The Kennedy Center


About the Work

Bedrich Smetana Composer: Bedrich Smetana
© Richard Freed

This is the second and best-known of the six symphonic poems that constitute Smetana's grand patriotic cycle Má vlast ("My Country"), composed between 1874 and 1879. Smetana began work on Vltava on November 20, 1874, and completed the score in only three weeks; the first performance was given in Prague on April 4, 1875, under Adolf Čech. Hans Kindler conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this piece on February 24, 1935; Sarah Hicks conducted the most recent one, at the Carter Barron Amphitheater on July 15, 2005. The NSO recorded Vltava under Kindler for RCA Victor more than 65 years ago.

The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, triangle, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, harp, and strings. Duration, 12 minutes.

Smetana celebrated the history and legends of his people in his orchestral cycle Má vlast, taking natural features of the land itself as points of departure. Each of the first four parts was introduced separately, as it was completed, and the last two—Tábor and Blaník, which were designed to be performed without pause—were also presented on their own before the entire cycle was finally heard in its integral form. The second of the six individual tone poems, the most widely beloved of all Smetana's orchestral works, is a sequence of scenes related to the river Vltava, generally known outside the Czech lands by its German name, Moldau.

The idea for this piece had been forming in Smetana's mind for at least seven years before he got round to composing it, and that surely accounts for his being able to complete the score in only three weeks. The inspiration first came to him during a country holiday in 1867, when he visited the spot where the Vydra and Otava flow together in the Sumava Valley. Three years later he noted a further impetus: "an excursion to the St. John Rapids, where I sailed in a boat through the huge waves at high water; the view of the landscape on either side was both beautiful and grand." The published score includes his own description of the scenes he intended to evoke:

Two springs gush forth in the shade of the Bohemian forest, the one warm and spouting, the other cool and tranquil. Their waves joyously rushing down over their rocky beds unite and glisten in the rays of the morning sun. The forest brook fast hurrying on becomes the river Vltava, which flowing ever on through Bohemia's valleys grows to be a mighty stream: it flows through thick woods in which the joyous noise of the hunter's horn are heard ever nearer and nearer; it flows through grass-grown pastures and lowlands, where a wedding feast is celebrated with song and dancing. At night the wood and water nymphs revel in its shining waves, in which many fortresses and castles are reflected as witnesses of the past glory of knighthood and the vanished warlike fame of bygone ages. At the St. John Rapids the stream rushes on, weaving through the cataracts, and with its foamy waves beats a path for itself through the rocky chasm into the broad river into which it vanishes in the far distance from the poet's gaze.

The "Vyšehrad" motif heard at the end of the piece is so called because of its prominent use in the opening segment of Má vlast which bears that name as its title. Vyšehrad was the "high castle" overlooking the River Vltava, the site of the court of Queen Libuše (on whom Smetana composed a festive opera) and other legendary rulers. This motif, which is heard yet again at the end of the cycle's final section, Blaník, is based on Smetana's own initials. As Shostakovich was to do in the last century, Smetana indicated his personal involvement in his musical chronicles in this manner, in his case by the notes B-flat and E-flat, which are known in German usage as B and Es, respectively.

There is a resemblance between the principal theme of Vltava and that of Hatikvah, the national anthem of Israel, leading to the assumption that both were derived from the same source. This, however, is not the case, nor is it true that the theme came from a Czech folk song—thought it more or less became one in consequence of Smetana's use of it in this work. The theme of this cornerstone of Czech national music happens to be a Swedish folk song, which was used in F.A. Dahlgren's 1846 play The Vermland People. Smetana knew the playwright during his own years in Sweden; Dahlgren's sister-in-law, in fact, was Smetana's pupil in Gothenburg. He may not have been acquainted with the collection of folk music in which Dahlgren found the tune, but surely he knew the play and its most song in it, "Ack, Vảrmeland du sköna."