Date/Place of Birth: 2 March, 1824 in Litomysl, Bohemia
Personality: A bespectacled, slender, grim and stoic-looking man, Smetana was one of the greatest Bohemian composers, a piano virtuoso, conductor and highly respected teacher.
During his early adulthood, Smetana was hardly recognized as a musician and composer in his homeland. Most of his concerts were poorly attended and received lukewarm response from the public. Yet, there were not many new students enrolling at his music institute. During that time, he lived in such abject poverty, to the extent that he could not even own a piano. Subsequently, he tried to earn a living in Sweden.
During the Sweden period, Smetana gained a reputation as a pianist/conductor and teacher which, however, eclipsed his stature as a composer. Besides that, he was active in promoting music of famous composers, ranging from Handel to Liszt. Therefore, he enjoyed his life very much in Sweden.
Nevertheless, due to inexpressible yearning for performing his music in his beloved homeland, Smetana composed the first opera “The Brandenburgers in Bohemia” for the opera competition in Prague. As a result, it was received rapturously and he won the competition. He was then appointed as the principal conductor of Prague Provisional Theatre.
Unfortunately, although his second opera “The Bartered Bride” was extremely popular during that time, there were many critics showing disdain for him and invariably gave unrepentantly bad opinions about his music, with the common reason that it showed Germanic influence and Wagnerism. Yet, the public was influenced blindly by those hostile critics. That was why Smetana was underappreciated in his homeland.
Therefore, it was evident that Smetana was never ceased to be dogged by inexorable bad lucks. Firstly, his talents were hardly recognized in his homeland despite his popularity in Sweden. Secondly, the death of his first wife Katerina and three of his four daughters left him devastatingly grieved. Finally, he was cursed with the cruellest blow – deafness – which forced him to resign from his lucrative conducting post, and eventually his composing ability was marred by his deteriorated health.
It is a fact that Smetana was an outright patriot of his homeland. Yet, he indefatigably improved his knowledge of Czech language in order to show his pride for being a Bohemian. Today, Smetana is considered as the founder of Czech music and a national hero.
Piano-Playing Style: Smetana had already gained a reputation as a talented pianist who first performed in public at the age of 6. He was also a competent violinist who had even participated in a Haydn string quartet. He was very impressed by Liszt’s playing at a concert series in 1840 and was determined to emulate Liszt’s virtuosity.
There were accounts which related that Smetana had such stupendous techniques that he could play the Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude with the left hand in octaves and several notoriously difficult piano pieces of Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Tausig and other contemporaries. In addition, he was much sought-after as a pianist for accompanying dance when he was only a student.
During the Sweden period, Smetana often appeared as a soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 and Weber’s Konzertstück and gave some piano recitals too. It was such a pity that Smetana was hardly known as a musician during his lifetime despite his promising talents.
Music: Most of Smetana’s early compositions were confined to piano works. They were formidably difficult and manifested some influence from Liszt’s virtuosic piano tradition. Besides, his piano music was very much in Romantic style, blended with tenderness, heroism, love and nostalgia. Among the most distinguished piano works were “Six Charateristic Compositions op.1” (1848, dedicated to Liszt), Album Leaves (1851) etc. However, his late piano works, such as “14 Czech Dances” (1878) and mostly Polkas, evoked unflagging spirit, vitality and charm of Czech folk music. In addition, his chamber music, such as Piano Trio in G minor, was strikingly personal and romantic.
After listening to the nationalistic Glinka operas, Smetana was so impressed that he decided to compose the same kind of music for his homeland. Consequently, he composed 8 operas, of which “The Bartered Bride” was the most popular. On a whole, his operas were grandly patriotic, based on his nation’s history, legends and culture that left a heritage of which his people could be proud. Therefore, they were very characteristic of joyful, optimistic Czech music, with inevitable drama.
His symphonic poems also evinced a significant debt to Liszt’s orchestral music. Like operas, the music was generally dramatic and heroic with exquisite grandeur. His “Má Vlast” (My Country) was a mammoth masterpiece which depicted the beautiful landscape of his country and the national legends.
Although Smetana is a highly esteemed as a Czech composer, most of his compositions, especially his piano works and operas, are still rarely performed today.
Composing Habit: Smetana’s musical inventiveness was incomparably amazing. Although he usually relied on Czech subjects for his music, he never quoted any Czech folk music but unconsciously composed unorthodox Czech music.
It was customary that Smetana exploited the motif/main theme to the full by means of theme transformation and recurrence; provided a strong sense of cohesion by means of monothematic material and of interrelation in tonality between one movement and another; evoked a dramatic atmosphere by means of his masterful orchestration, of his trademark prolonged pedal points, of strong chromatic Wagnerian bass lines and of shifting tonicizations.
Furthermore, Smetana occasionally composed music as portrayal of his personality (i.e. The String Quartet “From My Life” – indicating his miserable life and deafness); and of people who were close to him (e.g. Piano Trio in memory of his beloved daughter Bedriska who died from scarlet fever; his wife Katerina as portrayed in Album Leaves).
Smetana’s Quote: “By the grace of God and with His help, I shall one day be a Liszt in technique and a Mozart in composition”
Smetana in his diary, 23 January, 1845
“I am not ashamed to reply to you in my mother tongue, however imperfectly, and am glad to be able to show that my fatherland means more to me than anything else”
Smetana’s second letter written in Czech language, 11 March, 1860
“For the first time for ages, I can again hear the entire range of octaves in tune. Previously they were all jumbled up. I can still hear nothing with my right ear”
Smetana complaining about his deafness in his diary, 8 October, 1874
Smetana’s Death: In 1874, Smetana’s health began to deteriorate. Not only did he suffer from deafness and tinnitus, but he suffered from an ulcer and a body rash. The cause was syphilis.
In his late years, he could not stand hearing intense noise in his head and eventually suffered from a severe nervous breakdown. He was then sent to the Prague lunatic asylum where he died on 12 May, 1884 at the age of 60.