Composer, Conductor. The founder of nationalism in Czech music. In his best known works, the comic opera "The Bartered Bride" (1866) and the orchestral cycle "Ma Vlast" ("My Homeland", 1875 to 1880), he pioneered a distinctive Czech style derived from Bohemian folk and cultural traditions. Smetana was born in Leitomischel, Bohemia. His father, an amateur violinist, gave him his first lessons and by age eight he was skilled in piano and violin. In 1844 he moved to Prague, where he studied composition and theory with Josef Proksch. After a disastrous 1847 concert tour dashed his hopes of becoming a keyboard virtuoso, he opened a piano school with the encouragement of Franz Liszt, an important influence. His early compositions, including the Overture in D (1848), the "Triumphal Symphony" (1854), and the tone poem "Wallenstein's Camp" (1859) are much in the Berlioz-Liszt romantic mode. The 1850s were dark times for Smetana. His wife and three of their four daughters died from illnesses; he subsequently remarried, unhappily. His career floundered in Prague and from 1856 to 1860 he served as a music director in Göteborg, Sweden, which he described as "a backwater". Liszt remained a source of inspiration. Smetana strengthened his orchestral technique by studying Liszt's "Faust Symphony" and the early symphonic poems, and in September 1857 he visited his idol in Weimar. On that occasion an offhand remark decided his future. During a group discussion of opera, Viennese conductor Johann von Herbeck asserted that Czechs were too indebted to Austro-German culture to make music of their own. Smetana recalled, "I swore there and then that no other than I should beget a native Czech music". The advent of a more liberal political climate in his homeland, and the announcement that a Provisional Theatre would be opened for specifically Czech stage works, prompted Smetana's enthusiastic return to Prague in 1861. He hoped to become music director of the new theatre but the appointment was given to the more conservative conductor Jan Nepomuk Mayr, launching a bitter public feud between the two. Likewise he was passed over for the position as director of the Prague Conservatory in 1864. Instead he devoted his energies to a national competition for the best historical and comic operas based on Czech themes, to be presented at the Provisional Theatre. He won both and in the process single-handedly created Czech opera with "The Brandenburgers in Bohemia" (1866) and "The Bartered Bride". Mayr refused to conduct or even rehearse "The Brandenburgers", so Smetana led the premiere himself; it was so well received that Mayr resigned and was replaced by his rival. Curiously, the first performances of "The Bartered Bride" flopped, but Smetana revised the score and its definitive 1870 version was a triumph, eventually conquering the world's stages. He went on to write six more operas, "Dalibor" (1868), "Libuse" (1872), "The Two Widows" (1874), "The Kiss" (1876), "The Secret" (1878), and "The Devil's Wall" (1882), though none achieved international fame. Smetana's directorship of the Provisional Theatre was marred by controversy. While he introduced over 40 operas to its repertory and promoted much new Czech music, his enemies (led by Mayr) saw him as a "dangerous modernist" whose admiration for Liszt and Wagner was incompatible with a truly nationalist brand of art. His orchestra split into factions, with young violist Antonin Dvorak vociferously leading the pro-Smetana group, and in 1873 a petition was circulated for his dismissal. The support of many prominent artists assured that his contract was renewed at an increased salary, but the victory was short-lived. In 1874 Smetana began suffering from the onset of tertiary syphilis, marked by memory lapses and a constant ringing in his ears. By October of that year he had grown completely deaf and was forced to resign from the Provisional Theatre. His creativity remained unimpaired and the next six years were his most productive, dominated by "Ma Vlast". Fervent nationalism and a romantic spirit are united in this cycle of six symphonic poems depicting different aspects of Bohemia, its history and legend. The first four were composed in rapid succession and introduced in 1875: "Vysehrad" ("The High Castle"), "Vltava" ("The Moldau"), "Sarka", and "From Bohemia's Woods and Fields". The last two, "Tabor" and "Blanik", appeared in 1880. "Ma Vlast" was premiered as a complete set in 1882 and is still often performed that way, although "Vltava"/"The Moldau" - that majestic portrait of the longest Czech river, with Smetana's most familiar melody as its unifying theme - has far outdistanced the others in popularity and number of recordings. Another masterpiece of this period is the String Quartet No. 1 in E minor ("From My Life", 1876). Its autobiographical nature is made explicit in the finale, which is interrupted by a piercing shriek on high violin - symbolizing the ringing that went through Smetana's head as he was losing his hearing. His last important work was the String Quartet No. 2 in D minor (1883). By early 1884 Smetana's illness had reached its tragic final stage. He could no longer write music and slipped into dementia with occasionally violent episodes. A gala concert and banquet celebrating his 60th birthday had to take place without him. In April he was admitted to an asylum in Prague, where he died a few weeks later. The nationalist impulse that Smetana forged in Czech music would be carried on even more successfully by Dvorak.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards