A few dramatic, frightening opening bars… a prelude to a sad and slow theme. Then, drama, again. And then: melancholy. This string quartet expresses a lot of feelings: distress, a cry for help, a longing for deliverance, a certain bitterness, the memory of past joys and injuries, of youthful lust and glory – time flies and before we realize it, we are confronted with our own finiteness.
In 1882-83, Bedrich Smetana wrote String Quartet No. 2 in D minor, JB 1:124, the last quartet he would write. In a letter to his friend Josef Srba the composer, deaf by then, presents his difficulties with the work, his misgivings and fears. He worked on it despite his doctor’s orders to refrain from all musical activity. The first public performance took place on 3 January 1884 in Prague, the score was not published until 1889, five years after Smetana’s death. I call my own a very nice recording by the Pavel Haas Quartet.
Operas on nationalist themes
Smetana is the first Czech nationalist composer and was at his time the leader of a new style of Czech opera composers. “The Bartered Bride” became his best known operatic work, while the symphonic poem “Ma Vlast” (see a previous post) became his most famous orchestral works. Smetana’s chamber music is less well-known; many pieces are considered lost or survived only as fragments.
The composer was born into a brewer’s family that had achieved a certain standard of living. Chamber music was frequently heard at Smetana’s home and his father initiated young Bedrich to music when the boy was four years old. Smetana learnt to play the violin and the piano in his spare time. If he had had his way, he would have become a music student, but his father had other ideas and enrolled him in a humanistic college. In 1840, Smetana abandoned school and started to perform in an amateur quartet, “attracted […] more to the social and cultural life of Prague”, as Oxford Music Online puts it. His passion for music is attested by a list of early compositions in his diary of 1841. Only one of these pieces survives intact: his polka “Louise” for piano.
First steps as a pianist and composer
The break with his father was inevitable, but Smetana completed his studies under the supervision of an older cousin, teaching at a clerical Gymnasium in Plzen. Smetana composed mainly dance and salon pieces for piano. In 1844, he became a music teacher of the family of Count Leopold Thun. His hopes rested on a career as a pianist, but he lacked the flexibility required by extended touring, and his attempts in this direction failed. In 1848, he founded a music institute that helped him out of his financial distress.
1848 was a year marked by revolutionary ambitions all over Europe, and Smetana started to compose pieces that expressed his political convictions focusing on a sense of national awakening. But he did not get the recognition he thought he deserved, the only person truly encouraging him was Franz Liszt. In 1856 Smetana emigrated to Sweden. His teaching activities in Gothenburg secured him a steady income and he achieved one of his long-term goals: becoming a conductor. With a local ensemble he performed works written by Händel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Wagner – and Smetana. However, being so far from the cultural centers of Europe, meant to a certain degree artistic isolation.
Returning to Prague
In the mean time, his wife had died, and during a visit in his home country he had set his sights on the sister-in-law of his brother as his second wife. In 1860, he returned to Prague, just in time for the opening of the Provisional Theatre in 1861, which had a high demand for Czech plays and opera. Smetana gave concerts to make his name known, wrote symphonic poems and operas gravitating more and more around nationalist themes, a musical development in line with Smetana’s growing patriotic feelings as a Czech (as opposed to be just a citizen of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire).
This later phase secured Smetana his deserved place in the history of European and Czech music. However up to his death, he harboured bitter resentments at the perceived failure to reach recognition as a national composer. In 1882, a year before he started to compose his final string quartet, he wrote: “‘I do not write in the style of any famous composer, I admire only their greatness, taking for myself everything that I recognize as good and beautiful and above all truthful in art.”
© Charles Thibo