Encore: From a Czech village to the court of Frederick the Great

In this edition of Encore we look at a new recording featuring 18th century composer Frantisek Benda, who found his way from a Czech village to the court of Frederick the Great. And we look at some exquisite piano pieces that Bedrich Smetana composed despite the onset of deafness.

Frantisek Benda - the first in a well-known Czech musical family

We start with the Czech Baroque composer Frantisek Benda, brother of Jiri - or Georg - Benda, whom we featured on a recent edition of Encore. Frantisek was the first of this large musical family to make a mark internationally.

He was born in 1709 and started his career in a rather dramatic fashion, running away from home, which was the small town of Stare Benatky, at the age of 10 or 11, to work as a chorister in Dresden. It would be interesting to read the autobiography he later wrote for his family. He went on to work in Vienna, Prague and Warsaw, and wound up in the orchestra of King Frederick the Great in Potsdam, eventually becoming its leader, and bringing his parents and siblings up to Berlin. Frederick the Great was quite a keen musician himself, a skilled flautist. Benda wrote many pieces for him.

You can hear Benda's music on a new CD called 'Baroque Music in the Czech Lands', featuring music not only by Czech composers such as Benda, Vejvanovsky, Planicky and Brixi, but also by other contemporary, non-Czech composers such as Biber and Pezelius, whose music would have been, as it were, in the air in Bohemia at the time. The new CD is on the Matous label.

Jitka Cechova plays Smetana's piano works

We turn now to music by the father of the Czech national revival in music, Bedrich Smetana. The pianist Jitka Cechova has added a second CD to her what she hopes will eventually become a survey of the complete piano works of Smetana.

This Supraphon CD includes early works such as polkas and the set called 'Wedding Scenes', and the later 'Reves' - the original title was in French - meaning Dreams, written in 1875 after the onset of his deafness.

Smetana had an extremely difficult life. Losing a wife to tuberculosis, and also three young children, constant money worries, quarrels with the authorities at the opera, then deafness, and finally insanity (probably due to syphilis).

Not only did Smetana suffer from deafness, but also tinnitus, which cause him to hear continuously, as he put it, "the shrill whistle of a first inversion chord of A-flat in the highest register of the piccolo." Nonetheless he continued to compose, and he composed beautiful music throughout. This is possible through what is called inner hearing, usually acquired when you are very young, taking your ability to remember or imagine a tune, to a very high degree. Part of it is talent, and part of it is training, skill and hard work. To some, it comes naturally - Martinu, Beethoven, Mozart - but others develop it incompletely.

CDs reviewed in this programme are provided by Siroky Dvur