195 years ago today, Bedřich Smetana was born in a part of the world that would become, for most of the 20th century, Czechoslovakia.
metana made her way, partisan of the polka, fighter of the furious. He was a product of his time, a nationalist who rose up against imperial domination.
The former Czech lands were then part of the Austrian Empire. Vienna – the capital of the Habsburgs – set the tone. German was the spoken language. The music followed the classic pattern.
Smetana saw the traditional tunes and rhythms and folklore of her native country as a way to assert her identity, to assert a political point of view.
There was a militant time. As Prague rose against Austrian control – one of many rebellions across Europe in 1848 – Smetana composed military marches for the insurgents. As government troops approached the city, he was among those holding the barricades on Charles Bridge.
He escaped prosecution and was able to pursue his career, building on his success as a piano teacher by opening a music school.
He had married Kateřina Kolářová, a pianist he had known from childhood, but long-term happiness eluded them.
They had four daughters, but three died in infancy.
While in Gothenburg, Sweden, where he had left to escape the restrictions of Prague under Austria, Kateřina fell ill with tuberculosis. She, too, is dead.
Six years passed before he felt able to return to the Czech capital. Now married to his brother’s sister-in-law, he found opportunities that did not exist before.
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Austria’s grip had loosened. Plans had been made for a national theater. A temporary theater had already opened, the first stage to host performances in Czech.
A competition was organized, with the aim of delivering a specifically Czech opera.
Smetana entered his first endeavor in musical drama. The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, according to the competition rules, was based on a historical theme. The result was slow in coming. The judges’ deliberations lasted two years.
By the time he heard he had won, Smetana had already enjoyed the public cheers walking on his first production.
The Bartered Bride quickly followed, and while it didn’t enjoy the same initial success as the composer’s first effort, it kept up the pace rather better.
The magnificent music that Smetana composed later in life stood in stark contrast to the trials and tribulations he was going through.
Her second marriage was loveless, her health was declining, and there were also financial problems.
His From My Life string quartet was his artistic response to growing deafness.
At the time of writing his flagship piece, Vltava – a melodic homage to the mighty river that runs through the heart of Bohemia – he was, like Beethoven later in life, unable to hear the magnificent soundscape he was creating.
There was not to be a happy ending, unfortunately, for the man now considered the father of Czech music. He died in 1884, at the age of 60.
On the night of his funeral, a scheduled performance of The Bartered Bride took place at the Prague National Theater. The stage was draped in black.
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