Vyšehrad –a symphonic poem from Bedřich Smetana’s My Country

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The first poem from Bedřich Smetana’s My Country, Vyšehrad, composed between  1874 and 1875, celebrates a symbol of the very beginning of the Czech state and its mythical past.

Vyšehrad is the first symphonic poem from Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast (My Country). While working on it, the composer left this painful note on his sheet music: “Written during a bout of ear disease.”

Vyšehrad starts with the tones of harps representing the medieval singer Lumír and transitions into a musical description of the monumental castle on a cliff above the Vltava River. The cadence of the music evokes history and celebrates a symbol of the very beginning of the Czech state and its mythical past. Vyšehrad, now a place of reverence in Prague, was the seat of the first Czech kings.

Bedřich Smetana, photo: Jan Mulač, CC0

The figurative crown of Vyšehrad hill is its pseudo-gothic church, which is quite a contrast to the monumental cliff on which it stands. A motive representing Vyšehrad castle appears three times in Smetana’s Má vlast. First in Vyšehrad, then again at the end of Vltava, and, for the third and final time, in Blaník along with a hussite choral.

The composer himself said this about his work: “The harps of the prophets start it off, singing songs about the fame, tournaments, and battles of Vyšehrad, all the way up to its decline and ruin. The composition ends in an elegiac tone…”

Smetana said that he was inspired to write the harp-filled introductory motive on the night of the twentieth of October 1874, the same night that he went deaf. Because of his worsening deafness, Smetana was forced to leave his position as principal conductor of the Provisional Theatre. Nonetheless, he was able to finish Vyšehrad in mid-November 1874. Vltava followed three weeks later, and Šárka was finished in February 1875.

The first two pieces soon saw live performances: the premiere of Vyšehrad took place on the fourteenth of March 1875. At that point, its composer was unable to hear it. Writing in his diary on that day, Smetana noted: “Vyšehrad, my symphonic poem, was today finally played for the first time at a philharmonic performance: it received an encore. Even though I listened from the gallery, I did not hear anything.”

Radio theme

Illustrative photo: annca, Pixabay / CC0

Probably not many people today know when Vyšehrad was first used as the theme of Czechoslovak Radio. It was on the twenty-eighth of October 1933, ten days before today’s Czech Radio building opened on Vinohradská Street in Prague.

That makes Vyšehrad Czechia’s oldest radio theme and one of the oldest ones worldwide. It accompanied broadcasts throughout many trying times. In the years 1938, 1945, 1948, and 1968 for example, the monotonously repeated theme called the whole nation to their radios to listen to some of the most important news in Czech history.

Má Vlast – an iconic composition symbolizing the historical changes of the Czech state

Václav Talich, photo: Czech Television

The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, which was only founded fourteen years after the first whole performance of Má vlast, first played the composition in 1901 at a performance in the Smíchov Brewery. Conductor Václav Talich chose it for the ensemble’s first live radio performance in 1925. During the Nazi occupation, Talich performed Má vlast to bolster national confidence. He could do so after being brave enough to perform the composition in Berlin and Dresden, where Goebbels himself invited him to play.

Five years later, Rafael Kubelík decided to perform Má vlast at a concert celebrating the first free post-war elections. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990, Kubelík performed it at the opening of the Prague Spring International Music Festival. It was his first performance after a triumphant return from forty-one years in exile.

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