Bedřich Smetana’s Vltava marks 145 years since its premiere

Vltava in Prague, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

The first public performance of Vltava, one of the best known pieces by Bedřich Smetana, took place 145 years ago today. The famous composition, also known by its English title The Moldau, is part of a cycle of six symphonic poems, entitled Má Vlast or My Country. Its premiere took place on April 4, 1875.

Vltava in Prague, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

The whole cycle Má Vlast, which premiered at Prague's Žofín Palace in 1882, was inspired by various aspect of Czech history, legends and landscape. It begins at Vyšehrad, the seat of the earliest Czech kings.

Although it is usually presented as a single work in six movements, each of the poems was in fact conceived as an individual work and they were performed separately at first. Vltava, the second and unquestionably the best known piece of the cycle, was written between November 20 and December 10, 1874 and its premiere took place on April 4, 1875.

Bedřich Smetana, photo: Public Domain
The famous piece describes the course of one of the country’s main rivers, the Vltava River, as it starts from two small springs (represented by the flutes and the clarinets), and runs through the landscape in one single current, swirls into the St. John's Rapids, widens and flows towards Prague, past Vyšehrad and finally vanishes into the distance ending in the Labe, or Elbe.

This is how Bedřich Smetana himself described Vltava:

“The composition depicts the course of the river, from its beginnings where two brooks, one cold, the other warm, join a stream, running through forests and meadows and a lovely countryside where merry feasts are celebrated; water-sprites dance in the moonlight; on nearby rocks can be seen the outline of ruined castles, proudly soaring into the sky. The river swirls through the St. John Rapids and flows in a broad stream towards Prague. It passes Vyšehrad rock and disappears majestically into the distance.”

Vltava is believed to have been adapted from a children's song called Kočka leze dírou and conveyed into a minor key. But according to Smetana it was inspired by a Swedish folk song. You may also hear the motif in the Israeli national anthem, Ha Tikvah.

When Smetana composed Má Vlast, he was suffering from severe depression, but what is most interesting is that he wrote almost all of it in silence as he started to grow deaf shortly before completing the first poem. His state, however, doesn't seem to have affected his music, which continues to captivate listeners as much as it did 145 ago.