The Kennedy Center

The Bartered Bride - Overture and Three Dances

About the Work

Bedrich Smetana Composer: Bedrich Smetana
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Three Dances The Bartered Bride (1863-1866)

Bedrich Smetana

Born March 2, 1824 in Leitomischl, Bohemia.

Died May 12, 1884 in Prague.

 

It was Johann Herbeck, the noted Viennese conductor who introduced Schubert's long-forgotten "Unfinished" Symphony to the world in 1865, who sowed the seeds of Smetana's splendid comic opera, The Bartered Bride. When conductor and composer met in Weimar in 1857, Herbeck allowed that the Czechs were generally fine performers, but seemed incapable of creating their own musical works. Incensed, Smetana returned home to Prague vowing to prove Herbeck wrong. He took an active role in Czech musical life, supporting the new National Theater founded in 1862 and completing his first opera, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, a year later. He found some truth in the criticism that that opera was too Wagnerian in style, and, still not satisfied that he had disproved Herbeck's assertion, he determined to create as its successor a new work more specifically Czech in style. In July 1863 he received a libretto from the writer Karl Sabina that met his requirements, and he began composing The Bartered Bride immediately. (Curiously, Smetana worked from a German translation of the libretto, since his Czech was not as good at the time as was his German, the language of his childhood home, his education and his early professional life.) The Overture was composed first, and the rest of the opera written during the next two years.

The Bartered Bride garnered little success at its first performance, in Prague on May 30, 1866. The day was an official holiday that also proved to be one of the hottest of the year, and most of the opera-going audience had retreated to the country. In addition, political tension between Prussia and Austria was running high (Bohemia - today the Czech Republic - like Hungary and Poland, was frequently part of the contention between those aggressive neighbors), and there was little interest in a new comic opera. War broke out only two weeks after the premiere. Smetana and his family fled from Prague before the invading Prussians (his Brandenburgers in Bohemia had harshly criticized them), and remained away until the army withdrew at the end of the summer. Upon his return, he was made conductor of the National Theater, and resumed his vigorous work to promote Czech music. The Bartered Bride soon came to be recognized as the first great Czech opera, and quickly thereafter gained the popularity it had been denied at its premiere, especially after Smetana reworked the score and dramatic structure of the piece. (The original version was in two acts, had spoken dialogue, no scene changes and no dances. The work went through four extensive revisions before reaching its definitive three-act form with sung recitatives and its wonderful dances.) On May 5, 1882 it was given in Prague for the 100th time. By 1953 it had been performed in that city 2,000 times, and it remains an almost weekly adornment of the repertory of Prague's National Theater. More than simply a delightful opera, The Bartered Bride - and its composer - became symbols of Czech pride at home and abroad. "Smetana is more than a mere musician," according to his biographer Vladimir Helfert. "He is one of the chief builders of modern Czech civilization, one of the chief creators of Czech culture."

The story of The Bartered Bride derives from the personalities, customs and lore of the Czech countryside. The lovers Hans and Marie are prevented from marrying by her father, who has secured a more lucrative nuptial arrangement from the village matchmaker, Kezal. Kezal has engaged Marie to the half-wit Wenzel, son of the second marriage of Micha, a wealthy landowner. Hans makes sure that the marriage contract specifies Marie must wed the son of Micha, and then pockets the money that Kezal promised him for breaking his betrothal to Marie. With a plot twist worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, Hans reveals that he is also the son of Micha - by Micha's first marriage - and claims Marie as his wife. Wenzel, his mind unhinged at the thought of marriage, appears in a bear costume, and has to be dragged away while the couple and the villagers celebrate the upcoming wedding.

The delightful Three Dances from The Bartered Bride capture perfectly the bursting spirits and country manner of the opera. The Polka, which closes Act I, accompanies the impromptu dancing of a group of villagers. Act II is set in a tavern, which sees first a lusty song in praise of beer ("Beer's no doubt a gift from heaven/It chases away worries and troubles") and then the performance of a whirling Furiant. The Dance of the Comedians takes place in Act III when a circus troupe arrives in the village and performs a pantomime.