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Overture to The Kiss

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Bedrich Smetana
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Gianandrea Noseda, conductor / Radu Lupu, piano, plays Beethoven Feb. 10 - 12, 2011
© Aaron Grad

Through eight operas and a body of Czech-inspired instrumental works, Bedrich Smetana pioneered Czech Nationalism in music. He was born in the small castle town of Litomysl, where his father ran a brewery and played in amateur string quartets. Smetana began playing violin at age four and later switched to the piano. Abandoning his schooling at 17, he began to focus on composing, and at 19 he settled in Prague, scraping by as a teacher and pianist and taking his first formal composition lessons. Smetana founded a music school in Prague in 1848, but a more lucrative position in Sweden took him away from his homeland from 1856 to 1861.

Smetana returned during a period of soaring Czech nationalism. Having spoken and written in German almost exclusively to that point in his life, he devoted himself to studying Czech, using that language for his first opera, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia.
The opening of Prague's first permanent theater in 1862 provided a platform for new Czech opera; Smetana's first opera reached that stage in 1866, followed a few months later by his second opera, The Bartered Bride. The same year, the theater appointed Smetana principal conductor.

Smetana's tenure at the theater was not without controversy, mainly tied to the question of whether Richard Wagner's modern developments had any place in the Czech national style. (Starting with his third opera, Dalibor, Smetana revealed a Wagnerian streak.) Smetana survived that culture war, but an even greater challenge ended his conducting career in 1874: the sudden onset of tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, culminating in total deafness by the end of the year.

The loss of his hearing did not silence Smetana as a composer. Freed from the demands of conducting, he entered a fertile period of composition, working on the orchestral cycle Má vlast (My Country) and the semi-autobiographical String Quartet No. 1 ("From my Life"). He also returned to opera with The Kiss, based on an 1871 short story. The premiere in November 1876 was a great success, and the opera came to rival The Bartered Bride as his most popular stage work.

The Kiss, a folk opera in two acts, follows Lukás, a young widower, and Vendulka, a peasant's daughter he wishes to marry. She refuses to kiss him until they are married, and intrigues ensue when he goes off carousing and dancing with other village girls. The Overture introduces themes from the opera, nimbly changing tempos and meters to introduce contrasting strains. The bright polka section in the middle foreshadows Lukás' drunken dancing outside Vendulka's house, followed by an ominous sequence of hovering diminished chords. The overture concludes with a grand restatement of a pastoral tune from the opening section.