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Smetana: Polkas (Walter Klien, piano) torrent

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As far as quantity is concerned, piano works take up a dominant position in Smetana's works of the 1840s and 50s. In his self-taught period standard dance genres predominate, above all polkas; there are also attempts at the lyrical piano piece. During his studies with Josef Proksch this field developed in parallel with his exercises and compositional studies, with Smetana's first piano cycle Bagatelles et impromptus appearing at the beginning of 1844. It points to the various ways forward taken in his future works: salon pieces as a type of poeticized study and song without words linked with the names of Mendelssohn and Henselt but also with the poetical music of Schumann. For Smetana's orientation the French titles of the compositions are themselves eloquent in this respect, and he continued to use them frequently. It was only the further cycle of Six morceaux caractéristiques which he designated as his op.1, among other reasons to add weight to the dedication to Liszt. The plan to compose a cycle of albumleaves in all 24 major and minor keys also arose during this period. But it remained incomplete and in the end Smetana grouped some of the albumleaves into his opp.2 and 3 and into the Skizzen opp.4 and 5, which he dedicated to Clara Schumann. In the continuing composition of polkas, certain stylistic tendencies appeared which deepened in 1848–54 in the Trois polkas de salon op.7 and the Trois polkas poétiques op.8. The culmination of this attempt at idealized dances is the Souvenir de Bohême en forme de polkas opp.12–13 (1859–60). Besides reviews and reminiscences of his contemporaries Smetana's virtuoso compositions tell us about his technical abilities. He wrote most of these pieces, for instance the transcription of Schubert's song Der Neugierige from Die schöne Müllerin, or the concert étude Am Seegestade – eine Erinnerung, or the cadenzas for Mozart's and Beethoven's piano concertos, for his own use at a time when he saw this as a major part of his role as a musician coming from his career as a piano virtuoso. He initiated this line with the fantasia Böhmische Melodien and closed it with the Fantasie na ?eské národní písn? (‘Fantasia on Czech Folksongs’), which he wrote in 1862 for his concerts in the aid of the building of the National Theatre.

After his return to Bohemia Smetana's works were bound up with musical genres considered as representative of national music and he returned to piano works only after 13 years with the cycle Rêves (1875). Its various movements were dedicated to his former aristocratic women pupils who in 1874 organized a benefit concert for his trip to foreign ear specialists. The whole cycle nostalgically harks back to the famous era of the characteristic piano pieces of the 1840s and to Smetana's models, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. Quite different aims are represented by the two series (1877 and 1879) of Czech Dances with a claim to large-scale concert forms. About the first series, polkas, he wrote to his publisher Velebín Urbánek on 2 March 1879; ‘My title “Polkas” is important, for my efforts are directed towards idealizing the polka in particular, as Chopin did in his day with the mazurka, and these four polkas are a continuation of those published years ago.’ And the aim of placing in the concert hall the stylization of further Czech dances in the second series of the cycle Smetana formulated polemically in a letter also to Urbánek a month later: ‘I suggest publishing folkdances under the title Czech Dances. Every dance under its own name, e.g. “Furiant”, “Sko?ná”, “Rejdovák and Rejdova?ka”, “Sousedská”, “Hulán” … etc.… Whereas Dvo?ák gives his pieces just a general name “Slawische Tänze” with people not knowing which they are, and whether they exist at all, we would show which dances with real names we Czechs have’.

In order to draw attention to himself Smetana organized two concerts in Prague in January 1862, a piano recital and an orchestral concert. The latter, at which the premières of the symphonic poems Richard III and Wallensteins Lager were given, demonstrated that his name was still not familiar enough to fill what was then the largest concert hall in Prague, on the Žofín island, which he had hired for the occasion. In the spring of 1862 he went once again for almost three months to Göteborg (March to May 1862). In October 1863, together with his friend the experienced teacher Ferdinand Heller, he opened a music institute in Prague, which was active until 1866. Vigorously Smetana set about making a new artistic existence for himself in Prague. Through his pupil and later propagandist Jan Ludevít Procházka he was initiated into Czech society of the M?š?anská Beseda (Townspeople's Society) and made his views and new ideas known in discussions at the regular Tuesday meetings of the Czech élite in the home of Rudolf Thurn-Taxis. During Smetana's youth, teaching in the Austrian higher education system was given exclusively in German. Smetana's education, like that of all Czechs of his generation, had consequently been in German with the result that he expressed himself more naturally in German. The decision to engage in Czech national life and identify with the aims of the national movement made him aware of his linguistic inadequacies. Surviving exercises in Czech grammar demonstrate his attempts at remedying this and he now began writing in Czech as a matter of course. He commented in this diary: ‘In the newly growing self-awareness of our nation I too must also make an effort to complete my study of our beautiful language so that I, educated from childhood only in German, can express myself easily, in speech and in writing, just as easily in Czech as in German’.

Smetana's position in Czech society slowly became more secure. In 1863 his biography was published, for the first time, in the music periodical Dalibor. In 1863–5 he worked as choirmaster of the recently established Czech choral society Hlahol, the body for which most of his choral works were written. In 1864–5 he worked also as the music critic of the most important Czech daily newspaper, Národní listy. In 1863 he was chosen as first chairman of the music section of the artists’ society Um?lecká Beseda (Artistic Society), which had recently been founded to promote Czech artistic culture. Smetana's first important action here in the season 1864–5 was an attempt to establish subscription orchestral concerts. Partly for financial reasons and partly through lack of interest by audiences more used to the so-called mixed programmes, only three concerts took place. The most prominent event of the Um?lecká Beseda in 1864 was the celebration, on 23 April, of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare, at which Smetana conducted Berlioz's dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette and his own march for orchestra for a procession of 230 characters from Shakespeare. On 20 April 1866, at Liszt's behest, he conducted the latter's oratorio Die Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth at a concert organized by the Um?lecká Beseda.

Not all of Smetana's attempts at establishing himself were crowned with success. In 1865 he failed to be chosen as director of the Prague Conservatory in succession to Kittl; nor was he awarded the Austrian state scholarship he applied for. However, on 15 September 1866 he won the position that he longed for most: after political changes in the theatre administration he was appointed principal conductor of the Royal Provincial Czech Theatre known as the Provisional Theatre, the first permanent Czech professional stage, which had begun its activities in the autumn of 1862. Smetana was able to take further the work of his predecessor, the conductor Jan Nepomuk Maýr, who in a relatively short time had built up an ensemble and a permanent orchestra for this new Prague stage. And like Maýr, Smetana had to make compromises because of the theatre's precarious finances and the taste of the Czech theatrical community. Occasionally he had to descend from the lofty attitudes he had espoused earlier in his position as music critic of the Národní listy. Nevertheless he managed to expand the repertory, and to continue to perform classics of operatic literature (Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven) as well as Slavonic operas (Glinka, Moniuszko). Understandably he performed a large number of new works by Czech composers (Blodek, Bendl, Rozkošný, Šebor and others) inspired by the existence of the theatre. In 1872 he was also able to establish a singing school attached to the theatre. For eight years he worked in the theatre, for the last two as artistic director. The position of conductor with an orchestra at his disposal allowed him to realize his ideal of subscription orchestral concerts. These he began on 5 December 1869 with his theatre orchestra. Later he was able to create a larger body for this purpose by combining the orchestras of the Czech and German theatres (from 1873 as the orchestral association Filharmonia), taking turns at the podium with the conductor of the German theatre Ludwig Slansky.

Smetana was well aware of the crucial role which Czech opera could play in national life and realized that a permanent professional stage would need a body of new Czech operas. With a few exceptions none so far existed. This need had also been foreseen by Count Jan Harrach, who in February 1861 announced a competition for the best two Czech operas, comic and serious. Smetana began his search for a libretto and in 1862–3 composed his first opera Branibo?i v ?echách (‘The Brandenburgers in Bohemia’). He entered it anonymously in the Harrach competition under the motto ‘Music – the language of feeling, word – the language of thought’, and, after three years of deliberations by the jury, it was eventually declared the winner, on 25 March 1866. By then, however, Smetana had already rehearsed and given its première at the Provisional Theatre (on 5 January 1866), thus marking his début as an operatic conductor. Its success with a public eager for Czech original operas led to the theatre's immediately accepting a second opera by Smetana, Prodaná nev?sta (‘The Bartered Bride’), which was already complete by that time. Although the work went through many modifications after its unpromising première on 30 May 1866 (overshadowed by the impending war with Prussia) it began to be gradually accepted by the public as a model Czech opera fulfilling the ideal of opera as representative of the nation; as a comic opera, however, it was sometimes felt to be too lightweight for such a serious purpose.

The première of a third opera by Smetana, Dalibor (16 May 1868), took place as part of the celebrations for laying the foundation stone of the National Theatre, the building planned to replace the tiny Provisional Theatre. The lack of success of the opera and of his later revision in 1870 is testimony to the fact that the Czech public could not identify with the Czech tragic hero of his opera: Dalibor was considered too passive and did not correspond to the contemporary ideal of the Czech knight and the historical awareness of the times. The opera was castigated as an exemplar of Wagnerian polemics which, as it flooded through Europe, affected the Czech lands in its full intensity at the beginning of the 1870s. After the first decade of uninterrupted freedom of Czech opera on the professional stage and with the prospect of the opening of a grand new permanent Czech theatre, the National Theatre (which, however, did not take place until 1881), this was a time of heightened interest in the future of Czech national opera, a time of stock-taking. The variety of types in Czech operas (drawing on French, Italian and German traditions), a variety also evident in Smetana’s first operas, did not make any easier the decisions of the Czech musical public in their search for a Czech operatic style. Furthermore, Smetana who was by no means accepted at the time as a national composer, brought no new operas of his before the public for six years after Dalibor.

In these polemics the aesthetician Otakar Hostinský was the Wagnerian. For him as an adherent of the idea of progress Wagner now represented the most advanced stage in the evolution of opera. He wanted Czech national opera to be created on the basis of Wagner's theories (which he regarded as supranational) and thus go to the forefront of European musical development. At the same time the declamatory style of Wagner's voice parts suggested to him that correct declamation of the text could provide an opportunity for a national element in opera since he regarded speech as a distinctive and exclusive characteristic of the nation. He saw Smetana's Dalibor as the beginning of this ‘correct’ direction. The position of the anti-Wagnerians was formulated by the singing teacher František Pivoda. He defended the principle of Italian opera in which the chief dramatic means was the expression of the human voice in song. Wagner's operas, he contended, lacked this particular resource on account of the through-composed role of the orchestra, which undermined the dominance of the human voice and, according to him, negated the principles of opera as such. Wagner he regarded as unsuitable as a model for Czech national opera and the orchestra in Smetana's Dalibor seemed to him Wagnerian.

Used in arguments both for and against Wagner, Smetana defended his viewpoint with an unshaken faith in his own originality as an artist. He described this in a letter to the conductor Adolf ?ech (4 December 1882): ‘I do not write in the style of any famous composer, I admire only their greatness, taking for myself everything that I recognize as good and beautiful and above all truthful in art. You have known this of me for a long time but others do not and think that I am introducing Wagnerism!!! I've got my hands full with Smetana-ism, as long as this style is honest’. At the time of the sharpest polemics he composed the ceremonial opera Libuše (1869–72), followed by the salon opera Dv? vdovy (‘The Two Widows’, 1873–4). Polemics in the daily and specialist press were not of course only purely artistic affairs but also reflected different cultural and political preoccupations of the time and even personal aversions. In the quarrels about his position as Kapellmeister of the Czech theatre Smetana received support from colleagues and the public. In 1872 a petition of Czech artists was drawn up in favour of his continuing in the theatre. Smetana was finally reappointed, now as artistic director, with an increased salary. After the première of The Two Widows on 27 March 1874 his adherents ceremonially handed over a decorated baton. But the dénouement was unexpected and for Smetana fateful. The sudden loss of his hearing in autumn 1874 meant that he was forced to give up his place in the theatre. In his letter of resignation (7 September 1874) to the deputy chairman of the theatre board Antonín ?ížek, Smetana traced the course of his loss of hearing. What began as extraneous noises in his ears in July 1874 became a permanent buzzing and soon he was unable to distinguish individual sounds. At the beginning of October he lost all hearing in his right ear, on 20 October in his left. Treatment, based on quiet and isolation from all sounds, did not help. His former aristocratic pupils organized a concert in 1875 whose takings enabled him to travel to consult foreign specialists (Smetana later thanked them with the piano cycle Rêves); a collection was also organized by his friends in Sweden. But this trip similarly brought no positive results.

© Oxford University Press 2007

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