The nationalism that agitated European countries during the 19th and most of the 20th century led to the creation of art, literature and music encouraging the ideal of social and political change. Composers depicted legends and heroic deeds to inspire people to struggle against oppression – among them Bedřich Smetana.
Bedřich Smetana (1824-84) composed his famous cycle of six symphonic poems Má vlast – traditionally translated as “My Country”, although strictly meaning “My Homeland” – at a time of fervent nationalism. First performed on 5 November 1882 under the baton of Adolf Čech, today there are many fine recordings by eminent conductors. Purists swear by Czech conductors leading the Czech Philharmonic, notably those by Václav Talich, Karel Ančerl, Václav Neumann and Rafael Kubelík.
Czech romantic nationalism was about the rhythm, colour and sounds of Czech life, history, speech, landscape, and sentiment. Smetana used the symphonic poem form pioneered by Franz Liszt with the ideals of nationalistic music and wrote six works dedicated to the city of Prague.
The first poem, Vyšehrad, pictures the castle in Prague which was the seat of the earliest Czech kings: “the half-legendary rock towering above the Vltava, awakening in the poet’s mind dreams of its glory and final fall as the original seat of Bohemia’s rulers and kings, the harp of the bard Lumir echoing within the halls of the castle.” Smetana introduced motifs that are heard again in at the end of “Vltava” and once more at the end of “Blaník”. The overall mood is one of heroism and nobility.
In Vltava (The Moldau) – probably the best known piece from Má vlast – Smetana evokes the sounds and sights of one of Bohemia’s great rivers. In his own words:
“The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the merging of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night’s moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance.”
Smetana’s first two tone poems present an intensely romantic view of his home country, which audiences immediately understood and responded to. Vltava (The Moldau) became and remains one of the most popular orchestral works of all time.