The Robinson Library >> Music >> Biography: Composers and Songwriters
Bedrich SmetanaBedrich Smetana

major force in the establishment of the Czech national opera and creation of a Czech national style

Bedrich Smetana was born in Litomsyl, Bohemia, on March 2, 1824. He took music lessons from his father, a talented amateur violinist, and from several local teachers. In his teens he attended the Academic Gymnasium in Prague, but neglected his school work in order to attend concerts and write string quartets for his friends. His father finally sent him to the Premonstatensian Gymnasium in Plzen, but his school work did not improve.

His schooling finally over, Smetana was able to earn a meager living as a teacher in Prague. In 1844, he was appointed resident piano teacher to the family of Count Leopold Thun, a job which provided him the means to study harmony, counterpoint, and composition with Josef Proksch. After a failed attempt to launch a career as a concert pianist in 1847, he tried to establish a school of music in Prague, but this effort also failed. He was, however, able to earn some money by teaching and playing for the deposed Emperor Ferdinand.

By 1849, Smetana had earned enough money to allow him to marry Katerina Kolárová, whom he had known since Plzen. Times were far from rosy, however, as political turmoil was then brewing throughout Bohemia and he continued to have difficulty maintaining a steady income. To make matters worse, three of his four young daughters died between 1854 and 1856.

Smetana's life began to turn around after he took a position as piano teacher in Göteborg, Sweden, where he soon found himself in demand as a pianist, teacher, and conductor. It was here that he also composed his first symphonic poems. Collectively known as Ma vlast (My Country), this set of six works remains one of Smetana's best known compositions. Of them, Vltava (River Moldau), which follows the historic course of the river as it flows towards Prague, is the most frequently heard. His wife's ill health forced Smetana to return to Bohemia in 1859, but she died during the journey. Smetana would spend two more summers in Göteburg, and would marry his second wife, Bettina Ferdinandová, there.

Following Austria's defeat by Napoleon III at Magenta and Soferino, Smetana felt the time was right to return permanently to Prague, where he hoped to play an active role in the reawakening of Czech culture. Initially unsuccessful, Smetana's reputation began to grow after his first opera, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, debuted before an enthusiastic audience in January 1866. By the time his second opera, The Bartered Bride, debuted, his reputation was solidly established.

From 1866 to 1874, Smetana was the principal conductor of the Provisional Theatre. While serving in this position he was able to realize his ambition and play a major role in the establishment of the Czech national opera and creation of a Czech national style.

The first symptoms of syphilis began to appear about 1874, and though the disease would eventually make him deaf he continued to compose. By 1883 the disease had left him mentally unstable, and he was committed to a lunatic asylum in April 1884. He died in Prague on May 12, 1884.

His Works

Smetana composed a total of eight operas, including The Brandenburgers in Bohemia (1866), The Bartered Bride, Dalibor, The Two Widows, and Libuse (1881).

The best known of Smetana's orchestral works is Ma vlast (My Country).

His chamber music includes the string quartet From My Life (1876), a G minor Piano Trio, and a short piece for violin and piano entitled From the Homestead.

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The Robinson Library >> Music >> Biography: Composers and Songwriters

This page was last updated on 05/12/2017.