Bedřich Smetana's "My Country" - a symphonic poem to the nation


October 28 is an important holiday in the Czech Republic as the day that the Czechoslovak - and thereby Czech - nation was born out of the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. That moment of independence was the triumph of a hundred-year mission to rebuild a national identity out of a dozen generations of Austrian rule. It is called the Czech National Revival, a cultural movement that re-awoke interest in Czech history, gave a new lease to the Czech language and pushed Czech art, and particularly music, to the forefront of Europe. As we mark the independence of Czechoslovakia, I’d like to take you through one of the greatest musical manifestations of the National Revival, and that is the symphonic cycle Má Vlast, or My Country, by Bedřich Smetana.

Bedřich Smetana approached the creation of My Country with the goal of making music with a national character, and he was absolutely victorious. Today, 130 years later, My Country is like a second national anthem that strikes an even deeper, more emotional chord that goes to the heart of the Bohemian culture and countryside.

Smetana is remembered as the father of Czech music and My Country is probably his must successful work. It is a tour of Czech history, mythology and geography in the shape of six symphonic poems that begin where Czech history is imagined to begin: on a steep, craggy bank of the Vltava River at its entrance to Prague; at Vyšehrad, or “High Castle”.

VyšehradVyšehrad “Vyšehrad is about a very important place in Czech history where all of the Czech kings or princes were seated when they were in Prague. So the point of the composition Vyšehrad is that it begins with the memories of a poet, who is trying to recall how things were in the past.”

Sitting at his piano with me as a guide through the six-part cycle of My Country is the well-known Czech pianist Petr Jiříkovský.

“Vyšehrad begins in a very special way, with two harps, and it means that the poet is starting to dream, to think about the past, and it continues as a solo cadenza...“

“So we’re listening to the poet dreaming...”

“Yeah, and then the main theme starts in the orchestra, the beginning of the story, talking about good moments in history, bad moments in history... Actually it’s very interesting that this theme, or motif, in the bass, this theme is the most important motif for the whole of Má Vlast, especially for the first four pieces. The main theme of Vyšehrad is the same, but in reverse. And it comes later in many places and sometimes in quite hidden places in different parts. But it’s interesting that you can find it everywhere.”

“Do you think it has any specific meaning, as opposed to being just a lovely point of reference?”

“I think it belongs to Smetana’s personality, because he studied the motifs and thematic work of other composers a lot. He was really very strong in this and it was a really important part of the way he composed. And since he wanted to compose such an important piece for the Czech nation, he wanted to have a motif that was very specific to the story. And he did it.”

“And it’s quite illustrious, that little motif...”

“There is something very simple about it, and you can also use it in many different ways: in a poetic, romantic way, or, like you said, in a very majestic, important place celebrating Czech history.”

The opening strains of Vyšehrad were first performed in March of 1875 and their composer could not hear them. In the course of writing Vyšehrad he had gone completely deaf, and it was in total deafness that he wrote the most enduring part of My Country, which picks up where Vyšehrad left off, at the river Vltava, or the Moldau, which cuts through the heart of Bohemia from south to north. Perhaps it actually took the acoustic memory of a great romantic to so perfectly capture the music of a flowing stream from its source as a bubbling brook in the Bohemian Forest.

In 2005 a new interpretation of My Country premiered for the ballet; one of the show’s ballerinas Kamila Madejová helped me imagine how Smetana’s river is put to dance.

“The choreographer thinks about this part as veins of the human body. So it starts with a small pulse going through the fingers, through the hands, the arms and so on, until it is strong in the heart. It’s like the growth of a nation.”

The amazing thing about Vltava is that it sounds like a river; from beginning to end you can follow the stream in your mind. How does Mr Jiříkovský explain technically what makes it sound that way?

“It’s a simple scale of notes going up and coming down, in variations of course. For example the beginning... if you have these notes from one to the next and put it to a fast tempo, you have to get a feeling of motion. Actually, he really tried to find the best way to explain the river. What he had in his first sketch was much more complicated But finally he did made it even more simple.

“The scale in the main theme is also very simple, up and down.”

“Ok, when you play it like that, it sounds almost exactly like a song that we hear children sing, one of the very first songs that children in the Czech Republic learn.”

“Yes! That’s very often written about this song and of course Smetana knew about this similarity.”

“The song ‘Kočka leze dírou’, or ‘The Cat Crawls through the Hole’...”

“It comes from Czech folk songs, it’s really, I think, one of the hundred songs coming from normal people in villages singing simple melodies with simple words... ‘Kočka leze dírou, pes oknem...’ But Smetana didn’t want to use this song to make it, let’s say, more popular. Many different countries have popular songs that come from a simple scale like this, five tones up five tones down. There is also one in Sweden; they love this song in their country, and they also say that Smetana was inspired by that song, because he had lived in Sweden. And you can find many different songs or motifs that are very simple like this. And Smetana wanted to use this kind of simple motif, because he wanted everyone to remember the motif of the river, the national river.”

The third part of My Country is a legend - a uniquely wonderful one. It tells of the beautiful maiden Šárka who was deeply in love with a man who was unfaithful to her, and that was the beginning of the end. For him. Šárka raised a small army of women and vowed vengeance upon the truly weaker sex. She had her maidens tie her to a tree, and waited for rescue, which came in the form of a handsome knight named Ctirad.

“Ctirad, when he saw Šárka, fell in love immediately (because she was really very beautiful). So they helped her, and they started to celebrate. But Šárka was only waiting until they drank too much and fell asleep, and then she called her friends, her group, and they killed all of the men, and there was a big massacre, a bloodbath. And that is how the story is from history; it was recorded by the chronicler Kosmas in the 10th century like this. It’s really a very old and a very important legend for the Czech country.”

In the next section, entitled “From Bohemia’s Woods and Meadows”, My Country zooms away from Šárka’s carnage to sweep across the Bohemian countryside. Má Vlast is after all a cycle of symphonic poems, and this fourth piece is exemplary of that. Dr. Marta Ottlová of the Institute of Musicology explains:

“The symphonic poem can say in music the ideas of masterpieces of literature; that means, that the words cannot say.”

“But My Country isn’t referring to a literary basis.”

“My country was formulated by Smetana himself, and we know the programme in words only from 1878, when the publisher asked the composer to write down the literature to these symphonic poems.

“The fourth symphonic poem that Smetana wrote describes the beauties of the Czech landscape and, typically, he wrote that everyone can imagine the pictures as they will.”

“To me for example, it sounds slightly frightening, the beginning of the piece, you know? They way the piece begins, it doesn’t really remind me of a forest - or rather if it does remind me of a forest, then a very dark forest full of goblins.”

“No! Well, it’s individual. The typical feature of the 19th century listener was this great richness of imagination.”

A defining moment in the history of the Czech Lands was when an early Czech protestant movement took on the might of the Catholic Church. The Hussites are said to have horrified the armies of crusaders come to destroy them, not only with their uniquely terrifying, makeshift weapons, but with their marching hymn “Kdož jsú boží bojovnici”... “Ye Who Are Warriors of God”.

As the first two symphonic poems are twinned by the Vltava River, the last two are bound by the Hussite warriors. The town where the Hussites headquartered was Tábor, and that is the name of the fifth symphonic poem in the Má Vlast cycle. The mountain in which they sleep and from which they will return in time of need is Blaník. Smetana’s wish in his own words was to “extol the glory and greatness of the Hussites and their strength of character,” and his reference point for doing so was the “Warriors of God”.

Bedřich Smetana's statue in PragueBedřich Smetana's statue in Prague “There are actually three parts of this Hussite chorale, and he uses the first one in the beginning, ‘kdož jsú bo-ží bojovni-ci, a zá-kona je-ho...’ This is the first part and then there is a second part used later in Tábor, in a more melodic part quite early after the beginning... And then he builds up, quite like a fugato. So this motif, especially the rhythmical part of the motif, is always there.

“This third part of the chorale, the third theme that he used, is the part where the chorale sings ‘že konečně vždycky s ním zvítězíte’, ‘with God you always win”. This is, let’s say, the final motto of the whole piece.”

The last piece of My Country is about hope for the future, and the legend of the sleeping heroes. Aside from that, Smetana himself suggested that one had best not look for a storyline.

“I think it’s really not necessary – for me at least – to think about the details of the story of each piece, but rather to have the feeling that this music is very strong and very important for Czech people and Czech history. And I think in the county’s difficult moments this music is always played and supports the Czech people, for example during changes like in ’89.”

“Kind of like a knight of Blaník itself.”

“This is really what I feel from this music. It is a great symphonic work, but also a work that is really dedicated to the people of one country.”