Smetana: Vltava – Symphonic Poem

Bedrich Smetana was born in 1824 in Bohemia, which was then a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His family was reasonably prosperous, and he was one of numerous siblings. His father, who was a gifted amateur musician, managed the brewery on the estate of Count Waldstein (to whom Beethoven dedicated his 21st Piano Sonata).

From a very early age Smetana exhibited a prodigious musical talent, both as pianist and composer. At the age of 19 he went to Prague to study composition. What followed was the inevitable round of teaching, and what may be called the post of “resident pianist” to the deposed Emperor Ferdinand I.

He was caught up in the revolutionary times of 1848, and subsequently accepted a conductorship in Göteburg, Sweden. Encumbered with personal bereavements, he returned to Prague in 1861. His most productive and mature years were to follow, during which he wrote five operas. The second of these was to become the ever-popular The Bartered Bride.

In his homeland Smetana has come to be regarded as the first major Czech composer of the 19th century, and influential in establishing a National Opera.

At the time of composing his 5th opera – Libuse – Smetana commenced work on Ma Vlast (“My Country”). Unfortunately, like Beethoven he was beginning to be troubled by deafness, together with the development of the disease that would cause him to see out his years in a lunatic asylum.

Ma Vlast was written during the period 1874-1879. It consists of six tone poems celebrating Bohemia’s history, mythology and landscape. The second of the cycle, VLTAVA, describes the river upon which Prague stands. (The piece is sometimes referred to as “MOLDAU” – the river’s German name.)

The Vltava rises in forest land some 60 miles south of Prague from one warm spring and one cold spring. Smetana is thought to have visited the spot where the two streams meet, and to have taken the inspiration for the tone poem from this experience. The music follows the river’s course as it flows through the Bohemian plain and the city of Prague. (It goes on to meet the Elbe at the German border, eventually flowing into the sea at the Heligoland Bight.)

The music is in the form of a Rondo, united by a recurring theme which represents the river. It is from Smetana’s own preface to the score that we learn of the music’s content.

Undulating flutes begin, representing the first tributary. They are soon joined by clarinets, representing the second. The river gathers strength until violins, oboes and bassoons unite in the first expression of the warm rich rondo theme, which is taken from a Bohemian folk tune. Horns and harp portray the river flowing through the forest, from which hunting calls are heard over the river motif.

The river next flows past a rustic wedding celebration. At this point we hear dance music – part polka, part march in 2/4 time. A climax is reached, and subsides as the moon – represented by pianissimo woodwind figures – rises and sparkles in the rippling water. Fluctuating flutes lead to the “dance of the Water Nymphs”.

The river pursues a smooth course, but its pace quickens as it tumbles and foams over the St John rapids. It recovers from its turmoil to flow majestically into Prague, where it passes under the great fortress of VYŠEHRAD (the subject of the first tone poem of the set – Smetana quotes here from its music).

The river flows on, leaving Prague behind. The music has a “dying fall” and is lost to sight, but Smetana ends his music with two emphatic chords – a sort of “well that’s that” end to the story!