Mà Vlast

The Czechs revere memory of Smetana, the man who created a place in the opera house and concert hall for music that expressed the character of their people, describe their countryside and preserved their songs and dances. Young Smetana's parents resisted his inclination to arts, but his eagerness to compose was a great one. He wrote his first little piano piece when he was eight years old, and at fifteen composed his first string quartet. Very unfortunate indeed that his first real string quartet which was not numbered was lost. When he was 19, his parents gave up in disinteresting him. He refused to accept further support from his father and left for Prague, the capital, determined to become a pianist as highly regarded as Liszt and as superior as Mozart. But alas, he failed to achieve those heights, but he attained a place of great honour and respect in the history of music.

Frantisek Bartos made some pertinent remarks concerning Smetana's view about the greatness of his nation:

...it was directly in the spirit and idealogical granduer of the opera 'Libuse' that 'Mà Vlast' was written. Both works are idealogically similar in their glorification of the country and it's people, dictated by the period of their origin. We must not forget that it was the time of the culmination of the active struggle of the politically oppressed Czech nation for independance and the attainment of a full cultural and political life which had been waged for almost a hundred years...
In 1872, Smetana began to think of composing a series of symphonic poems that would best describe several aspects of his beloved Bohemia and it's people, their history, their myths and their vision of independance as a nation. He was very determined to do so as he composed the first four in a period of less than a year, (between 1874 to 1875). Each of the six symphonic poems is a complete work that can be played seperately, but the entire cycle is so organized and well planned that they can also be played in a continuos sequence, as a monumental single work in six huge movements, entitled Mà Vlast.

The first cycle Vysehrad, was completed on November 18, 1874 and was first performed two months later. It takes its name from the great rocky citadel above the Moldau River (Vltava) where Prague was first settled. The Princess Libuse lived there in the eight century, and the symphonic poem uses several themes from the opera that Smetana wrote about her. The music is generally solemn and ceremonial. The composer and a writer-friend told what it depicts-

...At the sight of the venerable Vysehrad, the memory is carried back to the remote past, to the sound of King Lumir's harp, to the vision of Vysehrad in it's ancient splendour, with its gleaming golden crown, the proud and venerable dwelling place of the Premysl kings. In the castle, knights used assemble at the joyous call of trumpets and cymbals, to engage in tourneys. Warriors gathered for combat, their arms clashing and flashing in the sunlight. Vysehrad was moved by the songs of praise and by victory. Now, yearning after its long-gone glory, the poet sees it in ruins. Furious battles has knocked down it's lofty towers. Its sanctuaries are fallen and the proud abode of princes destroyed. The temptest are stilled. Vysehrad is hushed, empty of all it's glory. From the ruins comes the melancholy echo of King Lumir's harp...
The most popular one of the symphonic poems is the second one Vltava, the Czech name of the great river that we usually call, in German, the Moldau. It was given a full description by the composer himself in 1879-
...the composition depicts the course of the river from its beginning, where two brooks, one cold the other warm, join in a stream that runs through forests and meadows; and the lovely countryside where merry feasts and gay festivals are being celebrated; by the light of the moon a dance of water nymphs; on the nearby cliffs proud castles, mansions and ruins rise up; the Vltava swirls in the St. John rapids, flows in a broad stream as far as Prague, passes Vysehrad and disappears into the distance where it unite with the Elbe...

In the score, Smetana made some additional notes indicating the course of the river as it winds its way southward from the Sumava Mountains, through central Bohemia and Prague to unite with the Elbe at Melnik. The piece can be divided into eight episodes:

  1. First and second sources flowing into the Vltava itself
  2. Forest and hunting
  3. Rustic village wedding
  4. Moonlight and dance of water sprites or nymphs
  5. Vltava returns
  6. St. John rapids
  7. Vltava flows in broad stream
  8. Vltava salutes Vysehrad and flows by
With exception of the last three which are in the key of E major, the five preceding episodes changes keys from E minor, C major, G major, A major and back to E minor. Cold and warm springs are suggested by flutes in the ever-famous opening bars (1) which is replaced by the clarinets in (2). From this point, section (6) is developed from cellos and double basses, while another idea flows into Vltava itself.

There is no need to describe the construction of the work, for it is the music that reveals itself to the listeners. However, the great theme Smetana chose to represent the river has an interesting and musing story. This melody is now commonly sung in Czechoslovakia with some amusing words about a cat coming into a house through a hole in the wall, while a dog through a window, and it is generally thought to be a Czech folk song inserted into the symphonic poem by the composer. The thruth is very nearly the opposite. When Vltava became well known, people took Smetana's tune and decorated it with the existing familiar words to it. The text is an old one, and it was first published in a big collection of Czech folk songs that appeared during Smetana's lifetime.

The third Sàrka, was completed on February 25, 1875 and first performed on March 17, 1877. But the composer, so unfortunately, couldn't hear it for since 1874 he had been completely deaf. It depicts the story of the girl Sàrka, a kind of Bohemian Amazon, and is supposed to have taken place from the rocky valley near Prague that bears her name. Smetana wrote in 1879-

...This symphonic poem depicts not the landscape but the story of the girl. It begins with a potrayal of her in anger, swearing vengeance on all males because of the infidelity of her lover. From afar he hears her feign crying. On seeing her bound to a tree, he is overcomed by her beauty and is so inflamed with desire that he frees her. With a philtre she prepared earlier, she intoxicates Ctirad and his men, who fall asleep. She blows her horn, a prearranged signal to the other women hidden among the rocks. They rushed to the spot and slaughtered the mens. The bloody horror, the fury and passion of Sàrka's revenge is the final section of the composition...

The fourth cycle From Bohemia's Forests and Meadows was composed between June 3 and October 18, 1875. The description of this piece came published with the score-

...On a fine summer day we stand in Bohemia's blessed fields, whose lovely scent of flowers and cool breezes fill us with inspiration. From the general plenitude of gladness resounds the natural happy note of the country's contentment. Far from the waving rush of humanity, we are led into a shady, quiet grove. Fanned by the light breeze, the whisper of leaves and branches is carried farther and louder, until the whole woods resounds with echoes, which mingled with twittering song of birds in endless harmony. In this Hymn of Nature estatic horn-tones sound from afar. A strong gust of wind interrupts this solemn stillness and brings to our ear the festive tones of country merry making. They draw nearer and we find ourselves in the midst of a brilliant feast of country folk who divert themselve with music and dancing and are glad to be alive. Their enjoyment of life is heard in the folk song sung everywhere in Bohemia...

The fifth in this series of cycle is Tàbor , named after the town founded in 1420 by the followers of the Czech reformer, Jan Hus. The music, Smetana said, depicts the Hussites' perseverence, courage and strength of character. The main theme of the entire piece is the melody of the Hussite hymn, "Ye who are God's warriors and follow His laws, pray to God for help, and have faith in Him, and you will be victorious". The hymn tune is repeated, varied and developed in both the calm and the animated sections of the music.Tàbor was conceived along with the sixth symphonic poem, as a pair of related pieces. This one was completed on December 13, 1878, and the two were first performed on January 4, 1880, in Prague at a gala concert celebrating Smetana's golden jubilee as a musician.

The last of the six symphonic poems in the Mà Vlast cycle is Blanik, which the composer said begins where the preceding composition, Tàbor, ends. After the defeat, the Hussite warriors sought refuge in Blanik Mountain. This is why the hymn is used again. Through this melody the Czech people rose to glory again. The piece and the whole cycle end with this hymn of victory, in the form of a march. It includes a brief contrasting interlude in which a little shepherd plays his pipe and the tune echoes back to him. The portion of the Hussite hymn that Smetana use here strongly emphasises the words "With God, you will be victorious in the end." At the close of the piece, he rounds off the cycle of the six symphonic poem by recalling two melodies from the first one which depicted a great castle near Prague. Blanik was completed on March 9, 1879.

Mà Vlast demonstrates Smetana's definite cyclic purpose. Each poem is programmatic, yet each deals with a different programme. He delves into history, descriptions of past glories, the prophecy of a better future, or the evocations of scenery, landscapes or the people who dwell there. Smetana emphasizes this contrasting subject matter by varying the instrumentation in each movement. Vltava is the most colourful where harp and woodwind combine in a graphic picture of the great river.

It is in this work that Smetana develops a polyphony that doesn't exist in his operatic music. Double and triple counterpoint occur in Vltava during the section of St. John's rapids. His rhythms are also irregular if compared to his earlier works. Mà Vlast Flourishes in multi-rhythmic patterns. No less than four different rhythmic units are presented simultaneously by Vltava's water sprites.

For the first time, Smetana was able to discover how to unite his knowledge of the Bohemian countryside with musical imagery describing nature. Through deafness and ineffectual theraphy, Smetana overcame physical hardships in order to express his belief of heroism and faith in the Czech nation. As described by Mr. Chawkin of a 1993 recording by the Czech Philharmonic of Mà Vlast-

...For me the greatness of this performance is in it's lyric warmth... the audience must have thought back to the old legend of the heroes who would return to save the country in its darkest hour - the pastoral and songful predominate...

The symphonic cycle of Mà Vlast is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, strings, harp and percussion.

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