The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Works in Focus: Smetana’s Má vlast

  17th January 2024

17th January 2024

Amid the seemingly constant flow of new Bruckner recordings being issued in anticipation of the composer’s 200th birthday on this September, it’s easy to overlook another important musical bicentenary that falls this year. Bedřich Smetana was born on 2 March 1824, six months and two days before his Austrian counterpart. Although he was raised in a German-speaking household and mastered the Czech language only later in life, Smetana formed the keystone in the musical Czech national revival of the 19th century. He had already composed the three works on which his operatic fame rests – The Bartered Bride, Dalibor and Libuše – when, with the sudden onset of total deafness in the mid-1870s, he set about composing his orchestral masterpiece: the cycle of six symphonic poems entitled Má vlast (‘My Homeland’).

Following a visit to Weimar in 1857, Smetana had already fallen under the spell of Franz Liszt’s ‘New Music’, composing the symphonic poems Richard III, Wallenstein’s Camp and Hakon Jarl on returning to his Swedish base in Gothenburg. By the early 1860s he was back in Prague, and it was an 1869 visit to the source of the river Vltava – the conjunction of the two streams known as the ‘Cold’ and ‘Warm’ Vltava – that sowed the seeds of what was to become Má vlast. The initial conception was rather different, but the mixture of mythological and natural subject matter was there from the beginning, as were the two pieces that became the work’s opening sections: Vyšehrad (named after the ancient hill fort some 3km southeast of Prague Castle, on the east bank of the Vltava river) and Vltava (often referred to by the river’s German name, Die Moldau).

These two opening sections were composed in quick succession in the autumn and early winter of 1874 – Vltava taking just 19 days, as noted by the composer in his manuscript full score – as Smetana came to grips with the reality of the situation regarding his loss of hearing. Yet you’d never guess this bleak background from the glorious flow of ideas in these works: the bardic harps and evocations of legendary times in Vyšehrad, and the minutely picturesque details of Vltava, from the opening mingling of the river’s sources (a pair of limpid flutes), via a charming peasant wedding scene, nymphs dancing by moonlight, a dramatic traversal of St John’s Rapids, and the broad flow of the river at Prague itself. Premiered separately, these two sections set up a recurring paired theme, the first rooted in Czech history, the second in the present.

With the third work, Smetana visits the world of Czech myth and the tale of the bloodthirsty warrior maiden Šárka (the subject of operas by Fibich and Janáček), sworn to avenge herself on all men as she entraps the luckless prince Ctirad. In the context of the cycle as a whole, Šárka injects an atmosphere of gripping drama. Today, the figure of Šárka is memorialised by a rocky wild nature reserve northwest of Prague, ‘Divoká Šárka’ (‘Wild Šárka’). It is a very different picture of the Czech countryside that is painted in the cycle’s fourth movement, Z českých luhů a hájů (‘From Bohemia’s Fields and Groves’), which encompasses rolling landscapes, woodland horn calls, and even (most bafflingly for commentators) a complex fugal section for the strings. Like the previous two sections, both Šárka and From Bohemia’s Fields and Groves are rich in textural and motivic contrasts, so that they stand well on their own. At the time of their completion (in February and October 1875 respectively), these pieces were intended as completing a four-movement cycle.

Yet all was not quite finished: in 1878 Smetana returned to the work with another pair of movements, more intimately bound together than the others. Tábor is again rooted in Czech history, in this case in the 15th-century Hussite wars, during which the settlement of Tábor formed the Hussites’ main base. Its brooding, monothematic subject being the Hussite battle hymn ‘Ktož jsú Boží bojovníci’ (‘Ye who are God’s warriors’), whose repeated monotone intonation builds to some thrilling orchestral tuttis. The final tutti then ‘spills over’ into the opening of the final work, Blaník, named after the imposing mountain in Central Bohemia, said to contain a vast sleeping army led by St Wenceslaus, who will rise again at the Czech nation’s hour of greatest need. This wonderfully-paced movement culminates in the overwhelming return of the ‘Vyšehrad’ theme from the cycle’s first two sections, and a joyous closing tutti that never fails to raise the roof. It looks to a glorious future for the Czech lands, rooted in but shaking off the troubles of its past.

Although the various sections were premiered in turn as they appeared (with Tábor and Blaník performed together), the first complete performance of Má vlast was on 5 November 1882 at Prague’s Žofín Palace, conducted by Smetana’s trusted collaborator Adolf Čech. There is something very special about hearing all six works in sequence in a single concert, and Má vlast has formed the opening concert of the post-war Prague Spring Music Festival, since 1952 held on the anniversary of Smetana’s death (12 May 1884), with several of the finest performances recorded for posterity.

Two particularly special accounts have been preserved on disc: Rafael Kubelík’s 1990 performance with the Czech Philharmonic marked the great conductor’s homecoming after years of exile and the fall of Communism, and exudes a long and deep experience with the score (he had previously made four commercial recordings, in Chicago, Vienna, Boston and Munich). As atmospheric as that landmark recording is, another is even headier: Václav Talich’s live 1939 performance, just months after the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands, features audience applause after every movement, mounting in volume and intensity after each successive movement, and followed by a spontaneous mass-rendition of the Czech national anthem. It’s the most vivid illustration possible of the importance of music (and in particular Má vlast) as a rallying cry to the Czech nation, and although a single ‘library’ recommendation would be in better sound, this precious audio document ought to be in every Czech music lover’s collection.

Picture: Vyšehrad and the Vltava (source: Wikimedia Commons)

A few recommended recordings:
Czech PO / Talich (1939) SU40652
Czech PO / Ančerl (1963) SU36612
Czech PO / Ančerl (1968) SU70159 (DVD)
Czech PO / Kubelík (1990) 1112082
Czech PO / Mackerras (1999) SU34652
Janáček PO Ostrava / Kuchar (2007) 94853
Prague Philharmonia / Hrůša (2010) SU40322
Collegium 1704 / Luks (2021) ACC24378

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