"Weaving stories into concert performances of music" - Bedřich Smetana’s “Vltava”

4 April 1875, Bedřich Smetana’s “Vltava”, or “Die Moldau”, the second part of his “Má Vlast” cycle of six symphonic poems, premiered in Prague.

“The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer's wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St John's Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe (or Elbe, in German).“ ( Bedřich Smetana)

A part of Alfons Mucha’s advertisement for his “Slav Epic” cycle with
the allegorised Czech arts in the foreground while fate scowls in the back

The idea of weaving stories into concert performances of music was not exactly brand-new in the 1820s. However, using the thing in itself, music, as a medium for storytelling, true to the spirit of the Romantic Age, forgoing spoken narratives and evocative lyrics but giving the audience a grasp of the tale by using motifs of the volkslied, folk songs, collected by academics just as the folk and fairy tales were during the time, and making them accessible and socially acceptable for what passes usually as higher culture, certainly was. Symphonic or tone poems soon became a distinctive form of the 19th century's idea of a “Gesamtkunstwerk”, a total work of art, with the singular feature of condensing all other forms of artistic expression into music, a feat that was considered at least as equivalent, if not superior, to the opera. On a sublimely political level, the symphonic poems were a form of not too obvious expression of national and revolutionary sentiment, hardly assailable by censorship in its manifestation beyond the spoken word or the visualised image and still easily open for its intended audience. And thus it is hardly surprising that symphonic poems were highly valued by composers chafing against the rule of House Habsburg or Romanov, especially among the Hungarians and the Czechs as well as in Imperial Russia. Or to express and transport controversial ideas like Pan-Slavism. Admittedly though, as often as not, politics were just an undercurrent of the artistic expression condensed in the masterpieces of Liszt, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Dvořák and Smetana.

Bedřich Smetana

Smetana, the future father of Czech Music, had a decisive disadvantage in expressing patriotic sentiment beyond the Habsburg censorship. Like most educated Bohemians of his day, his first language was German and he had to acquire what he called his “mother tongue” with some difficulty. And while suffering one family tragedy after the other, Smetana had almost completely lost his hearing when he began to work on his set of six symphonic poems, bracketed together as “má vlast”, my homeland. A musical retelling, interpreting and embroidering of Czech folk tales and history, climaxing in a quote of the “wild Czech song about God's warriors“, the old and still well known Hussite choral “Ktož jsú boží bojovníci”, Ye Who Are Warriors of God” whose mere singing once had put a whole Imperial crusader army to flight. “Vltava”, or “Die Moldau” in German, however, celebrates the sublime beauty of the river, tone painted into the historical landscape of Bohemia and its leitmotif became arguably one of the best known tunes of classical music and is, naturally, a variation of an old Czech nursery rhyme “Kočka leze dírou“ (the Cat Crawls Through the Hole) and few things induce a sense of home more than hearing the songs sung in one’s one childhood. When the whole “má vlast” cycle finally premiered in November 1882 in Prague, hardly a year before Smetana’s dead in 1884, all thoughts of alleged Wagnerianisms in his works were forgotten and the composer was finally monumentalised into the founder and paragon of Czech national music, a label he bears to this day.

Heinrich Tomec (1863 -1928): "Prague" (1913)

More about Mucha’s “Slav Epic” on:


and Smetana’s “Má Vlast” on: