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Richard III, Symphonic Poem, Op. 11

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Bedrich Smetana
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Jiří Bĕlohlávek, conductor/Christian Tetzlaff, violin, performs Mozart Apr. 19 - 21, 2007
© Richard Freed
Smetana composed this symphonic poem after Shakespeare in Gothenburg in 1857-58, and took part in a two-piano performance there on April 24, 1860; he conducted the orchestral premiere in Prague on January 5, 1862. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, harp, and strings. Duration, 13 minutes.

Smetana was one of the several musicians who received direct encouragement and support from Franz Liszt, whose generosity—and good judgment—in this respect were almost as responsible as his own creative achievements. In March 1848 the 24-year-old Smetana sent Liszt a set of six piano pieces he had composed, with a request that he accept the dedication of the music, find a publisher for it, and lend him 400 gulden. Liszt did not lend him the money, but he was sufficiently impressed to make a point of meeting the young composer on his next visit to Prague and to grant him his other wishes.

In October 1856 Smetana went to Gothenburg as a piano teacher. He gave his first recital there the following month, and in December opened a school, for which he accepted a greater number of pupils than he could handle. Within a short time he was appointed conductor of an important choral society, and then took on orchestral concerts and began composing music for orchestra. On his way to Sweden, and in the course of his visits home, he managed to visit Liszt in Weimar and hear his symphonic poems performed. In 1857 he began composing symphonic poems, the genre Liszt is credited with "inventing," and to which he unarguably gave its name.

In 1858 Smetana completed the first of his tone poems, Richard III, and proceeded to follow it with Wallenstein's Camp (Op. 14, after Schiller). Meanwhile his young wife, Kateřina, had become seriously ill, and in the spring1859 he undertook a trip home with her; an unscheduled stop was made in Dresden, however, where Kateřina died on April 19. While Smetana grieved deeply over his failure to get his wife back to the warmth of her familiar surroundings, he was able to be present at the end of the following month at an event in Weimar which Liszt had organized in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the influential journal founded by Robert Schumann. When the public festivities were over he spent ten days as Liszt's guest and gratefully accepted the older man's suggested revisions for his two tone poems. After returning to Gothenburg, he composed a third work in this genre, Hakon Jarl (Op. 16, after Gottlob Oehlenschläger's drama).

While all of Shakespeare's plays were known throughout Europe in various translations, Richard III had the distinction of being the first to be issued in the complete Czech edition initiated by the Prague publisher Česka Matice in 1851, in direct consequence of the success of a staged production of the work in that city. Richard III was the work that ignited a wholesale response to its creator on the part of Smetana's compatriots. In was, in fact, Smetana's own response to the Prague production of this play that provoked him to undertake a study of Berlioz's musical responses of Shakespeare, and then to compose the first of his symphonic poems in (more or less) the manner of Liszt. (Closer to home, Richard III completed a two-month run in a new production by the Shakespeare Theatre Company just a month ago, as part of the city's "Shakespeare in Washington" celebration, in which the National Symphony Orchestra has been participating with performances of Shakespeare-based works of various composers and continues now with this work by Smetana and the one by Dvořák that opens this week's concerts.)

Although Smetana had pledged himself in letters to Liszt to support and contribute to the genre of the symphonic poem, he did not specifically designate his Richard III as such. At the orchestral premiere in Prague it was designated a "fantasia for full orchestra." His own description of the work is given as follows:

It consists of a single movement [in three connected sections], in which the mood more or less follows the action of the play: the attainment of a goal after all obstacles have been surmounted, the triumph and final downfall of the hero. There is a theme in the bass representing the hero, and a second motif for his adversaries. . .

I can say that the personality of Richard III makes itself felt in the very first bar and his theme predominates in various forms throughout the work. The middle section depicts Richard, victorious, being crowned King. In the concluding section I have tried to picture his terrifying dream in his tent before the battle, in which his victims appear, one after the other, to foretell his doom.