Smetana draws miniature portraits of his homeland

Mystic sunrise. © Charles Thibo

All is well. The sun will rise just like any other day and all will be well. There is no need to doubt or to fear. This is the reassuring message I read into Bedrich Smetana’s two sets of “Czech Dances” JB 1:107 and JB 1:114. Very nice piano pieces, and by keeping them short, Smetana reduced them to the essence. Miniature portraits of his country reflecting either traditional dances like the polka or everyday ideas: a hen, a bear, an onion, a parading soldier. He wrote the pieces between 1877 and 1881, at the end of a turbulent career. They have been recorded by the US pianist Garrick Ohlsson.

“Creator of the Czech style”

I have presented Smetana’s life in an earlier post and I see no necessity to go back to his biography. I would rather focus on his reception – then and now. He is seen as one of the founding fathers of a distinct Czech music style, actually derived from his personal style. He was fully aware of his eminent role. “According to my merits and according to my efforts I am a Czech composer and the creator of the Czech style in the branches of dramatic and symphonic music – exclusively Czech”, he claimed in 1882.

Emancipation in Czech music went hand in hand with political independence from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. But while Smetana progressed towards fame, many Czechs were dissatisfied with his music. It sounded too German. Smetana mostly spoke German, the language he grew up with, and his musical expression remains indebted to the Vienna classic era and German Romanticism. In the 18th and 19th century, society held the firm conviction that “music could convey an innate national spirit of a community” writes Erin K. Bennett in her dissertation “Czech Nationalism in Music: A Study of Smetana’s ‘Czech Dances, Book 2’ for Piano”.

Cross-cultural influences

However, most, if not all composers I have discussed on this blog had travelled far and absorbed different flavours of music. Some even went back in time, explored the world of sound of the Renaissance or the Baroque era in the 19th century or revived Gregorian chants in the 20th century. My point is: Artists all over Europe were exposed to all kind of influences at any time, and they took the material they found and transformed it into something of their own. Originality makes a composer great, not the colour of his passport.

Smetana was trained according to a school centered on Vienna, but he explored Bohemian folk tunes, traditional dances and incorporated historical, mythological and patriotic subjects in his works. Czech music? Certainly. But he built upon the works of earlier generations of composers, and what was once considered as typically Czech music belongs today to the world’s musical heritage.

© Charles Thibo

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