Thursday, October 20, 2011:My Country

The rugged landscape around Vyšehrad Castle ruins, the Vltava River, myths and legends are references in Smetana's My Country

My Country

“These compositions I want to dedicate to the famous city of Prague…as here I gained education in music, here long years I performed publicly, and here I was stricken by a disease that is for a musician most frightful.”

Bedřich Smetana, from a letter to the Council of the Royal Capital City Prague

This is the dedication of the pinnacle work of Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, completed during the years 1874-1879, by which time he had become completely deaf.

My Country (Má Vlast) is traditionally performed on the anniversary of his death and on various state holidays. This year on the 28th of October, in celebration of the creation of the independent country of Czechoslovakia in 1918, the Symphony Orchestra of the Capital City Prague (FOK) will perform My Country at the Municipal House.

What can you look forward to at the concert?

My Country is a set of six symphonic poems that have gradually become one of the top works of Czech classical music. They are written in the spirit of nationalistic music: Each poem depicts something from the legends of Bohemia, history, or the countryside.

To help you understand the feelings behind the music, let’s look at them individually using some of Smetana’s own descriptions.

The first poem, Vyšehrad (The High Castle), describes the seat of the earliest Czech kings in Prague. Opening with those well-known notes of the harp, it takes us through the songs of the oracles about historical events at Vyšehrad – the fame, splendor, tournaments, and battles. Then the seemingly triumphant climax is interrupted by a short descent capturing the castle’s destruction by the Hussites, before the harp reminds you of the beauty which has been turned into ruins. The poem ends quietly, representing the Vltava River flowing below the castle.

Vltava, the 2nd poem, is the story of the course of the river, starting from its two springs which unify into a single current and meander through woods and meadows. Here, a celebration is taking place; fairies dance by the light of the moon; the river continues below cliffs, proud castles, chateaus, and ruins; and on to Prague, where Vyšehrad is sighted before the river disappears into the distance in the majestic flow of the Labe River (Elbe).

The third poem is a fable about the girl for whom it is named, Šárka. It is about her anger and revenge against men, caused by an unfaithful lover. In the distance you can hear the approach of the princely knight Ctirad and the cries of the girl tied to a tree to create a deceitful trap. It all ends with the deaths of Ctirad and his men at the hands of Šárka and her followers, rebelling women, in a blood bath of terrible murder.

The fourth poem, From Bohemian Woods and Fields, generally evokes the composer’s feelings on the beauty of the Czech countryside. You can hear both cheerful and melancholy sounds representing forests and fertile valleys – choose your own vision.

Tábor is about the city in southern Bohemia that was founded by the Hussites. The theme comes from a Hussite hymn, “Ye Who Are Warriors of God.” In Tábor, their seat, this hymn resounded most often and most forcefully. The composition is about strength of will, victorious battles, and endurance; about stubborn lack of compromise. The essence of the fifth poem is the unbreakable spirit of the Hussites.

Blaník, the sixth and last poem, is named after the mountain of legend. Inside, an army led by Saint Wenceslas, sleeps, awaiting the moment of the country’s greatest need. The same motifs as in Tábor permeate Blaník; the Hussite melody is the basis for development of the theme, the resurrection of the Czech nation. It evokes the country’s future good fortune and greatness, the eventual glorious rise of the Czech state.

In more modern times, Má Vlast was adopted as a kind of national anthem because it is so patriotic. During and after the World War II years school children like my Dad had to learn about it in school; consequently, some people are “allergic” to it. For others it’s a well-known and beloved composition.

Thanks to Bedřich Smetana, what was once a compulsory feature of the school curriculum has now become an inspiration, by choice, for both Czech nationalism and for classical music lovers around the world.

Altogether its performance is not a bad way to celebrate Czech independence day. There is a lot to be proud of. – oo

– Hana Škrdlová

Photo Credits: Top: Miroslav Setnička; bottom: Zuzana Pernicová

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