Closely associated with the development of Czech music, Bedřich
Smetana's career was full of hardships and his recognition, even in his
homeland, as the "father of Czech music" was long in being established. Born on
March 2, 1824, Smetana was introduced to music by his father, who himself had a
natural inclination for music and played violin in a string quartet. Though the
young Smetana showed an equal aptitude, giving his first concert at the age of
six, his father was unwilling to condone music as a serious career and saw it
as simply a pastime for his son.
With the permission of his father, Smetana enrolled in the
Prague Academic Grammar School in 1839. Once he arrived, he disliked the school
and his fellow students mocked his country manners. Smetana began to skip
classes and instead attend concerts, operas and even joined an amateur string
quartet for which he composed simple pieces. When Franz Liszt visited the Czech
capital to give a series of recitals, Smetana determined that he would only be satisfied
with a career in music. However, when his father found out of this, he took his
son from the city, placing him in the care of his uncle.
Eventually, Smetana's won his father's approval of his
career choice and in August 1843 departed once again for Prague with little
money and no immediate prospects. Smetana also recognized his own lack of
formal training in music. With the help of a friend, Kateřina
(who later became his wife), Smetana began taking theory and composition
lessons with Josef Proksch in January 1844. He also secured income by teaching
music to the children of Count Thun.
In 1848, Smetana took part in the brief revolutionary
outbreak against Habsburg rule. The rebellion was quickly put down, but
Smetana, fortunately, was able to escape the punishment the rebellion's leaders
faced. During this brief uprising, he met the writer and fellow revolutionary,
Karel Sabina, who later provided the libretti for Smetana's first operas. That
same year, Smetana appealed to Franz Liszt for help. Though he had not yet met
Liszt, he wrote to him asking him to accept the dedication of his Six Characteristic Pieces and recommend
it to a publisher. Quite boldly, he also asked for a loan to establish a piano
school in Prague. While Liszt accepted the dedication and promised to aid in
finding a publisher, he did not offer Smetana the lone he requested.
Nevertheless, Smetana was able to start his music school in August of that year
with twelve students. The school eventually flourished and became a beacon of
Czech nationalism. The following year, even Liszt began visiting the school
Despite the reputation of his school, the public's response
to Smetana both as pianist and composer was rather cool. Growing weary of
Prague and seeing little advancement there, Smetana condemned himself to a sort
of self-exile in Sweden in 1856. Within a few weeks of his arrival in
Gothenburg, Sweden, he gave his first recital, opened a music school than was
soon overwhelmed with applications, and accepted the post of conductor of the
Gothenburg Society for Classical Choral Music. With little competition, Smetana
quickly established a professional and social reputation throughout the city.
He also began composing on a much larger scale during these years, producing
several orchestral works.
With the waning of Habsburg rule after 1859, Smetana began
to contemplate a return to Prague and his homeland. When it was announced in
1861 that a Provisional Theatre was to be built in Prague for the performance
of Czech operas, he saw a new opportunity. Initially, however, his sights were
on the theatre's conductorship and not on the composition of operas, but his
association with Liszt and Wagner, barred him from attaining it. Smetana then
turned his focus on an opera competition which resulted in The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, submitted in 1863. Though it would be three years before Smetana's
opera would be declared the winner, it received a warm premiere on January 5,
1866. This success led to the premiere of his second opera, The Bartered Bride, only a few months
later in May. The premiere was ill-timed, however, resulting in a failure, but,
with several revisions, it was staged again in 1870 and has since become
Smetana's most famous opera.
The year 1866 also saw Smetana's long-awaited appointment as
principal conductor of the Provisional Theatre. His tenure there, though, was
not easy. He made several enemies and his own operas were increasing condemned
as too "Wagnerian." Eventually the Theatre's chairman, František
Riegers, attempted to kick Smetana out in 1872 and reappoint his predecessor.
Rieger's attempt failed, largely through the support of the vice-chairman and a
group of prominent musicians which included Antonín Dvořák.
Growing deafness and health concerns forced Smetana to leave
the Provisional Theatre in 1874. By the end of the year he had lost his hearing
in both ears. Despite his health problems, however, he continued to compose and
at the home of his eldest daughter Žofie was able to do so in tranquil and
undisturbed surroundings. Several of his most famous works came from this late
period of his life, including the cycle of six symphonic poems Má vlast ("My Fatherland"), the String
Quartet in E minor known as From My Life,
and three more operas. In these last years, he also finally attained
recognition as the leading exponent of Czech music.
By 1883, Smetana's health had taken a turn for the worse. He
began experiencing depression, insomnia and hallucinations. His behavior began
to worry his friends and eventually his family was forced to commit him to an
asylum in April 1884. Less than a month later, on May 12, 1884, Smetana passed
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