A Silver-Green Ribbon Runs Through It

Bedrich Smetana translated the rippling of the waves into music. © Charles Thibo
Bedrich Smetana translated the rippling of the waves into music. © Charles Thibo

Water, light, morning mist, magic by the moonlight, fairies – we have seen all that already, right? Well, those are the eternal subjects of the Romantic era, which hasn’t halted before the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and what is today the Czech Republic. And all those elements appear in another piece of music, that has fascinated me since I heard it first at school. Eternal gratitude again to my music teacher.

Bedrich Smetana, born in 1824 in Bohemia, composed the symphonic poem “Vltava” as part of the cycle “Ma Vlast” (My Homeland) in November and December 1874 and it follows the Romantic tradition in describing natural phenomena with melodies: the sources that unite to become the river Vltava (“Moldau” in German), how the Vltava winds itself first through countryside dominated by woods and farmland (peasant wedding included), how nymphs dance on it at night, how it flows on through a countryside with castles and fortresses and how it finally crosses the city of Prague past the High Castle, seat of the Czech kings.

My teacher was right: to encourage young people to listen to classical music, you must start with something that they can make sense of, not with abstract compositions like Bach’s pieces for violin for example, brilliant no doubt, but not suited to trigger a first interest in classical music. Like Tchaikovsky’s overture “1812”, Smetana’s “Vltava” is perfectly suited for such purpose as the composer has succeeded in rendering the different snapshots of the river by distinct melodies.

The cycle “Ma Vlast” has actually six parts: The Vysehrad (the High Castle), Vltava, Sarka (a rebel leader), From Bohemian Woods and Fields, Tabor (a city name) and Blanik (Mountain of Peace). The cycle was first performed as a whole in 1882 in Prague. Unfortunately, by that time Smetana was too ill to attend the performance. He gradually became deaf and by 1874 he had to renounce to all official posts. Upon the recommendation of the German composer and pianist Franz Liszt, Smetana had been made the director of the Philharmonic Orchestra in Gothenburg (Sweden), where he had emigrated for political reasons. Back home by 1861, he led the orchestra of the Czech National Theatre. All that came to a halt in 1874.

Smetana can be considered as the founder of a specific Czech musical tradition. Besides “Ma Vlast” he composed several operas and quartets for violin, a piano trio, a symphony in E Major and three more symphonic poems. The recording of “Ma Vlast” that I favour has been recorded by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Levine.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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