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Biography

  • Born

    2 March 1824

  • Died

    12 May 1884 (aged 60)

Bedřich Smetana (2 March 1824 - 12 May 1884) was a Czech composer, one of his nation's most significant. He is best known for his symphonic poem Vltava - Die Moldau , the second in a cycle of six which he entitled Má vlast ("My Homeland"), and for his opera Prodaná nevěsta ("The Bartered Bride").
Smetana was the son of a brewer in Litomyšl in Bohemia. He studied piano and violin from an early age, and played in an amateur string quartet with other members of his family. He attended a high school in Pilsen from 1840-1843. He studied music in Prague, despite initial resistance from his father. He then secured a post as music master to a noble family, and in 1848 received funds from Franz Liszt to establish his own music school.
September 1855 marked the death of his second child, his beloved four-year-old daughter Bedřiška. When his third child died nine months later, he committed himself to composition, producing the Piano Trio in G minor. This piece is full of sadness and despair, making use of phrases that are cut short, possibly in resemblance to his daughter's own life.
Smetana moved in 1856 to Gothenburg, Sweden, where he taught, conducted, and gave chamber music recitals. In 1863, back in Prague, he opened a new school of music dedicated to promoting specifically Czech music.
By 1874 he had become almost totally deaf, but he continued to compose; Má vlast was written after his deafness had developed. He also suffered from 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."
From 1875 he lived mostly in the small village of Jabkenice.
His string quartet in E minor, Z mého života (From My Life, composed in 1876), the first of two pieces that he wrote for the medium, is an autobiographical work. Each movement deals with a different aspect of its creator's life. The first movement is expressive, demonstrative of Smetana's youthful love of art and his search for something undefinable. The second movement, carefree and somewhat raucous, takes the listener back to the days of Smetana's youth. The third movement is reminiscent of the happiness Smetana felt when in love with the girl who later became his wife. The final movement begins with Smetana's joy over the recognition which was given to the national music of Bohemia. However, as the movement progresses, the music is punctuated by a piercing high E in the first violin which, Smetana explained, represents the devastating effects of his tinnitus. He may also be hinting at this personal misfortune with the piccolo scoring in Má vlast.
Smetana was the first composer to write music that was specifically Czech in character. Many of his operas are based on Czech themes and myths, the best known being the comedy The Bartered Bride (1866). He used many Czech dance rhythms and his melodies sometimes resemble folk songs, though he was proud of not directly quoting folktunes for the most part. Smetana maintained that his country's music should be a patriotic expression of the Czech life and collective soul. In this assumption, he clashed with a former friend of his, Frantisek Pivoda, who believed that "art knows no boundaries." Pivoda wanted to see fair interchange of artistic ideas between countries.
In 1882 Smetana suffered further effects of his progressive neurological illness. After he suffered a stroke-like seizure, doctors forbade him to compose in the fear that the increased mental activity of composition would result in further seizures. However, Smetana rebelled against these orders and composed his final, incomplete, opera, Viola. In 1884 he was taken to the Prague Lunatic Asylum, where he died soon afterwards. He is interred in the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague.
For many years it was believed that Smetana suffered from syphilis. Nevertheless, later studies carried out by Dr Jiří Ramba, who studied Smetana's skull, revealed that he suffered from osteomyelitis.
Smetana was a great influence on Antonín Dvořák, who similarly used Czech themes in his works. The output of Smetana influenced many Czech composers who came after him, and continues to inspire musicians today.

Operas
Braniboři v Čechách, "Brandenburgers in Bohemia" - Interim Theatre, Prague, 1866.
Prodaná nevěsta, "The Bartered Bride" - Interim Theatre, Prague, 1866 (original version in 2 act).
Prodaná nevěsta, "The Bartered Bride" - Interim Theatre, Prague, 1870 (final revision in 3 act).
Dalibor - Czech Theater, Prague, 1868.
Libuše - National Theatre, Prague, 1881.
Dvě vdovy, "The Two Widows" - Czech Theater, Prague, 1874.
Hubička, "The Kiss" - Czech Theater, Prague, 1876.
Tajemství, "The Secret" - Premiere in 1878.
Čertova stěna, "The Devil's Wall" - Premiere in 1882.

Orchestral music
Má vlast (My Homeland) including "The Moldau"
'Triumphal' or 'Festive' Symphony in E major
Richard III, symphonic poem
Wallenstein's Camp, symphonic poem
Håkon Jarl, symphonic poem
Prague Carnival
Festive Overture in D major
March for Shakespeare Festival

Chamber music
String Quartet No. 1 in E minor "From My Life"
String Quartet No. 2 in D minor
From My Homeland for piano and violin
Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15

Piano music
Album Leaves
Bagatelles and Impromptus
Czech Dances
Polkas
Sonata in G Minor

Other works
Choral works
Songs

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