, Smetana became a hero to his people for his dramatic, sophisticated, and highly original adaptation of native subjects. 

   None of this could have been predicted from Smetana’s early career. He was not a native Czech speaker, and in the 1850s and early ’60s he was far more popular in Sweden than in his homeland, where he was regarded as a disciple of Liszt and the “New German” school. 

   But Smetana’s nationalistic sentiments were quite sincere. He made the effort to learn Czech, and with the premiere of his first operas, Braniboři v Čechách (The Brandenburgers in Bohemia) and Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride), in 1866, he began to win an enthusiastic public at home.  

   There was hardly any time for Smetana, however, when either his personal or his professional life was not severely troubled. The final great disaster came in 1874. The composer had begun work on a vast instrumental ode to his native land, Má vlast (My Fatherland), a cycle of tone poems eventually to number six. He had almost completed the first part of the cycle when in the span of a few months he became totally deaf. Nonetheless, he finished the first tone poem, “Vyšehrad,” in November of 1874, and he added the next three—“Vltava” (The Moldau), “Šárka,” and “Z českych luhuv a hájuv” (From Bohemia’s Fields and Groves)—in less than a year. The last two units of the cycle, “Tábor” and “Blaník,” were composed during the winter of 1878-79. 

   All six of these symphonic poems deal with people and places looming large in Czech legend and history. The inspiration came to Smetana while working on his patriotic opera Libuše, and three poems in the cycle share motivic material from that opera. 

   “Vltava” depicts the course of the river Moldau and events along its banks. (The main theme, ironically, is based on a Swedish folk song.) When the river reaches the fortress of Vyšehrad, the music motivically recalls the first poem of the cycle, which describes the castle, and a related passage from the opera Libuše 

   For the third poem of the cycle, Smetana turned from geography to legend. A beautiful maiden warrior jilted by her lover, Šárka swears vengeance on all men and leads an armed female rebellion. When soldiers led by Ctirad arrive to put down the rebellion, Šárka sets up a trap. She has herself tied to a tree in the forest, and when Ctirad hears her cries for help, he sets her free and falls in love. Šárka offers Ctirad and his men a drugged refreshment, and when they have all fallen asleep, she summons her own band of warrior maidens with a horn call. They leap from hiding in nearby rocks to slaughter the men, Ctirad dying last. 

   The color and freshness of Smetana’s orchestral imagination is clear in both of these works, disparate as they are in spirit. The Moldau gathers increasing power as two streams come together and it rolls in lilting waves down to Prague, with riverside dances and roaring rapids providing contrasting sounds. “Vltava” was not as well received as the other poems when first performed—individually, not as a cycle—but has since become easily the most popular piece from the set. 

   The narrative thread of Šárka is easy to follow—the main characters have their own themes, which intertwine in a love scene of almost Straussian lushness when Ctirad releases Šárka, and the drunkenness of the drugged men is depicted by a clumsy polka and their snoring by contrabassoon rumblings. Humor shifts to horror as Šárka’s vengeance is heralded in the low woodwinds, and the finale is a furious depiction of bloodlust. —John Henken 

   “Blaník” is the mountain close to the fortress of Tábor (represented in the fifth movement of the cycle), where the Hussite heroes lie sleeping, ready to rise against any threat to the homeland. The first part of the tone poem is somber, depicting the march of the heroes into the depths of the earth. A pastoral section pictures the verdant beauty of the mountainside. Then we hear rumblings of unrest, as the heroes prepare to rise to new heroic deeds of valor. The Hussite chorale is heard in a mighty swell. At the end, it is combined with the Vyšehrad motive with which the cycle opened. Through this union of the two themes, a victorious Bohemia is proclaimed. —Robert Turner