The best of Czech classical music, part 2: Bedřich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride

Czech classical music is not only a part of national culture and history, but also of the nation’s soul. This year we have prepared a series on the renowned hits of Czech classical music. You will be familiar with many of them, as they are widely known and regularly performed in concert halls all over the world. The background to their creation and how they were recorded will all be covered by this series in the coming weeks.

Bedřich Smetana,  photo: Public Domain

The idea to write an original Czech opera had evidently already come to Bedřich Smetana during his stay in the Swedish city of Gothenburg, in the year 1861. The composer started work on it immediately after his return from Sweden. But he was only able to obtain a fitting libretto for the opera after a year, from the versatile writer Karel Sabina. It was the historical drama Brandenburgers in Bohemia, with its strong nationalist and anti-German subtext.

We do not know if Smetana’s work turned out the way that he wanted it to, but one thing is certain. He tried to get away from the serious theme of that work as quickly as possible. As he later admitted, the doubts of critics as to whether he would be capable of writing something with a more lighthearted and yet still national character, made the composer decide to immediately start work on a comic opera with a national theme. That means that he wrote the music for a stage full of villagers in national folk dress and for choruses that would later come to be sung by all Czech people.

National comic opera

Photo: archive of National Museum

Smetana took the idea of a national comic opera very seriously. The libretto was again prepared by Karel Sabina. And while for Brandenburgers in Bohemia a text full of pathos and national pride sufficed, this time it was not so easy, and Smetana had the whole libretto completely reworked. To be frank, even after that the writing was nothing extraordinary. Briefly ignore Smetana’s beautiful melody and read the libretto alone. Then you will be able to understand Smetana’s musical genius, that he was able to create such fresh music from Sabina’s awkward writing.

Smetana faced a double disadvantage during composing. First, the Czech language was still finding its artistic value as a young language that did not in any way reach the level of expressiveness that it has today. Secondly, the librettists of the time were not top writers in general, and that applies not only to Karel Sabina but also to Eliška Krásnohorská and other patriotic writers.

In defense of the libretto for The Bartered Bride, it should be said that Karel Sabina wrote it not only for the opera but also for an operetta, as that was what he had initially agreed upon with Smetana. After he heard The Bartered Bride for the first time, Sabina is said to have proclaimed that he would have tried harder, if only he had known what Smetana would make out of his libretto.

Becoming part of folklore

Karel Sabina,  photo: Public Domain

But Smetana was able to make even Sabina’s terrible jumble of words sound musical. And he did it so well that the songs became part of folklore. Even today there are opera enthusiasts who know whole chunks of The Bartered Bride by heart. But in its heyday, the libretto was known by almost everyone who considered themselves to be a Czech patriot. The choruses from the opera remained known for a long time after that.

Miloš Forman said that his first cinema experience was seeing a film version of The Bartered Bride. And that the film was silent! Forman remembered how the audience sang all throughout the film, from the beginning until the very end.

But the music critics of his day tarnished Smetana. They criticized him for not knowing Czech, pointing out that the emphasis on many words doesn’t match the beat of the music and that some phrases are offbeat. But that is also often the case with folk songs. Nowadays we consider it the natural musical cunning of a genius composer.

And that is most likely part of the explanation for why this introductory chorus of The Bartered Bride is so popular. It was precisely with this unique melody that Smetana was able to come close to the melody of folk music. And the musical tones of this work appealed to its first listeners precisely because they closely resembled the tones of folk songs. In addition, many lovers of The Bartered Bride realized that, with a bit of imagination, that first chorus sounds as if it is being sung by one voice.

What makes a song art? Perhaps the success of this first chorus from The Bartered Bride comes from the fact that it is sung right at the beginning of the famous opera. And that it is sung several times. The famous melody appears immediately at the start of the first act, at first, of course, appearing in the minor scale.

And then the two main characters, Mařenka and Jeník, appear on the stage. In this excerpt, those two roles are played by Gabriela Beňačková and Petr Dvorský respectively.

Founder of Czech music

And lastly, a few words about the author. Bedřich Smetana is first and foremost a Czech artist, lauded for being the founder of Czech music. Internationally, he is more known for The Bartered Bride than for his epic cycle of symphonic poems Má vlast. Thanks to Emma Destinová, the play was even performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Since then, it has repeatedly appeared on all the world’s prominent musical stages.

Smetana himself lived to see the hundredth showing of his magnum opus, for which he was recognized with applause and ovations at the National Theatre and loved by the whole nation. The Bartered Bride overshadowed all of Smetana’s other works, and to this day, it is the most frequently played Czech opera. And, along with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, it is the most successful comic opera behind Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

The Best of Czech classical music series was created on the basis of Lukáš Hurník's and Bohuslav Vítek's project "Millenium hits" which was broadcast on Czech Radio Vltava.