What does a celebration mean? Good food, drinks, enjoyable company, great music? And what if someone whose significance goes far beyond the borders of our country is celebrating? Someone who is known in parts of the world we may not have even heard of ourselves? Not only will such a celebration be that much bigger and that much longer, but there will also be more of those who will rightfully want to join in such a celebration.
That is why the Smetana200 project was conceived.
Who else but Bedřich Smetana deserves to be given a unique position in the Year of Czech Music 2024 that matches his prominence. Especially as this year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth.
How will we celebrate?
With music, words, exhibitions, theater performances, films, and dances. The Czech and international cultural scenes have a unique opportunity to connect with each other through this anniversary. What we know about Bedřich Smetana will be the most precious gift we can give him.
There are only a handful of personalities like Bedřich Smetana in every nation. They are those whose extraordinary talents come to the fore against the wishes of their own family. Those who work at their talent and hone it until it is polished to perfection. Those who don't stop at what is pleasing, but who turn their talent into something greater. Those who can ultimately elevate their own nation with their talents, and with it, impact the entire world.
Bedřich Smetana was born on 2 March, 1824 in Litomyšl into a wealthy family of a brewmaster. Already at the age of six, he publicly appeared as a child prodigy. Nevertheless, he chooses the path of a musician against his father's wishes. He wants his son to take over the brewing trade. If young Bedřich had been more obedient, we could have had Smetana lager instead of the music that still lifts us from our seats.
After graduating from the grammar school in Pilsen, Smetana moved to Prague to earn a living as a home tutor and to study composition privately. During this time, he wrote his first compositions. His reputation as an outstanding musician spreads rapidly. Smetana plays for the Emperor himself and meets, among others, Franz Liszt, whom he deeply admires.
Around the age of 30, he is offered the position of director of the Gothenburg Philharmonic Society. He works there from 1856-1861 as a respected composer, music teacher, pianist, and choirmaster. His stay is rewarding in every way. From Sweden he travels to Weimar to meet Franz Liszt, who directs his attention to programme music.
On his return to Bohemia, he struggles for recognition. It is only after the successful performance of his first two operas that he takes up the prestigious post of Kapellmeister of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra. Gradually, he becomes a key figure in the Czech music scene. In 1868, his opera Dalibor is performed at the laying of the foundation stone of the National Theatre. At the grand opening of the theatre in 1881, the famous tunes of Libuše are heard for the first time.
At his creative peak, the composer is stricken with deafness and a developing mental illness. However, he does not stop composing. He exchanges public life for the seclusion of the grove in Jabkenice, the home of his daughter Žofie. It is here that many of his greatest works are written, including the cycle of symphonic poems My Country, inspired by the beauty of the Czech landscape and the high points of Czech history. Bedřich Smetana died on 12 May, 1884 at the age of 60.
What sounds like the name of a remote Slavic village sounds familiar to every Czech from his music education classes. These are the first syllables of Smetana's operas. But Smetana's scope is much wider.
In Smetana's operas, the nascent national self-consciousness comes into play. Moreover, in Czech, which is only just beginning to be heard in public. Smetana chooses librettos based on Czech history, legends, and rural life. He was motivated and confident by the success of his first two operas: The historical Brandenburgers in Bohemia and the comic opera, The Bartered Bride, which was extremely popular with the public. (Why shouldn't it be?)
The third tragic opera, Dalibor, accompanies the laying of the foundation stone for the National Theatre. Smetana saves his famous Libuše for nine years for its opening. Its majestic notes, which penetrate to the core, are still heard on occasions of the highest national importance.
This is followed by the salon conversational opera, Two Widows, and a trio of operas from the period of Smetana's deafness: the plain-spoken, The Kiss, and the comic operas The Secret and The Devil's Wall. The last opera, Viola, remains unfinished.
The first major work for orchestra is the Festive Overture in D major. Composed in the turbulent year of 1848, he projected an anxious social mood into it. He intended to dedicate his only symphony, the Triumphal, to Franz Joseph I. The dedication was not accepted.
It was not until the time of Smetana's complete deafness that the most famous cycle of symphonic poems, My Country, was written. It is filled with admiration for Czech natural beauty, references to history, and a celebration of Hussitism, a symbol of the glory of the ancient times of the Czech nation. With its monumentality, significance, concept and scope, Má vlast has been permanently enshrined in history and now belongs to the repertoire of the world's top orchestras.
Smetana began his career as a composer with compositions for piano. Many of his chamber music pieces have strong autobiographical features. The Trio in G minor was written after the death of his beloved daughter Bedřiška, while the Quartet No. 1 in E minor bears the direct subtitle From My Life.
When composing compositions for choir, artistic quality was important to Smetana, not ease of performance. The boundaries of what is possible are still being tested today, for example, in The Three Horsemen, The Renegade, The Peasant Song, The Song of the Sea, and The Czech Song.
On Vítězslav Hálek's poems, he composed his only song cycle for voice and piano, The Evening Songs.
Ilustrative photo: Pavel Haas Quartet (photo: Petr Kadlec)