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Smetana (1824-84) – “Má Vlast” (Excerpts)

Whenever I hear the word “globalisation”, my heart sinks. Things were bad enough as long ago as the early Twentieth Century. For example, encroaching urbanisation and commercialism had already alarmed Bartók and Kodály, who recorded their regional folk songs and tunes specifically to save them from utter extinction. Now, though, it’s much worse. Globalisation, in all its manifestations, seems to be slowly but surely ironing out all the “differences” – or, at least, what we might call the “good” differences. The World’s once wonderfully wide spectrum of colourful culture is being remorselessly reduced, not just as an incidental by-product of global telecommunications, population mobility and (yes) unfettered political correctness, but also directly, by the peddlers of so-called “fusion” and “crossover”. One fine day, all will be dull and grey. Depressing, isn’t it? 

But, let’s not get too depressed! Don’t forget that we have accumulated a glittering Aladdin’s cave of past artistic treasures. Our cultural heritage is the mother of all “multi-media experiences”, just one of whose “game options” is to provide a telescope through time. So, let’s take a peek back, to the days before conservational rescue-missions became necessary. 

Music in the Nineteenth Century saw the rise of nationalism, just one Romantic reaction to (dare I say?) the “globalising” impact of the “international standards” developed during the German-dominated Classical era. By definition, a nationalist composer celebrates his homeland’s individuality, basing his music on indigenous folk music and styles. Nationalism’s pioneers were chiefly Glinka (Russia) and Chopin (Poland), followed by stalwarts such as Liszt (Hungary), Grieg (Norway) ? and Smetana (Bohemia). 

Smetana’s path through life was somewhat less smooth than Mendelssohn’s. In Prague, the young musician struggled to make his name as a pianist and teacher. Three of his four children died in infancy, and in 1855 his wife contracted tuberculosis. The following year, feeling thoroughly disenchanted and unappreciated, Smetana made a complete break, decamping to Sweden to take on the directorship of the Gothenburg Philharmonic Society. He took the opportunity of visiting Weimar to meet his long-time supporter, Liszt, who convinced him of the virtues of the symphonic poem. However, Smetana fell victim to a virulent illness – the same homesickness that was later to assail Dvorák. 

In the 1848 uprising, patriotism had sent Smetana to fight at the barricades. In Sweden, homesickness transmuted patriotism into fervent nationalism. Inflamed with new purpose, in 1861 he returned to Prague. His impact on the burgeoning cultural revival of Bohemia eventually earned him “national hero” status. In 1874, an even more virulent illness - syphilis – hit him where it hurt most. 

For some time he’d tolerated an increasingly annoying buzz in his right ear. Then, one morning, he awoke to find that he had, quite literally overnight, become stone deaf. Worse, he had to endure not merely silence, but an incessant, inescapable, “virtual” cacophony. As if this wasn’t enough, some unnecessarily cruel critics asked, “Is a deaf composer any better than a blind painter?” Somehow he found the spiritual strength, not simply to survive, but to continue composing in spite of the mental din. He soldiered on for eight years before his mind finally disintegrated. 

One of the fruits of those singularly harrowing years was Má Vlast, not just one, but an integral cycle of six symphonic poems. Although it took over five years to complete, it speaks volumes for his sheer guts – and the intensity of his nationalistic feelings ? that he completed the first two within the initial few weeks of his deafness. As a “hymn” in praise of a homeland, it is peerless. In Má Vlast, elements of history, geography, national character and legend are united by the Czech nation’s unbounded pride in, and love of, its country. The effect is cumulative. Heard individually (as they often are), the movements are variously attractive and dramatic; but the impact of the entire cycle can be overwhelming. 

Yes, only “can be”! As music, Má Vlast strikes me as unusually “performance-sensitive” ? stimulation of the audience’s hackles apparently depends most strongly on something other than technique or “commitment”. This may seem fanciful, but it really does feel as though Smetana had deliberately omitted from his score one specific, crucial ingredient, which the performers themselves must stir in. I don’t know what it is, but it can be found in the blood of any true Czech, whilst others generally find it harder to come by! By a happy coincidence, Má Vlast is thus rendered “globalisation-proof”! That’s not flippant, because it measures the magnitude of Smetana’s achievement with Má Vlast, his irrefutable response to that unnecessarily cruel question. 

1. The rocky headland, Vyšehrad, guards both Prague and the aspirations of the people because, fourteen centuries ago, it was surmounted by Bohemia’s royal castle, wherein Queen Libuše prophesied a glorious future. Smetana’s solo harp, symbolising the bard Lumir, intones a four-note motive. He had clearly taken Liszt to heart, because wondrous transformations of this Vyšehrad theme permeate the movement. First it moves from bardic musing to indomitable majesty, then becomes a bustling fugue (!), introducing an invocation of flashing swords and courtly festivity. But the music speaks also of darker days, as plunging brass intimate the fall of the castle. Soon, though, the bardic harp begins a brief reprise, mingling melancholic reminiscence with sturdy resolve. 

2. Vltava. In a unique musical travelogue, Smetana traces the path of the river from its birth in the confluence of two babbling brooks. By day it passes through forests, fields and villages, whilst by moonlit night it plays the shimmering host to water nymphs. At dawn, it tumbles through the tumultuous St. John rapids, broadening to flow past Prague before merging with the Elbe. Smetana skilfully blends magical, musical onomatopśia with folk-derived melody and, at the appropriate moment, the grand Vyšehrad theme. 

4. From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields – or is it “Fields and Groves”, or “Meadows and Fields”, or “Forests and Meadows”? I’ve seen these, and more. Which is correct? Well, Smetana’s title is “Z Cesýkch Luhu a Háju”, so you figure it out! If Vltava is geographical, then this is biological, the three phases portraying flora, fauna, and homo sapiens. It opens with a flood of sound, a blaze of sunlight, oceanic waves of breeze-blown grasses ? or a Bohemian heart bursting with pride. The harmony of Nature nestles in the ensuing chattering, humming fugue, conjoined with a mellifluous, chorale-like melody. Finally, after a few tentative rehearsal-steps, a folk festival gets under way, rapidly becoming an irresistibly infectious “right royal knees-up”. 

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© Paul Serotsky
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