Bedřich Smetana: Vltava

Photo: archive of National Museum, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

If any work of Czech culture perfectly expresses and symbolizes the Czech identity without sliding into nationalism and pathos, then it is Bedřich Smetana’s My Country.  

Photo: archive of National Museum,  CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Smetana wrote the cycle of symphonic poems between 1874 and 1879. But he took only three weeks to write Vltava, the second symphonic poem of the cycle, doing so under some difficult circumstances. On his sheet music, he jotted down a rather disconcerting note: “I am completely deaf!” His disability notwithstanding, Smetana was able to compose an excellent piece that has accompanied Czechia throughout the good and bad of its modern history.

The poem symbolizes the flow of Czechia’s longest river, which in Smetana’s day began at its two sources and continued through forests, villages, and along old castles, flowing dramatically at St. John’s Rapids before reaching Vyšehrad in Prague and merging with the Elbe at Mělník.

Bedřich Smetana by Josef Matthauser,  photo: archive of National Museum,  CC BY-SA 4.0

The main theme of Vltava, which is probably the most popular piece from My Country and perhaps of Czech music as a whole, is the composer’s celebration of Czech nature, which he sees as an essential and beautiful part of life in his homeland.

According to some, one of Vltava's main melodies is an altered, minor scale version of the folk song Kočka leze dírou, the title of which can be loosely translated as the Cat Climbs Through the Hole. In Sweden, where Smetana lived for some time, the prevailing opinion is that the composer was inspired by Swedish folk music. The folk motive in question also supposedly inspired Samuel Cohen for his Hatikvah, which later became the Israeli national anthem.

The composition also appeared in the 2011 American film The Tree of Life. For many years, the tones of Vltava greeted passengers to Prague on Czech Airline flights.

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