Smetana: Má vlast (My Country) II: Šárka and From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields

The third and fourth works in Bedřich Smetana’s symphonic cycle Má vlast: savage warrior maiden and lush countryside.

The legend of Šarka tells of a warrior maiden burning for revenge upon the whole race of men. She instructs her followers to bind her to a tree so that in her apparent distress she may awake the pity of, and so ambush, the Knight of Ctirad. Once released by Ctirad, who has quickly fallen in love with her, Šárka serves him and his comrades with drugged mead and once they have fallen asleep she sounds a hunting horn: an agreed signal to the other women. The story ends savagely, with the warrior maidens falling upon and murdering the sleeping men.

From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields (more correctly “From Czech Fields and Groves”) depicts “the beauties of the Czech countryside, the poetry of its woods and fertile valleys, filled with the songs and simple joys of the peasantry. A light breeze rustles through the grove. From afar come the strains of country revelry, until all the plain rings with dance and song.”

On the centenary of Smetana’s birth, fellow composer Leos Janácek praised Smetana’s musical language and his evocation of mood:  “It is not the structuring of his works, but the refraction of light and colour and the echo within, the sprouting into hundreds of wonderful motifs linked together, that dazzles” (writing in Theatre Whispers, 1 March 1924).

The success of Má vlast lies in Smetana’s evocation of folk music within a formal structure, his use of Czech rhythms and dances, and in his ability to find musical (impressionistic) equivalents for landscape and legend.

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