Smetana, Friedrich



Noted Bohemian composer, whose work entitles him to be numbered among the real masters of music, but recognition of whose talents did not come until long after his death. He has been called the father of Bohemian music of whom it has been justly said, "Tell the story of Smetana's life and you have told the story of Bohemian music, so intimately are the two connected and interwoven." Smetana was born at Leitomischel, Bohemia, and was the son of a brewer, Frantisek Smetana, who, at the time of Friedrich's birth, was in the service of Count Waldstein. Friedrich was a precocious child, and was barely five when he began to play the violin. At the age of six and a half he played the piano at a festival in his native town. Shortly afterward he played duets with his father, who was a good amateur musician; but the latter discouraged his son from taking up music as a profession, and it was only after he showed great aptitude for the art that his father finally consented to his pursuing his studies further. The Smetana family moved in 1831, when Friedrich was seven years of age, to Neuhaus, in southern Bohemia, and there the boy completed his grammar school course, and entered the Gymnasium, where he studied organ with Ikavec. Four years later he and his younger brother, Antpnin, were sent to Jihlaya, and there Friedrich studied music with Matucha. From Jihlava the two boys went to Nemecky Brod, where they found a friend and protector in Prof. Karel Sindelar, a musical enthusiast. In 1839 Friedrich journeyed alone to Prague and entered the Academic Gymnasium, and there for the first time he had an opportunity to satisfy his craving for the best music, and where he organized a quartet from among the students. He had a phenomenal memory and would attend concerts of the military band, returned to the school and jot down the compositions he had heard for the use of the other members of the quartet, who were, like himself, too poor to buy the music they required. During his stay at this institution Smetana composed a number of dances and several string quartets. He finally left the school and returned to his father's estate at Lhotice, then went to Pilsen, remaining there three years, studying under his cousin, Professor Smetana, and continuing his piano practise and his efforts at composition. It was not long until he was recognized as the best pianist in the city. He finally left Pilsen for Prague, determined to get along as best he could independently. 9 For a time he gave lessons in piano-playing, but at last, through the influence and with the assistance of friends, he was admitted to the music school of Joseph Proksch at Prague, through whom he met the virtuoso, Nesvadba. The latter introduced him into the artistic colony of Prague, and in this way Smetana found a friend in Bedrich Kittl, the president of the Prague Conservatory, who recommended him to Count Leopold Thun as a teacher. Smetana found employment in the household of the Count for four years, and accompanied the family to their summer home and on their travels. Later Smetana became a pupil of Schumann, and by him was recommended to Mendelssohn, who taught him, and he also studied with Liszt, under whom he became a remarkable pianist. It was in Liszt's house and in the presence of Smetana that Harbeck remarked that the Czechs were merely reproductive musicians. This led the young Bohemian to resolve to spend the rest of his life working indefatigably to build up a national school of music in Bohemia, a task which he fulfilled nobly. He was always a warm admirer of Liszt, acknowledging him as a master. After leaving the employ of Count Thun Smetana returned to Prague, and in July, 1848, he opened his music school in that city.


The following year Smetana married Katerina Kolarova, who had been a student at Proksch's school at the same time he had studied there. She was an accomplished pianist and for some time taught piano at Proksch's school, and later was a teacher in the families of Count Thun, Smetana's former friend and patron, and that of Prince Lpbkovic. Tocher Smetana dedicated his overture in C minor; the quadrille in F major; and a polka for piano, entitled Reminiscences of Pilsen. In 1856 the composer was appointed conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Gothenburg, Sweden, and remained in that position until 1861, when he made a concert tour through Sweden and Germany, and then returned to Prague and began working on his operas, which were later to make his name known throughout the musical world. Smetana's first opera was The Brandenburghers in Bohemia, and it was the first work of its kind that could be truly called national in spirit as well as in words, and with it was inaugurated the era of modern Bohemian music. The Branderburghers was not a success, its chief fault being, in the eyes of most people, that it was too learned. Smetana's next operatic work was The Bartered Bride, and this was lighter in character and generally liked. Smetana's second opera in serious vein was Dalibor, first given in 1868 and again was produced in Vienna in 1904 with great success. He wrote eight operas, all of which are in the Bohemian language, and thoroughly national in spirit. They were all of them brought out between the years 1881 and 1882. In the orchestral field Smetana's greatest work is My Fatherland, a cycle of six symphonic poems, or pictures, from Bohemian history and legend, the first two sections of which were given in 1881 and again in 1882 at the London Crystal Palace, with striking success. His other important works are a string quartet, Aus Meinem Leben; a festival overture, composed for the three hundredth Shakespeare jubilee; a triumph symphony; three symphonic poems, based on Shakespeare's Richard III.; the symphonic poems, Wallenstein's Camp, Hakon Jarl, Ultava, Libussa, a Carnival of Prague; a series of sketches intended to illustrate Corneille's tragedy of Le Cid; many Bohemian dances; and songs and partsongs. Throughout his life Smetana was an indefatigable and enthusiastic worker, a loyal adherent of the Berlioz-Liszt-Wagner school, and he took Wagner for his model in opera. Smetana's hard work brought on nervous troubles and deafness, but he worked on unceasingly. It is said the cold reception given to his last opera, The Devil's Wall, was the cause of his final collapse, which ended in death in an asylum in Prague, where he had been placed by devoted friends. His famous Lustspielovertüre was produced shortly before his death. He left a large number of completed compositions, including a number of symphonic pieces; piano-music; and the music to the Cid, of Corneille. He has been called the Bohemian Beethoven, because, like the great German, he became deaf and his later years were shadowed by his affliction. He has also been called the Bohemian Liszt, so far as   the writing of symphonic poems is concerned. Smetana's work was carried forth, after his death, by the greatest of his pupils and followers, Antonin Dvorak. Unlike Dvorak, Smetana made himself national, while his pupil became more cosmopolitan in style.