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ClassicsOnline Home » SMETANA: Ma Vlast (My Country)
By Anthony Hodgson
The Chandos notes recall how Smetana was once accused by the press of being "tainted with Wagnerism": Wit's measured approached brings home this Germanic element more than in any other performance. His is a romantic interpretation, full of rich textures ... The Polish orchestra contributes to the conviction of the conductor's readings through the sensitivity of its phrasing and the richness of its sound ... Wit has great sympathy for the music and reveals subtleties that other performances often overlook in their quest for high drama
Bedrich Smetana (1824 - 1884)
Má Vlast / My Country / Mein Vateriand / Ma Patrie
Lento - Largo maestoso - Grandloso poco largamente
Allegro vivo me non agitato - Lento me non troppo
II. Vltava (Moidau)
Allegro comodo non agitato
Allegro con fuoco me non agitato - Più moderato assai Moderato me con calore - Moderato - Molto vivo - Più vivo
IV. Z cesych luhu a háju (From Bohemia's Woods and Fields)
Molto moderato - Allegro poco vivo, me non troppo -
Allegro (Quasi Polka) - Tempo I - Allegro - Presto
Lento - Grandioso - Molto vivace - Lento - Molto vivace
Lento maestoso - Più animato
Allegro moderato - Andante non troppo - Più allegro me non molto
Tempo di marcia - Grandioso - Tempo I - Largamente maestoso
Grandisoso meno - Allegro - Vivace
Bedrich Smetana is a figure of the greatest importance in the development of Czech music, creating and inspiring a synthesis of native tradition and the classical forms of music in which he had been trained. Born in 1824, the eleventh child and the first son to survive infancy of a brewer who had profited from the thirst of Napoleon's troops and had later become brewer to Count Wallenstein, he showed early promise as a pianist and violinist and wrote his first compositions at the age of nine.
Smetana's father was a keen amateur musician, a violinist, and was able to teach his son. There was, however, a period of some eight years during which Smetana had little professional musical training, while attending schools in various provincial towns. In 1838, however, he persuaded his father to allow him to study in Prague and there took the opportunity to devote himself to music rather than to anything else. This happy state of affairs continued only for a year, after which he was despatched to undergo more rigorous schooling under an uncle's supervision at Plzeh (Pilsen). Here he found scope for his abilities in playing for dances at social gatherings and pleasure in meeting again Katerina Koldfovi, who in 1849 was to become his first wife. In 1843 he left school and moved to Prague, determined to make a living as a musician, and supporting himself by employment as piano teacher to the family of Count Thun. 1848 was a year of nationalist disturbance in Europe. Smetana started a music school, but the political events of the time engaged his sympathies and he was to remain deeply committed to ideas of Czech nationalism, although his own first language remained German. After his marriage he was employed as a teacher and pianist to the former Emperor Ferdinand V, the retarded heir to the Habsburg throne. These years, however, brought various difficulties and disappointments, with the death of three of his four children and the illness of his wife. Finally, in 1856, he sought a solution for money troubles by moving to Góteborg, where he opened a successful music school and became closely involved with the musical life of the city. Five years later he returned to Prague, while retaining some association with Sweden.
It was after his return to Bohemia that Smetana set about the composition of music for the theatre. In l863 he completed The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, which he finally conducted at the Czech Provisional Theatre three years later, in 1866, the year of The Bartered Bride. He was now at last appointed principal conductor of the Theatre. Two years later Dalibor was staged, to accusations of Wagnerism, followed in 1872 by the completion of Libuse and two years later the opera The Two Widows. Smetana had his enemies and rivals, and there was a growing movement for his dismissal from the Provisional Theatre. In 1874 he was forced to take leave of absence as a result of his increasing deafness, and accompanying tinnitus. In spite of the limitations this imposed on his ability to compose, he completed the opera The Kiss in 1876 and The Secret two years later. In 1881, at the opening of the new National Theatre, his opera Libuse was staged, while he continued to work relatively slowly on his opera The Devil's Wall, which he had started in 1879 and eventually completed in 1882. His health continued to deteriorate, with intermittent loss of memory and of speech. He died in May, 1884, in an asylum in Prague.
Má Vlast (My Country) is among the best known of all Smetana's music, a cycle of six symphonic poems that conjure up the spirit of Bohemia, its history and traditions, reflected in its landscape. The period of composition was one of some difficulty. By October 1874 Smetana was, for the moment at least, completely deaf and in continuous pain. By 18th November he had completed Vysehrad, the first symphonic poem of the cycle, which he may have started to sketch two years earlier. He immediately began work on the second, Vltava. At the same time he was completing his Czech opera Lisuge. In January he was able to begin the third symphonic poem of the cycle, Sárka, followed, in June, by From Bohemia's Woods and Fields, the last of what had been intended as a tetralogy. The success of these works persuaded him to consider continuing the cycle, which he did with Tábor, completed by December 1878, and Blaník, finally orchestrated in March 1879. The whole work was dedicated to the city of Prague. These two additional movements were well received and in 1882 there was a performance in Prague of the whole cycle, greeted by audience and critics with the greatest enthusiasm.
Vysehrad is the great rock overlooking the Vltava and guarding access to Prague, the former stronghold of Bohemian princes. It is this earlier period of Czech history that Smetana evokes, as the harps of the bards are heard, and the story is told of the heroism and glory of the past, before the destruction of the old castle of Vysehrad. Broadly in sonata form, the deeds evoked in the exposition are sadly recalled in the recapitulation, after the fall of the stronghold.
Vltava, the River Moldau, follows the course of the river, where two streams, one cold, one warm, join the main stream, to flow through the Bohemian countryside, its woods with huntsmen, a peasant wedding, moonlight and dancing water-spirits, the rapids of St. John, and flowing onto join the Elbe. The sound of the water provides an element of unity to music that is broadly in rondo form, with the Vltava theme, perhaps derived from a Swedish folk-song, now epitomizing the spirit of Bohemia.
The heroine Sárka, a rebel leader, seeks revenge for the infidelity of her lover. Ctirad sets out to punish her rebellion, but is trapped by her, as he finds her in apparent distress, bad to a tree. He falls in love with her but he and his men are drugged Sárka, who now calls her rebel band together to kill Ctirad and his soldiers. Sárka's name is given to a valley near Prague, the traditional scene of these events. The introduction shows Sárka in anger, followed by the approach of Ctirad and his men. His love for Sárka is evoked in a passage marked Moderato ma con calore and the intoxication of his men is depicted in the next episode, followed by the final savage massacre.
From Bohemia's Woods and Fields portrays the Bohemian landscape. Smetana suggested an outline programme, with the first strong impression of one arriving in the country, the sight of a simple country-girl walking through the fields, noon on a summer's day, with the shade of the woods, the singing of birds and a final harvest and festival in peasant celebration.
Tábor, the city that was the stronghold of the Hussites, is represented by a Hussite hymn, identified here with contemporary national political and cultural aspirations. The hymn Kdoz jste Bozi bojnovíci (Ye who are God's warriors) forms the basis of the symphonic poem.
Blaník follows the fortunes of the followers of Jan Hus, who, defeated, took refuge in Blaník Mountain. There they sleep, until their country needs them again. The symphonic poem contains a depiction of the natural scenery, a brief pastoral interlude, as a shepherd-boy blows his pipe, and the Hussite hymn of victory and patriotic triumph, combining with themes of Vysehrad.
The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Katowice (PNRSO)
The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Katowice (PNRSO) was founded in 1935 in Warsaw through the initiative of well-known Polish conductor and composer Grzegorz Fitelberg. Under his direction the ensemble worked till the outbreak of the World War II. Soon after the war, in March 1945, the orchestra was resurrected in Katowice by the eminent Polish conductor Witold Rowicki. In 1947 Grzegorz Fitelberg returned to Poland and became artistic director of the PNRSO. He was followed by a series of distinguished Polish conductors - Jan Kranz, Bohdan Wodiezko, Kazimierz Kord, Tadeusz Strugala, Jerzy Maksymiuk, Stanislaw Wislocki and, since 1983, Antoni Wit. The orchestra has appeared with conductors and soloists of the greatest distinction and has recorded for Polskie Nagrania and many international record labels. For Naxos, the PNRSO will record the complete symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Mahler.
Antoni Wit was born in Cracow in 1944 and studied there, before becoming assistant to Witold Rowicki with the National Philharmonic Orchestra in Warsaw in 1967. He studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and with Penderecki and in 1971 was a prize-winner in the Herbert von Karajan Competition. Study at Tanglewood with Skrowaczewski and Seiji Ozawa was followed by appointment as Principal Conductor first of the Pomeranian Philharmonic and then of the Cracow Radio Symphony Orchestra. In 1983 he took up the position of Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice. Antoni Wit has undertaken many engagements abroad with major orchestras, ranging from the Berlin Philharmonic and the BBC Welsh and Scottish Symphony Orchestras to the Kusatsu Festival Orchestra in Japan.
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SMETANA: Ma Vlast (My Country)