Bedřich Smetana and his opera “The Bartered Bride”

 

Bedřich Smetana is one of the top Czech composers of all time.

Young and Gifted

Smetana, born in Litomyšl on March 2, 1824, gave his first piano concert when he was six years old. His father, though not an educated musician, had an innate talent, and encouraged young Bedřich to develop his talents. In 1831, the family moved to the town of Jindřichův Hradec, where Smetana continued his musical studies.

Karlstejn Castle Tours from Prague

Four years later, eleven-year-old Smetana was sent first to Jihlava, then to Německý Brod, as a student. In 1839, with his father’s permission, he tried his luck in Prague. He was to study under the well-known (then and now) Josef Jungmann.

Setbacks

Smetana soon learned that his classmates in Prague were less than tolerant of his background; they laughed at him and his manners. He found refuge in music, and dreamed of a time when he could be a musician like Liszt (who had recently performed a series of concerts in Prague). His time in the city was short-lived; his father discovered that Smetana had been skipping his classes, and took him out of school and away from Prague. Smetana was sent to study under his cousin Josef, a teacher in Pilsen. In 1840, Smetana left Prague; he would remain in Pilsen until 1843. He wrote several pieces during this time, and was a popular pianist in the city.

Prague, again

By 1843, Smetana had much more experience in music, but much less money from his father. In August of that year, he set out for Prague with a little money and an introduction to music teacher Josef Proksch. He was in luck; not only did Proksch agree to take him as a student, but Smetana found employment in teaching music to the children of Count Thun. The next three years were busy ones – teaching and learning, as well as composing. In June of 1847, he quit the job in the Thun household and set out on a concert tour. Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful, and he came to Prague once more. He earned a living by taking on private students and playing in chamber concerts. He also joined the 1848 Prague Uprising, two hundred years after the end of the Thirty Years’ War, in an unsuccessful attempt to free the country of the Habsburg yoke.

Franz Liszt

Also in 1848, Smetana wrote to the great Liszt. He had dedicated his work Six Characteristic Pieces to Liszt, and asked the musician’s help in finding a publisher. He also asked for a substantial loan. Liszt replied politely and gave his promise to help get the work published, though he did not offer any financial help.

Smetana started a Piano Institute in August of that year, and after initial difficulties, it grew and became popular. Liszt himself became a visitor. Smetana was now in a position to marry his fiancée, Kateřina Kolářová – and he did, on August 27, 1849.

Work and more Work

In 1850, Smetana accepted the post of Court Pianist. He threw himself into composition, as well as working in the Piano Institute. One piece, the Triumphal Symphony, was written on the occasion of the wedding of Emperor Franz Josef. The Imperial Court rejected it, and a public performance in Prague was deemed a failure.

Smetana, circa 1854.

Private Tragedies

Smetana and Kateřina had four daughters in the years 1851 to 1855. In 1854, Gabriela, their second daughter, died of tuberculosis. In 1855, their oldest, Bedřiška, died of scarlet fever. The following year, their fourth daughter, Kateřina, died; Smetana’s wife was also told that she, herself, was suffering from tuberculosis.

Sweden

On October 11, 1856, Smetana left for Gothenburg, Sweden. He had grown tired of Prague, and of his problems there. He founded a school and became the conductor of the Gothenburg Society for Classical Choral Music. Applications to the school flooded in, and Smetana had finally found the recognition he’d tried so hard to achieve. In 1857, he returned to Prague to bring Kateřina and their only surviving daughter, Žofie, back to Sweden with him.

Kateřina’s health was going downhill rapidly, and Smetana found a mistress in the form of one of his students, Fröjda Benecke. He dedicated a few pieces to her, and began to write on a grander scale – his works Richard III, Wallenstein’s Camp, and Hakon Jarl date from this period.

More Changes

Kateřina was now near the end of her life. On April 19, 1859, when traveling back to Prague with her family, she died in Dresden. Žofie was sent to stay with her maternal grandmother, while Smetana visited his friend Liszt in Weimar. Later that same year, Smetana fell for his brother Karel’s sister-in-law, Barbora Ferdinandiová. The two became engaged, and Barbora (Bettina) joined Smetana in Gothenburg the following year, where they were married on July 10, 1860. Their daughter Zdeňka was born in September of 1861.

By March of 1862, Smetana was as tired of Gothenburg as he had once been of Prague. He made the decision to return to Prague and try his luck again. He was deeply involved in Czech nationalism and the revival of Czech culture, and political changes had made this possibility a reality.

Becoming Czech

When Smetana was growing up, the official language of Bohemia was German. He now found himself, in his late thirties, learning his own native language, Czech. He set himself to learning the language, and practiced writing and speaking it daily. As his fluency improved, so did his prospects; he became music critic of the Czech-language newspaper Národní listy in 1864.

During the period of the early 1860s, he would write the opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, the choruses The Three Riders and The Renegade, and possibly his most famous opera, The Bartered Bride. The Bartered Bride premiered on May 30, 1866, in spoken-word form; the audience was less than enthusiastic. After rewrites, however, it played in September of 1870 to great acclaim.

On May 16, 1868, Smetana was one of those to lay the foundation stone for Prague’s National Theater. It was the same day that his opera Dalibor premiered; this opera would have a lukewarm reception by the critics, despite audience enthusiasm.

Another Tragedy Occurs

Like Beethoven before him, Smetana suffered the loss of his hearing. Unlike Beethoven, Smetana’s hearing loss was likely caused by an infection (though whether viral or bacterial is unknown). His hearing in the right ear was gone by September of 1874; by October, he was fully deaf. The Provisional Theater, of which he had been the conductor, gave him an annual pension for the right to perform his operas. His former students in Prague and Gothenburg also raised money for him to seek medical treatment. No treatment was effective, however.

Composing

Now fully deaf, Smetana was still in poor health. To make matters worse, his marriage was foundering, due to a lack of money. In 1875, he, Bettina, and their two daughters went to live with his oldest daughter, Žofie, in the village of Jabkenice. Smetana had already begun work on a symphonic cycle titled “Má vlast” (“My Country”). Several more compositions followed, many of them performed in public.

The National Theater

Smetana’s opera Libuše premiered at the National Theater on June 11, 1881. Smetana was invited to the premiere, and the audience loved the opera, calling back to the stage several times. Not long afterwards, the theater burned to the ground, and Smetana assisted in fundraising for the construction of a new building. On November 18, 1883, the theater opened once more – and the opening-night performance was Libuše.

The End

Smetana’s health finally deteriorated to the point that his family was unable to care for him. It has been suggested that he suffered from syphilis; he experienced hallucinations, outbursts of violence, depression, and incoherence. On April 23, 1884, he was sent to the Kateřinky Lunatic Asylum in Prague, where he died just a few weeks earlier, on May 12.

The elegant Týn Church, in Prague, was the site of Smetana’s funeral three days later. A crowd of mourners followed the procession all the way to Vyšehrad Cemetery, some distance away. Though initially unpopular in his own country, his music had come to represent Czech nationalism. His operas are still performed today.

The Prague International Music Festival – Bedrich Smetana lives on

Since 1952 the Prague International Music Festival (founded in 1946) has opened on 12 May — the anniversary of the death of Bedřich Smetana — with his cycle of symphonic poems Má vlast (My Country), and it used to close (until 2003) with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. In 1956, the Prague Spring International Music Festival was one of the founders of the World Federation of International Music Competitions. This is the acid test for many a young talent, and has made many successful careers worldwide.


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