Bedřich Smetana, classical music composer

Bedřich Smetana image

Bedřich Smetana

Biography

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 Kolářova (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 regularly.

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 away.


Composer Title Date Action
Bedřich Smetana En Bohême, Scène champêtre, from Rêves (Dreams) 01/23/2009 Play Add to playlist
Bedřich Smetana La Fête des paysans bohémiens, from Rêves (Dreams) 01/20/2009 Play Add to playlist
Bedřich Smetana Vltava, from Má vlast 02/25/2013 Play Add to playlist
Bedřich Smetana Three Czech Dances 09/12/2013 Play Add to playlist
Bedřich Smetana Piano Trio in G minor, Op.15 02/06/2014 Play Add to playlist
Bedřich Smetana Piano Trio in g minor, op.15 03/02/2014 Play Add to playlist