Smetana & Dvořák – Nationalist Composers

Although Prague has had many famous musicians visit and perform throughout the ages– e.g. Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky– prior to the 19th century, most of the native musical talent had left the kingdom of Bohemia, as prospects were much better in other cities in Europe. Even Mozart– who loved Prague– was financially tied down in Vienna, which prevented him from ever becoming a resident of our city (even though he had been given offers to move).

Surprisingly, Czechs were a very musically literate people; more so than other European countries. This musical literacy had begun to increase after 1620, when Bohemia was forced to be re-Catholicized. One of the strategies used to impose the religion was to integrate catholic music heavily into the culture. From an early age, Czechs, both male and female, were now being taught how to play instruments and music theory. The hope was to facilitate participation in religious services. What ended up happening was many musical careers were launched.

As mentioned earlier, these talented musicians usually left Bohemia to make their fortunes elsewhere. The rest of Europe benefited from this; Chopin’s first piano teacher was Czech, and another Czech composer by the name of Jan Ladislav Dussek had become one of the more important pianists of his day. In addition to being one of the first traveling virtuosos, he was also the first pianist to face his piano sideways while performing– something that is the norm these days.

Several other Czech composers abroad had also been making significant contributions to the European music scene. However, back at home a void existed. There weren’t really any Czech musicians writing Czech music. However, during the 19th century, as nationalism began to take root in Bohemia, the void would soon be filled when Bedřich Smetana came along…

Bedřich Smetana

From a young age, Smetana had proven himself to be a very gifted pianist. Oddly enough though, he didn’t get proper theory education until the age of 19. He once wrote Franz Liszt saying, “when I was 17 years old I did not know C-sharp from D-flat. The theory of harmony was a closed book to me.” Nonetheless, he eventually excelled in that as well.

However, in 1848, several revolts took place in the Austrian empire. Czechs took part, primarily motivated by nationalism. The revolts, however, were successfully crushed by the Austrian army. Smetana, being a nationalist and supporter of the patriots, came under suspicion for many years afterwards. He too would find himself leaving the land he loved, although he enjoyed a brief successful career in Sweden as a teacher and conductor of the Gothenburg Orchestra.

Prague Provisional Theatre

He didn’t return to Prague until 1862. At this time, the Austrian empire was weakening. A feeling of resurgence was in the air. The Provisional Theatre had also just opened that year, and had been specifically built to serve the Czechs. Smetana was inspired to compose a national opera as a patriotic instrument. Smetana was largely impressed with the Russian composer, Mikhail Glinka, who wrote operas on Russian subjects using Russian-derived melodies. Following his example, in 1863 he composed his first opera for the Provincial Theatre, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia.

Three years later came the comedy Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride), which today is the only opera out of his eight that is in the national repertory. This was his attempt to create an authentic “Czech” opera. A British composer named Ralph Vaughn Williams analyzed Smetana’s work and came to the conclusion that “Smetana’s debt to his own national music was of the best kind, unconscious. He did not, indeed, ‘borrow,’ he carried on an age-long tradition, not of set purpose, but because he could no more avoid speaking his own musical language than he could help breathing his native air.”

Other operas were taken from traditional Czech legends, such as Libuše and Dalibor. His composition Vltava (The Moldau) is internationally known. Smetana inspired his people and left a proud heritage. He is known as the father of Czech music, and is known today as a national Hero.

Towards the end of his life, Smetana went deaf and crazy. After losing his memory and his speech, he was put in an asylum. There he died on May 12, 1884.

 Antonín Dvořák

Smetana founded Czech music, Antonín Dvořák made it popular.

Dvořák was born in the country side of Bohemia. In fact, although he was a very talented musician, he was hardly literate. His simple way of life would influence his music and hive it a strong peasant strain. This simplicity in his light-hearted music has often regarded him as a “one of the better” second-rank composers, however, in his day he had all of Europe waiting for his next work to come out. He was an idol.

Today he is very underappreciated. The brilliance of Dvořák were his nationalistic melodies. They are very powerful and express his deep love he had for his country. Like Smetana, he also wrote original work rather than borrowing from folk songs.

Dvořák had his first public success after composing a very nationalistic choral piece, Hymnus. In 1875 hewon the Austrian State Prize for a symphony he wrote. This caught the attention of Brahms, one of the jurors, and would begin a very close friendship between Brahms and Dvořák that would last many years.

He further impressed audiences with his Slavic dances. Before long, he was one of the most popular composers in Europe. This garnered the attention of Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, the wife of a wealthy grocer. She was on of the key founding figures of the National Conservatory of Music, and she wanted Dvořák to become the head of the institution. He was offered a very handsome salary compared to what he would get in Prague, and for this, Dvořák was to 3 hours a day, prepare four student concerts, conduct six concerts of his own music, and be granted a four-month vacation. He arrived in New York in September 1892.

In the US at the time, all serious music was dominated by German schools. Since Dvořák represented nationalism in his own music, Mrs. Thurber had decided he would be the best choice to head the National Conservatory, as she was greatly interested in fostering a national American school of composition. She thought she could point him out as an example that American composers could aspire too. There was very little (serious) music at the time that could be considered “American.” Mrs. Thurber hoped Dvořák would comment on the lack of an American nationalist movement. He did.

He gave his opinion on what could be done: “In the Negro songs I have found a secure basis for a new national music school… America can have her own music, a fine music growing up from her own soil and having its own special character– the natural voice of a free and great nation.”

His observation inspired him in his work that he wrote while in the US, especially the New World Symphony. It was largely inspired by the spirituals that Dvořák had encountered, as will as his attempt to capture the American spirit. The first movement was inspired by the old spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The Largo theme was later turned into a new spiritual after one of Dvořák’s former students added his own lyrics. The song today is known as Goin’ Home.

Dvořák’s New World Symphany has been so influential in American culture that Neil Armstrong took a recording of the symphony with him to the moon on the Apollo 11 mission. Americans were the first to have people to set foot on the moon, but Czechs were the first to get their music there.

Years later, Dvořák returned to Europe, where he would live for the remainder of his days. His dear friend, Brahms, tried persuading Dvořák to move his family to Vienna. Since Brahms had no dependents, he offered to finance the Dvořáks (Dvořákovi) if they needed any assistance. Although very moved, the Czech composer had decided to live the rest of his days in Bohemia.

In 1899, Franz Joseph I awarded Dvořák a gold medal for Litteris et Artibus, which is a highly prestigious award to those who have contributed to culture. The first Czech Music Festival in April 1904 consisted mostly of Dvořák’s music. Not even a month later he would pass away from an undiagnosed illness.

Both Dvořák and Smetana are burried in the Vyšehrad cemetery, located in the Vyšehrad castle. Today, both composers and their legacy are widely celebrated in the Czech Republic.

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