Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sunday Classics: It's not for nothing that Smetana was dubbed "the father of Czech music"


The Bartered Bride outdoors in Danzig, 1919. We hear the first of the wonderful dances that Smetana added to the score, the Polka that brings Act I to such a spirited close:

After the orchestra has its turn with the Polka, the men of the village join in:

Hey there, maidens, dance the polka!
Maidens, come and dance the polka!
Arm in arm and glance to glance,
we dance in our good fortune.
Growling basses blare and fiddles cheer,
and the clarinets tootle away with each other.
Everything is turning all the way around,
hold me tight, I can't take anymore.

[The performance is from Eurodisc's April 1975 recording of the complete opera, in German (the lead roles sung by Teresa Stratas, René Kollo, and Walter Berry), with the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Munich Radio Orchestra led rousingly by Jaroslav Krombholc.]

by Ken

Twice now we've bumped up against the Czechs' first great composer, Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884). This week I thought we'd just pull those earlier sideways glances together and round out our picture. And generally listen to some wonderful music.


We first heard the wonderful polka that ends Act I of Smetana's comic opera The Bartered Bride in our "polkamania" post, along with rather different specimens by Johann Strauss II (Amid Thunder and Lightning), his brother Eduard (Bahn frei!), and Dmitri Shostakovich (orchestra and string quartet versions of the Polka from The Age of Gold).

The Bartered Bride Polka, I wrote, is "one of a series of dances Smetana sprinkled through the opera, which go a long way toward defining its spirit. In the opera, in fact, the final iteration of the Polka is sung, in potentially roof-raising fashion, by Smetana's villagers." Back then I didn't have a video clip to offer the operatic version of the Polka. Now, thanks to Maestro Krombholc and his Bavarian cohorts, I think we can consider the roof duly raised.

I had to have it pointed out to me by a learned commentator that, in the course of The Bartered Bride's difficult, drawn-out creation, the dances were the last layer that Smetana added. The commentator who pointed this out seemed to think the significance of this information was that the dances are superficial "add-ons," and not really integral to the composer's conception of the score. I'm inclined to view it the opposite way: that it wasn't till this final stage of composition that the composer finally crystallized his conception to the point of grasping that these dances were just what it needed to seal the deal.

Which is not to deny that the opera's rousing Overture and three dances make for an exhilarating orchestral suite, though it seems to have fallen out of favor in both concert and on records -- damned if I know why. I'm surprised how few choices I have in my CD collection. Leonard Bernstein made a perfectly good recording back in his New York Philharmonic days (the Overture first, the dances two years later), and we're going to hear all of that, but I thought we'd mix it up a little at the front and back ends. For the Overture, we've also got a 1960 RCA recording by that most wizardly of orchestral wizards, Leopold Stokowski (from a BMG Living Stereo CD called Rhapsodies). Then, after Lenny B's Polka and Furiant (from Act II), we'd bring in Stoky's Philadelphia successor, Eugene Ormandy, for the irresistible "Dance of the Comedians" (from a CD in BMG's High Performance series called The Fantastic Philadelphians).


RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded February 1960

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia/Sony, recorded Jan. 28, 1963

Polka (Act I)

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia/Sony, recorded Feb. 1, 1965

Furiant (Act II)

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia/Sony, recorded Feb. 1, 1965

Dance of the Comedians (Act III)

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia/Sony, recorded Feb. 1, 1965

Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Apr. 25, 1972

Before we leave the Bartered Bride dances, I thought it might be fun to hear the "Dance of the Comedians" in context, as the motley troupe of traveling players approaches our village in Act III, to the wonderfully ramshackle "March of the Comedians," after which the leader of the troupe does his breathless sales pitch, culminating in a sample of the troupe's artistry, done to the "Dance of the Comedians."

We're going to go back to the Krombholc-Eurodisc Bartered Bride recording, if only to hear the troupe director's spiel performed -- again in German -- by one of the leading character baritones of his time, Karl Dönch, a notable exponent of such roles as the nemesis of our hero Hans Sachs in Wagner's Die Meistersinger and the wacky Doctor in Berg's Wozzeck.

March of the Comedians; director Springer's spiel; Dance of the Comedians (Act III)

Karl Dönch, baritone (Springer); Munich Radio Orchestra, Jaroslav Krombholc, cond.
Eurodisc, complete opera, recorded April 1975

DIRECTOR SPRINGER [more or less in a single breath]: We announce to the public that today, on the occasion of your fair, a hitherto unseen show will be presented to you here by our troupe, both on earth and in the air, where especially Miss Esmeralda Salamanca will perform amazing dances on the tightrope, who will be followed by a veritable Indian, imported from Tahiti by way of Panama, 200,000 miles away from here, who will swallow wives, uh, knives and forks, but the best number comes last -- fanfare! -- a real, live American bear, from the Alaskan jungle, trained by Miss Salamanca, a miracle of charm, a never-before-offered artistic specimen, it will finally dance with Miss Esmeralda the cancan, and all of that for six crowns!

These never-before-seen attractions will be presented to you this evening in a special performance. But highly honored guests, you can see a rehearsal right now. Holla! Let's get started!


Our next encounter with Smetana was during the long run-up to Dvořák. We heard the two middle movements of his autobiographical First String Quartet, From My Life, as played by the Janáček Quartet, and also -- in an orchestral version made by George Szell -- by the London Symphony under Geoffrey Simon, though I indicated my displeasure with the lumbering Simon performance.

Since then I've taken my own advice and bought the terrific Sony two-CD reissue of Szell's classic Epic recordings of the last three Dvořák symphonies and a number of related orchestral works, including Szell's 1949 recording of his orchestration of From My Life, which he last performed in concert in 1948 and last performed period for the recording. Even in 1949 mono sound, the Szell performance trounces the Simon -- enough so that the orchestral version actually seems a viable alternative to the string quartet original.

So I thought we would return to From My Life, and this time hear the whole thing, in both its original form and the Szell-performed Szell orchestration. For the quartet version, I've chosen a powerful, resonant performance by the Prazak Quartet, the tone not as perfectly controlled as my beloved Janáček Quartet's, but a powerful and beautiful performance in its own right. One glorious touch: In the trio of the second-movement polka [1:31], listen to how forcefully yet elegantly violist Josef Klusa and cellist Micha Kanka deal with the melody on the right while on the left the violinists contribute bits of harmony from above. (With the Prazak performance not readily available, I might suggest the Panocha Quartet or the Talich Quartet,

SMETANA: Quartet No. 1 in F minor (From My Life)

i. Allegro vivo appassionato

THE FIRST MOVEMENT depicts Smetana's love of Art in his youth, his search for the imaginary, and the premonition of his approaching illness.

Prazak Quartet (Vacláv Remeš and Vlastimil Holek, violins; Josef Kluson, viola; Micha Kanka, cello). Praga, recorded January 1999

orchestrated by George Szell; Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, cond. Columbia/Sony, recorded Apr. 26, 1949

ii. Allegro moderato alla polka

THE SECOND MOVEMENT, "Quasi Polka," refers to the carefree days of his youth and his passionate love for dancing at the period when he composed many dances.

Prazak Quartet

Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, cond.

iii. Largo sostenuto

THE THIRD MOVEMENT, "Largo sostenuto," portrays his idyllic love for a young girl who later became his spouse.

Prazak Quartet

Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, cond.

iv. Vivace

THE FOURTH MOVEMENT pictures the composer rejoicing over the recognition attained by Bohemian National Music and its achieved success. A sudden sustained high E indicates the noise in the composer's ears prior to his deafness. Then follows a painful recollection of his youthful days, a ray of hope against hope which gives way to resignation before the inevitable destiny.

Prazak Quartet

Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, cond.


Friday night we had a preview of Smetana's iconic cycle of nationalistic symphonic poems, My Fatherland (or Country), and its most famous component, Vltava (The Moldau). We heard Vltava performed by the great Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik in 1952, as recorded by Mercury with the Chicago Symphony (of which he was then music director), and in 1990, on the occasion of his return to Czechoslovakia after 42 years in exile, reunited finally with "his" old orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic. Finally we heard the whole of Kubelik's 1952 Chicago recording of Má Vlast, with pretty much no comment or explanation. Now we're going to traverse the cycle with comment and explanation.

"Symphonic poems" (or "tone poems" or "symphonic tone poems") are by definition program music, which is to say that they have a program -- something not at all abstract is in some fashion depicted in the music. I think eventually most listeners tend to stop worrying about the program, once they become familiar with the music (at least I do; you'll notice that in presenting Sibelius's Swan of Tuonela, I made no attempt to describe the program at all), but the program accounts at least in part for how the music came to be what it is, and so perhaps in some sense "explains" it. This is especially true of the movements of Má Vlast, for which Smetana wrote quite a lot of descriptive-explanatory commentary.

The trick for later commentators is to pick out what's most pertinent in the composer's commentaries and add to them enough basic context that he may have taken for granted. I think it may be a tribute to both the composer and the music that a lot of these commentaries are actually quite helpful. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I'm simply going to crib the notes provided by the British writer W. A. Chislett as used in the Seraphim LP issue of the splendid recording by Sir Malcolm Sargent with. the Royal Philharmonic (hey, I'm contributing -- this is going to be a heckuva lot of typing, into which I plan to introduce many typos for an appropriately "rustic" feel), starting with this overall paragraph:

At the age of fifty, wearied by his struggles and the intrigues of the national theatre and already suffering from impaired hearing, [Smetana] embarked upon a series of symphonic poems to which he gave the general title of Má Vlast. His aural disorder was at first chiefly the illusion of hearing persistently a high-pitched note, but one night in October 1874, before he had finished the first of the six works which constitute the cycle, he became totally deaf. Undeterred, he completed Vyšehrad on November 18, 1874, and by 1879 the cycle was finished. Each work is complete in itself and is furnished with a detailed programme, but they are best heard together, as the composer intended. They are interrelated both programmatically and thematically to a considerable degree. -- W. A. Chislett

ABOUT OUR RECORDINGS: At this point I'm not sure anyone could count the number of times the Czech Philharmonic has recorded Má Vlast. I've split the cycle up totally arbitrarily among the versions recorded by Václav Smetáček (1980), Jiří Bělohlávek (1988), and Václav Neumann (1975). Looking quickly, I didn't see any of these versions listed at reasonable prices. Fortunately, Karel Ančerl's beautiful recording is available quite inexpensively in Supraphon's Ančerl Gold Edition. (This is not to say that fine recordings haven't been made with non-Czech orchestras, but we have to limit the discussion somehow.)


Czech Philharmonic, Václav Smetáček, cond. (1980)

Boldly rising from the river known to the Czechs as Vltava, but to the rest of the world as the Moldau, is a great rocky prominence called The High Castle (Vyšehrad), where in bygone days the rulers lived in splendour. The opening chords for harp (or two harps when they are available) recall the poet Lumir, who proceeds to recount stories of ancient glories. There are tournaments in the castle courtyard, and the whole rock resounds with the triumphs of chivalry. But the bard also tells of the disasters which came in later years. Finally, all is in ruins, and Lumir's song ends with a long-drawn sigh for the days that are no more. -- W.A.C.


Czech Philharmonic, Václav Smetáček, cond. (1980)

Smetana appended an unusually detailed programme to the score of Vltava, and follows it very closely. The sources of the river are two small springs, one warm and swift (suggested by the flutes) and the other icy cold and slow (suggested by the clarinets). They are united into a small stream, and here the strings and oboe join in and give us for the first time the rich Vltava theme, which is said to derive from a folksong. The stream dances and chatters in the sunlight, passes through dark forests where a hunt is in progress, and as it widens in the plains there are wedding festivities on its banks. By moonlight the water nymphs disport themselves in the river, and then the turbulent rapids of St. John are reached. After passing through the gorge of St. John, the Vltava is a wide and mighty river, rolling majestically towards Prague, and its lapping of the great Vyšehrad rock is suggested by a reference to the main theme of the earlier work. The river finally fades into the distance. -- W.A.C.

A bonus Moldau (I couldn't resist): RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, cond. (1960)

iii. ŠÁRKA

Czech Philharmonic, Jiří Bělohlávek, cond. (1988)

Šárka is both the heroine of a well-known Czech legend and the name of a district in Bohemia. Smetana states that his work does not reflect the place, but action. Šárka, a woman of enchanting beauty mortified by her lover's desertion, swears vengeance on men in general and forms an army of women. The warrior Citrid and his men are dispatched to quell the army of Amazons, but when Citrid sees Šárka (their meeting is depicted by a few bars for unaccompanied clarinet answered by the cellos), he falls in love with her. Citrid's men celebrate well rather than wisely. The second bassoon suggests comically that they are drinking freely, and eventually they subside into a drunken stupor. This is Šárka's opportunity. A horn gives the signal, and although a passage for clarinet hints that Šárka is beginning to have regrets, it is too late. In the finale, for full orchestra and marked frenetico, Citrid and his army are massacred. -- W.A.C.


Czech Philharmonic, Jiří Bělohlávek, cond. (1988)

Like Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, From Bohemia's Meadows and Forests expresses feelings aroused by the sight of the countryside. But apart from this there is little resemblance between the two works. Smetana starts vigorously on the full orchestra, but soon we are transported from the jubilation of the people to the quiet rustling of leaves, twittering of birds and dreamy content of the noonday sun, with glimpses of the deep shadows of the forest. But snatches of the sounds of the joy of the people are never far distant, and these come nearer and nearer until after two false starts a rollicking polka gains the upper hand, and the work ends, as it began, in a mood of festivity, suggesting, as Smetana himself put it, "a harvest festival or any kind of peasant merry-making." -- W.A.C.


Czech Philharmonic, Václav Neumann, cond. (1975)

Some miles from Prague, in the direction of the Austrian frontier, lies the ancient fortress town of Tábor. It was the centre of the Hussite movement in the fifteenth century, and many of the fortifications are still to be seen. During the Hussite uprising, the well-known chorale "Ye who are warriors of God" assumed the status of a patriotic hymn, and it is upon this great tune that the fantasia-like Tábor, which recalls stirring events in the life of the indomitable Czech reformer Jan Hus, is based. -- W.A.C.


Czech Philharmonic, Václav Neumann, cond. (1975)

Smetana described this, the last of the symphonic poems which constitute Má Vlast, as a continuation of Tábor. Blaník is a legendary hill within which the Hussite heroes are supposed to sleep soundly until required to come to the aid of their country when freedom is threatened. The chorale "Ye who are warriors of God" again supplies most of the thematic material, and further unity is given to the complete cycle by the reintroduction of the Vyšehrad theme. A contrasting middle section is in the form of a charming pastoral, with one canon for oboe and horn and another for oboe and clarinet. -- W.A.C.


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At 10:34 AM, Blogger DownWithTyranny said...

Smetana's music widely identified with his country's aspirations to independence and this is the perfect day to think about their struggle and Smetana's role. Why today? October 28 and November 17 are the two days celebrated in the Czech Republic as Independence Day, Oct 28 from Austria-Hungary in 1918 and November 17 as the Velvet Revolution that freed them from Soviet domination in 1989. Ken managed to get us right between the two.

At 11:03 AM, Blogger ohnooooo! said...

wow Ken, very impressed by your coverage of the classical music universe. Wish more people were so well educated!

At 12:42 PM, Blogger Kevin Downes said...


Thanks once again. I come to this site for the politics, but your music posts are wonderful extras. I alway enjoy them.

Kevin in NY.

P.S. Sorry that last time I addressed you as "Kenny". The NY at the end of your site name stuck in my mind.

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