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The statue of Bedřich Smetana in Prague's Novotného lávka, which also houses the composer's museum. Tourists who, like to take pictures of Prague Castle from here, are probably more familiar with Dvořák's New World Symphony than with Smetana's work. | Photo: Flickr
The statue of Bedřich Smetana in Prague's Novotného lávka, which also houses the composer's museum. Tourists who, like to take pictures of Prague Castle from here, are probably more familiar with Dvořák's New World Symphony than with Smetana's work. | Photo: Flickr
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Bedřich Smetana: Dave Mustaine of the 19th Century?

On Saturday, 2 March 2024, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, the author of the symphonic poem The Moldau and the symbol of the Czech national spirit in music. On this occasion, it is a good idea to look at this icon as if he were one of us – a musician who had his own challenges in life, who fought for his place on the stage and who sought to fulfil his musical vision. Because once you make a man an icon, legend or, heaven forbid, a national artist, you have reliably taken away all the attributes of a vibrant, interesting and inspiring musician, whose fate few of us could handle as well as he did. Welcome to the sensational article about Bedřich Smetana, the Dave Mustaine of the 19th century.

1. Unfulfilled ambitions

One of the most endearing things about Smetana is his rather complicated path to recognition and fame. It was not easy for him at all. He was born in 1824 as the first son and the third child of František Smetana's third wife. His father was a fairly wealthy brewer and an enthusiastic musician. A good start, isn't it? Although Smetana started playing the violin at an early age and later switched to the piano, which remained his main instrument and for many years his unfulfilled solo ambition, his father wanted his offspring to pursue music only as a hobby.

So the young Smetana became a rather mediocre high school student, and it took the strict supervision of his cousin in Pilsen for him to complete his studies. The future icon of patriotic opera had to fight for his love of music vehemently. His departure for Prague in 1843 was accompanied by financial problems, and although the young Smetana began to study under the renowned professor Josef Proksch (and his future wife Kateřina had to intercede to secure a place for him), he never managed to establish himself among the Prague cultural elite. He earned a living as a teacher of Count Thun's children and his ambition to become a famous concert pianist failed. Eventually, he had to set up a piano school to find a new way of making a living.

2. Tragic moments

Consequently, the period between 1852 and 1861 was extra challenging for the young artist. Not only was he seeking recognition as a composer, but three of his daughters died within two years of each other, and in 1859 his wife Kateřina also died after a futile battle with tuberculosis. It was only Smetana's long-time source of inspiration and friend Franz Liszt, whom the composer visited in Weimar, who saved him from his deep sadness and frustration.

When Bedřich Smetana returned to Prague in 1861, he had to take all kinds of gigs to survive, because he was not accepted for the prestigious post of bandmaster at the new Provisional Theatre, nor the post of director of the Prague Conservatory. So he taught piano again, directed the Hlahol choir, conducted what he could and even worked as a music critic. He wrote in his diary at that time: "With God's grace and help, one day I will be like Liszt in technique and like Mozart in composition." But he was still a long way from that.

3. Fighting for a career

It is no wonder that the composer sided with the radicals of the revolutionary year 1848 because when you are impoverished, a change of regime gives you new hope. Smetana composed marches for the defenders of Prague, but after their defeat by Austrian troops, he feared persecution for his activities and faced a situation where he simply needed to survive and make a living. He even composed an orchestral piece, the Triumphal Symphony, in honour of Franz Joseph I's wedding, but it did not catch on at all.

Smetana was simply looking for a path to success at any cost. The music business of the 19th century was as challenging for aspiring stars as it is today. We only ever see the tip of the iceberg. Smetana's ambition was to be either a famous virtuoso pianist or a composer. He didn't want to be a mere piano teacher – and this eventually led him to travel to Gothenburg, Sweden (incidentally, also my first Erasmus trip abroad – author's note).

4. Deafness as a path to genius

His search for the big break materialised in the form of a competition for the best Czech comedy and historical opera, launched by Count Jan von Harrach. Smetana teamed up with his friend Karel Sabina, whom he had befriended on the barricades in 1848, and together they wrote their first "hit", the opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia. Patriotism was quite the rage, which is why Smetana had to start working more on his Czech. It was not uncommon among patriots that their Czech was at a very poor level, since most of them had received a full German education. The nearly forty-year-old Smetana had to pull out his grammar book, and it took him a few years to master the Czech language to the point where he felt comfortable with it, especially in his opera work.

With the Brandenburgs, Smetana won not only the Harrach Competition but also the first significant audience approval. However, his golden ticket to success was The Bartered Bride (1866) which took him to "the top of music charts", so to speak. He finally received formal recognition and was appointed as bandmaster of the Provisional Theatre. Between the years 1867-1874, Smetana experimented with staging Czech opera works and produced the opuses Dalibor (1868) and Libuše (1872).

But just when everything seemed to be on the right track, and his career was in full swing (although Smetana was accused of being too "Wagnerian", his critics never left him alone), fate struck again with deafness. This blow took its toll on our hero's mental health, but on the other hand, it extracted the best of the composer's soul. Paradoxically, this most frightening handicap for a musician opened the gates of inspiration and led to the creation of true masterpieces, such as the now notorious symphonic poem cycle My Country, or a beautiful intimate personal work for string quartet From My Life.

Smetana's life ends at the moment when the life of the Czech National Theatre begins. It was provisionally opened in 1881, only to burn down and people had to raise money to reopen it two years later, in 1883. By then, however, Smetana's health was in an irreversible decline. He suffered from hallucinations, megalomania and paranoia, so much that he eventually had to be committed to an asylum for the mentally ill, where he died a few weeks later in May 1884 at the age of sixty.

5. A patriot who couldn't speak Czech

Although he was small in stature and physically weak, these attributes were ephemeral in light of his strong will, determination and unyielding strength in matters of his own musical career. He did everything possible and impossible to achieve his vision. When he experienced his first success, he was already almost forty years old, and although he held the respected position of bandmaster of the Provisional Theatre, he still had to fight with numerous haters, conservatives and pseudo-patriots who took every opportunity to bring this willful artist down.

For a Czech, it is almost impossible not to feel a twinge of national pride at the sound of The Moldau. Listening to it creates waves of emotions in one's body. But now I will also feel Smetana's spirit of a musician who went through a difficult journey, experienced countless disappointments and pains in his personal and professional life, to finally become a legend of Czech music and an icon that is looked up to almost as a religious symbol in his homeland.

The concept of nation makes sense if it is defined not by blood and place, but by people who feel they belong together and who share a common story that is constantly evolving – just as our perception of Smetana's music evolves in the context of history and our lives. From my limited perspective of a rocker, Smetana was like the Dave Mustaine of the nineteenth century. He had a complex personality, an ambition to achieve fame and recognition and a complicated life and career path that eventually reached iconic status.

Tagy bedřich smetana Anniversary The Moldau Bartered Bride

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Marek Bero
Bass Gym 101 books, touring & session bass player, football tactics aficionado.