Bedřich Smetana

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Bedřich Smetana
The Smetana monument in Litomyšl
The Smetana monument in Litomyšl
Background information
Birth name Bedřich Smetana
Born March 2, 1824, Prague, Czechoslovakia
Died May 12, 1884, Prague, Czechoslovakia
Occupation(s) Composer, Conductor, Violinist, Pianist
Notable instrument(s)

Bedřich Smetana (March 2, 1824 - 12 May 12, 1884) is considered one of the greatest Czech composers of the nineteenth century and the country's first nationalist composer, having incorporated folk songs, dances, written operas and other works in celebration of the Czech history and language. Along with Dvořák, Janáček, and Martinů, he is one of the most recognized Czech classical music composers, and many critics have labeled him universal rather than geographical in scope. He is best known for his symphonic poem Vltava (The Moldau), the second in a cycle of six entitled My Fatherland and the comic opera The Bartered Bride.

Smetana was a child prodigy who grew up in a family that cultivated music and schooled him in violin and piano before he received formal musical training in Prague. He founded several music schools in promotion of Czech music and fostered a deep and lasting friendship with Franz Liszt, who was his unofficial patron and musical role model, particularly in the genre of a symphonic poem.

Smetana's adult life was marked with personal tragedies; his first wife died of tuberculosis while returning home from Sweden, and three of his four children died at very young ages. He fought poverty and a lack of recognition in his country, which changed in Sweden, where the recognition of his genius finally came. Upon his return to Prague, he worked as a conductor at the National Theater, the center of Czech cultural life devoted to national themes, until he went deaf at the age of 50. His finest pieces were composed when he could no longer hear.

Plagued with hallucinations toward the end of his life, one month before his death he was interned in a mental asylum, where he remained until his death on May 12, 1884. The annual international music festival Prague Spring opens on the anniversary of his death.

Life and Studies

By the grace of God and with His help I shall one day be a Liszt in technique and a Mozart in composition. [1]

Bedřich Smetana was born as the eleventh child and the first surviving son of the fairly wealthy master brewer František Smetana and Barbora Linková, his third wife. His family addressed him in the German — Fritz. Seven siblings followed him. The family was constantly on the move, and young Bedřich went to high school in Jindřichův Hradec, Jihlava, Havlíčkův Brod, Prague, and Plzeň, where he graduated. In his rented apartment in Havlíčkův Brod he created an unofficial student parliament, frequented by many young men who went on to become important players in the history of the Czech nation, such as journalist Karel Havlíček. The friendship with Havlíček was so inspiring to the composer that after Havlíček's departure for Prague, he followed suit to be near him.

Smetana was quite a child prodigy and fortunate to have been born into a family that enjoyed and cultivated music. Music was a favorite national pastime and many Czechs, regardless of their financial situation, played at least one instrument, which is reflected in the saying "Every Czech is a musician." Smetana received his first violin at the age of one, and his father taught him how to play it. Later on his father purchased a piano for the gifted son, who held his first piano concert in public at the age of six. In addition to this, he performed in a quartet at home, playing the first violin and his father second violin. Still, his father was against Bedřich’s formal musical training.

Smetana did obey his mind’s calling, and against his father's wish to pursue education in music he started taking lessons in Prague in 1843 at a piano school run by Joseph Proksch, whose teaching methods were considered the most advanced in Europe. Prague enjoyed a bustling musical life; it had seen the first performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and La Clemenza di Tito. There were several musical schools and institutions in Prague: Prague Conservatory, founded in 1811, Society for the Perfection of Church Music in Bohemia, set up in 1826, and Organ School in 1830. Composers Dvořák and Janáček would be on the graduate list of Organ School.

Czech music at that time evolved around church and theater. The center of theatrical and operatic life was the Estates Theater, catering to the nobility, where Don Giovanni was first performed and where Weber was director between 1813 and 1816. Liszt, Berlioz, Paganini, Mendelssohn, and Clara Schumann performed in Prague.

Smetana took up studies of piano and theory with J. B. Kittl, director of the Prague Conservatory, and made Prague his home. He fell in love with a girl named Lousina and composed Lousina Polka (Lousina's Polka). After he completed his studies, for four years he made his living as a music teacher for the family of the prestigious Count Thun. He maintained close contact with Liszt, who assisted him financially beginning in 1856. Smetana was a great admirer of Liszt and the two composers met and corresponded with each other frequently. Liszt also co-funded Smetana's private piano school in Prague; as a token of admiration and gratitude, Smetana devoted his Six Characteristic Pieces to Liszt. He was drawn to Liszt's idea of the symphonic poem, which gave rise to Richard III, Waldstein's Camp, and Hakon Jarl.

In 1857 Smetana married his teenage love Kateřina Kolářová, who was an outstanding pianist. In addition to music, he loved dancing and was known as a passionate dancer. He loved drawing; his sketches have been preserved. He was also fond of hunting. As a person he was rather petite with 160 cm (5 feet 4 inches) in height.

Family tragedies

Kateřina struggled with tuberculosis, and three of their four daughters died in infancy; only Sofie survived. The 1840s and 1850s were turbulent years for Bohemia and Europe as a whole, including the European nationalist movements of 1848. Political oppression, poverty, and the death of his beloved second child, daughter Bedřiška, at the age of four, exerted a heavy toll on Smetana. To make things worse, he was unable to break through in his native country. Soon another tragedy; his third child died only nine months after his daughter Bedřiška. He coped with this grief by composing on a large scale. These were the circumstances that gave rise to his Piano Trio in G Minor, a piece soaked in sadness and despair, with phrases cut short as his daughter's life had been.


Historic sources are ambiguous on whether Smetana had to leave Prague because he was at odds with local authorities, who saw him as too nationalistic or whether he just had to escape from where everything reminded him of the loss of his daughter, along with his financial worries. In any case, he left Bohemia in 1856, with his destination Gothenburg, Sweden. Owing to his talent and possibly also his handsome, delicate features, he was very popular with local women, who competed to become his students to the point that he had more students than he could handle. Here he taught, conducted Sweden's Philharmonic Society, and gave chamber music recitals for five years. He finally achieved recognition for his conducting, piano playing, and composition skills. However, the northern climate aggravated Kateřina’s condition, causing the family to leave the country in 1859, but Kateřina died on the way, in Dresden, Germany. A year later he married for the second time, the 20-year-old Bettina Ferdinandiová, who inspired his Bettina polka (Betty's Polka), and moved his new family back to Sweden.

Return home

Smetana's Tomb

Once the political storms in the Czech lands subsided, he hastened home on the news of the opening of the Provisional Theater in 1881, the first theater in Prague to hold performances in Czech. The first performance was that of his Libuše. When the theater burned down and was rebuilt in 1883, Libuše was again the opening opera. However, he did not remain in Prague and traveled back and forth before finally returning permanently in 1863, when he opened a new school of music dedicated to promoting Czech music. He composed historical opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, whose first performance in 1864 was an instant success, followed in 1866 by The Bartered Bride. In the same year he became a conductor at the Provisional Theater, where he focused on opera as a genre that allowed him to speak to his nation and invigorate its belief in the future. He worked there until going deaf in 1874 of what seemed to be syphilis, although this was never diagnosed.

Financial worries caused him to move to the village of Jabkenice in 1875. He was not accustomed to the remoteness of the countryside and did not enjoy that life style, yet he was very prolific, despite suffering deafness and tinnitus, which caused him to hear a continuous, maddening high note which he described as the "shrill whistle of a first inversion chord of A-flat in the highest register of the piccolo." “Deafness would be a relatively tolerable condition if only all was quiet in my head,” he remarked.[2] During this time he composed his best operas, string quartets, piano and vocal compositions.

Last Days

One day in April 1884 Smetana noted "Final page" as he was in the middle of composing a score. He would not be able to compose any longer, as his creative powers seemed to leave him for good at that moment.

In his last months, Bedřich Smetana experienced periods of clear awareness which alternated with hallucinations. This caused his physician to suggest internment in a mental asylum, as he could not get the treatment he needed at home. On April 22 he was transferred to the Prague Institute for the Mentally Ill in Katerinkynor. Smetana died one month later, on May 12, 1884 shortly after his sixtieth birthday.

The funeral procession began in Prague’s Old Town Square on May 15 and quickly turned into national mourning, with huge crowds lining the path of the procession to see off the national hero, whose coffin was wrapped in the national flag and a workers' band played a mourning march from Dalibor. At the National Theater, fanfare occurred in respect to the composer for the last time, and his most cheerful work, The Bartered Bride, was performed; then the procession headed for the Vyšehrad castle, where many famous Czechs have been laid to rest.

Smetana's work was largely popular during his lifetime, except for his tragic opera Dalibor and a few other works. Although he was adored by the musical world during his lifetime, critics such as Jan Nepomuk Mayr and František Pivoda had wanted the Czech opera to follow the fashion of the mostly sung voice in opera, as was the fashion in Italy. Smetana fell in disfavor with them for not observing these tastes. Pivoda went as far as attempting to oust Smetana from the Provisional Theater. On the other hand, those who adored Smetana saw in him a modernist and a Wagnerian composer.

Franz Liszt made this memorable statement in a letter to the Czech nation: In haste I write to you, that Smetana's death has touched me deeply. He was truly a genius.[3]

Musical Nationalism of the nineteenth century

The period from approximately 1825 to 1900 is called Romanticism. In Europe, this was the era of political unrest and revolt of nations against the Austro-German influence, with a major event being the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna that redrew European boundaries and triggered protests. Politically, this reaction came to be known as nationalism, and its extent was such that it came to define the period of Romanticism, both in emotion and thought, and consequently music as well.

Nationalism comprised two stages: in the first half of the nineteenth century, nationalists regarded themselves as citizens of the world; later the reaction became more aggressive. “…it was to his nation—and not to a creed, a dynasty, or a class—that a citizen owed the first duty in a clash of loyalties.”[4] The second stage is discernible in music in works composed after 1860 — music in each nation thus reflected the nature of the local conflict.

A distinctive feature of nationalism in music was an interest in innovation and exoticism. The composers strove for unique, distinguishable melody rather than imitation of the contemporary fare. That is why they incorporated folk songs and dances, which were monodic, and this in turn forced them to create new harmonies. The passion for exoticism even encouraged borrowing another country's idioms and, consequently, a certain degree of the mixing of cultures. These trends were most apparent in Russia and Eastern Europe. Russia had its "The Five" (Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin); Russian nationalists abandoned Western European idioms to adopt cultural elements of the remote parts of the vast Tsarist Empire. Central Europe gave birth to Smetana, Dvořák, and Janáček; and Hungary was exemplified by Bartok. In Norway there was Grieg and in Finland, Sibelius.

Still, to define nationalism in music is no easy task, because some works considered as its masterpieces did not contain a single folksong, as Steen observed in Smetana's The Bartered Bride. Nationalism is country specific by definition, and its musical language is imbued with national folk music and rhythms as well as the nation's culture, language, habits, scenery, and local color. [5] As in the period of Classicism, which harmonized structural clarity with emotional restraint, in the Romantic period the composers also searched for the balance between emotional intensity and classical form. "Musical story-telling" became popular not only in opera but also in purely instrumental compositions; one of its most powerful forms was the symphonic poem that Smetana himself resorted to in order to paint a picture of his native land.

New instruments were utilized by orchestras, and composers strove to wrestle new sounds out of old instruments in an effort to broaden the scale of sounds and satisfy the audience's thirst for exotic scenes. In Russia, composers wrote music describing the Spanish countryside (Capriccio Espagnol by Rimsky-Korsakoff), while in Germany they tried to evoke the local color of Scotland (Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony). Operas also preferred exotic settings, such as Ancient Egypt in Verdi's Aida.

Romantic audiences greatly rewarded virtuoso performers. Women fainted when the Hungarian pianist and composer Liszt played the piano. On the other hand, the abundance of technically brilliant performers encouraged composition of pieces that were very demanding in terms of technical skills.

Nationalism in the Czech lands

Bohemia was undergoing a period of the National Revival, which called for constitutional reforms and equal educational rights for Czech and German speakers. This was in reaction to the centralization policies of Emperor Franz Joseph I and the threat posed by German culture and German nationalism. Germany had ambitious plans of uniting all German-speaking peoples, including those living in Bohemia. There was a saying at the time that a German will as soon do a good deed to a Slav 'as a snake will warm itself upon ice'.[6]

The Czech language was therefore at the forefront of Czech nationalism and the survival of national identity. Science, literature and arts, especially in the first part of the century, searched for historical evidence to disprove the belief that Czechs were inferior to their Hapsburg masters. Smetana's librettos were in Czech, which was evidence that the language was fit for the needs of the nation. In the second half of the century, nationalism went into crescendo as the relaxed laws were passed, Prague civic authorities adopted the Czech language, and education in the native tongue was instituted. A temporary national theater—the Provisional Theater—seating around 800, opened in 1862 to reinforce the national identity. Smetana's first opera, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, was written for this theater. Czech Choral Society and the Artists' Club were founded at that time, with Smetana acting as conductor at the former and the first head of the music section at the latter. All of these steps gradually reversed the ratio of the German-speaking residents to the Czech-speaking ones to less than 14 percent in the 1880s from more than 50 percent in late 1840s.

Czech nationalism was most evident in opera, which had absorbed Italian influences, while symphonies and chamber music had borrowed from their German and Austrian counterparts. Smetana’s musical language was rooted in Liszt’s and Dvořák’s in Brahms'. Janacek was the purest Czech nationalist composer, having renounced the styles of Western Europe. To impart a distinctively Czech character, the composers drew inspiration from folksongs; however, those did not differ from Western European folksongs as much as the Russian ones did, since Bohemia had had unimpeded contact with mainstream European music. They chose national subjects for program music and operas combining those with a melody that was fresh and spontaneous.


Smetana's first compositions included pieces for piano, such as waltzes, bagatelles, and impromptus. In 1863 he finished the opera Brandenburgers in Bohemia, with a libretto by Karel Sabina, which was a great success, bringing its author much-needed finances. Described as a Bohemian rebellion against Teutonic invaders, the music is strongly Wagnerian, with Bohemian folk songs and dances. The next three opearas—The Bartered Bride (which he conducted himself), Dalibor, and Libuše—defined the trend of Bohemia's musical theater. He went on to compose a vast array of pieces, both short, such as polkas, etudes, songs and quartets.

The Bartered Bride

This is a comic opera in three acts set in a small Bohemian village a century earlier. All villagers are in a joyful, celebratory mood except John and Mary, who are facing opposition from Mary's parents, who want their daughter to marry Vašek, a rich but stuttering village idiot. This match was arranged by the marriage broker Kecal. The name Kecal means a person who talks too much and possibly lies. The plot goes on to take the audience to a happy ending of the story, when genuine love beats all the odds. Yet, Smetana viewed his greatest and most popular opera with condescension, because he wrote it to silence the critics who dismissed his first opera as too Wagnerian and too pretentious. It was frivolous and light and very much unlike his more serious and heroic pieces, which he felt were being neglected.

Pitts Sanborn commented that "While distinctively of its native soil… [this music] possesses the universal qualities necessary to give it a world-wide currency. We of other countries delight in Czech rhythms, its national dances, the characteristic contour of its melodies, but we also find in this music more than local color and exotic charm; the flowing humanity is there that transcends limits and boundaries."[7] It offers insight into human character, its weaknesses and motivations, although it was written to entertain. We do not find such a penetrating portrait of human psychology and emotion in his serious operas.

My Fatherland

The six-part cycle of symphonic poems My Fatherland also incorporates Czech folk music. The first four poems are a tribute to Czech nature and history. Smetana liked to describe what his music was to convey: on Vltava (The Moldau in German), the river that originates in the forests of south Bohemia, flows across Prague and ends its winding journey through confluence with the Elbe River, he wrote: "… two springs pour forth their streams in the shade of the Bohemian forest, the one warm and gushing, the other cold and tranquil. Their waves gaily flowing over their stony beds, join and glitter in the sun. The woodland brook, chattering along, becomes the river Moldau which, as its waters hurry through the valleys of Bohemia, becomes a mighty stream. … the wide river bed in which it rolls on, in majestic calm, toward Prague, where, welcomed by time-honored Vyšehrad, it disappears from the poet's gaze far on the horizon." [8]

  1. Vyšehrad is an ancient seat of Bohemia's rulers.
  2. Vltava is a favorite with audiences worldwide.
  3. Šárka is inspired by the old legend of Ctirad, who was murdered by his treacherous man-hating lover, Sarka.
  4. Tábor pays homage to the Hussite period.
  5. Blaník is based on the same theme as Tabor.
  6. From the Fields and Groves of Bohemia was described by the composer as "Bohemia's blessed fields, whose lovely scent of flowers and cool breezes fill us with inspiration".[9]

From My Life

The string quartet in E minor From My Life is an autobiographical work. The program supplied by the composer describes the first part as love of art in his youth, romantic supremacy, yearning for something which he could not define, and warning of future misfortune. The second part conjures up the atmosphere of his joyful youth when he composed dance music enough to bury the world and was known as a passionate lover of dancing. The third part is a testimony to the bliss of his first love to the girl who became his faithful wife. The fourth part speaks of his discovery that he could treat the national elements in music and the joy in following this path until deafness set in. The final movement is punctuated by a piercing high E in the first violin which, Smetana explained, represents the devastating effects of his tinnitus.



  • Braniboři v Čechách (Brandenburgers in Bohemia) – 1863
  • Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride) – 1866
  • Dalibor – 1867
  • Libuše – 1872
  • Dvě vdovy (The Two Widows) – 1873
  • Hubička (The Kiss) – 1876
  • Tajemství (The Secret) – 1878
  • Čertova stěna (The Devil's Wall) – 1882
  • Viola (not completed) – 1884


Cycle of symphonic poems Má vlast (My Fatherland) 1874–1879:

Z českých luhů a hájů (From Czech Fields and Groves)
  • Lousina polka (Lousina's Polka) – 1840
  • Jiřinková polka – 1840
  • Polka Ze studentského života (On Student Life) – 1842
  • Polka Vzpomínka na Plzeň (Memory of Plzen) – 1844
  • Šest charakteristických skladeb (Six Characteristic Pieces) – 1848
  • Lístky do památníku (Notes in an Album) – 1848
  • Píseň svobody (Song of Freedom) – 1848
  • Slavnostní ouvertura D dur (Ceremonial Overture in D dur) – 1848
  • Triumfální symfonie E dur (Triumphant Symphony in E dur) – 1854
  • Klavírní trio g moll (Piano Trio in g Moll) – 1855
  • Tři polky salónní (Thre Salon Polkas) – 1855
  • Tři polky poetické (Three Poetic Polkas) – 1855
  • Richard III. – 1858
  • Macbeth a čarodějnice (Macbeth and the Witch) – 1858
  • Bettina polka (Betty's Polka) – 1859
  • Tone poem Wallensteins Lager – 1859
  • Na břehu mořském (On the Seaside) – 1861
  • Hakon Jarl – 1861
  • choruses Odrodilec (Renegade), Tři jezdci (Three Riders) – 1862
  • Shakespearovský pochod (Shakespearean March) – 1864
  • Slavnostní ouvertura C dur (Ceremonial Overture in C dur) – 1868
  • Slavnostní předehra k položení základního kamene Národního divadla (Ceremonial Overture to the Laying of the National Theater Foundation Stone) – 1868
  • choruses Rolnická (Farmers'), Česká píseň (Czech Song) – 1868
  • Libušin soud (Libuse's Court), Rybář (Fisherman) – 1869
  • Quartet České tance I and II (Bohemian Dances) – 1877 and 1879
  • Z mého života (From My Life) - 1876–1878
  • Večerní písně (Evening Songs) – 1879
  • Věno (Dowry) – 1880
  • Pražský karneval (Prague Carnival) – 1883


  1. John Stanley. Classical Music: An Introduction to Classical Music Through the Great Composers and Their Masterworks. (Reader's Digest, 1994), 172
  2. Michael Steen. The Lives and Times of the Great Composers. (Cambridge, UK: Icon Books, 2003), 702
  3. "Bedrich Smetana",Czech Radio Archives
  4. John Miles, Nationalism and its Effect on Music in the Romantic Era John Miles' Personal Website
  5. Steen, 692
  6. Ibid., 699
  7. David Ewen. The Complete Book of Classical Music. (London: Hale, 1966), 775
  8. Ibid., 779
  9. Steen, 780

References & Further Reading

  • Ewen, David (Ed.) The Complete Book of Classical Music. London: Hale, 1966. ISBN 0709038658
  • Gammond, Peter. Classical Music: An Essential Guide to the World's Finest Music. New York: Harmony Books, 1988. ISBN 0517570947
  • Grout, Donald J. and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music, 4th ed. New York and London: Norton, 1988.
  • Ramba, Jiří. Slavné české lebky, antropologicko-lékařské nálezy jako pomocníci historie (Famous Czech Skulls, anthropological-medical findings as helpers of history). Prague: Galén, 2005.
  • Stanley, John. Classical Music: an introduction to classical music through the great composers and their masterworks. Reader's Digest, 1994. ISBN 0895776065
  • Steen, Michael. The Lives and Times of the Great Composers. Cambridge, UK: Icon Books, 2003. ISBN 1840464852

External Links

All links retrieved September 26, 2023.

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