https://youtu.be/PEHlj2qwF3I?t=1h15m34s (up to 1:19:25)
Logically, a foreigner who did not see those days at first hand would probably imagine that at a time when an egg cost as much... as the price of a luxury car in the past... women would be rushing through the streets tearing their hair, shops would be empty because no one could afford to buy anything, and the theaters and other places of entertainment would have no audiences at all. Astonishingly, however, it was just the opposite. The will for life to go on proved stronger than the instability of the currency. In the midst of financial chaos, daily life continued almost unchanged. Individuals, of course, felt a great deal of change--the rich were impoverished when their money in banks and government securities melted away, spectators grew rich. But regardless of individual fates, the flywheel of the mechanism kept on turning in the same old rhythm. Nothing stood still. The baker made bread, the cobbler made boots, the writer wrote books, the farmer cultivated the land, trains ran regularly, the newspaper ly outside your door every morning at the usual time, and the places of entertainment in particular, the bars and theaters, were full to overflowing. For with the daily loss in value of money, once the most stable aspect of life, people came to appreciate true values such as work, love, friendship, art and nature all the more, and in the midst of disaster the nation as a whole lived more intensely than ever before, strung to a higher pitch. Young men and girls went walking in the mountains and came home tanned brown by the sun, music played in the dance halls until late at night, new factories and businesses were founded everywhere. I myself do not think I ever lived and worked with more intensity and concentration than I did in those years. What had been important to us before mattered even more now. Art was never more popular in Austria than at the time of chaos. Money had let us down; we sensed that what was eternal in us was all that would last.
I will never forget what operatic performances were like in those days of our greatest need. You groped your way through dimly lit streets, for street lighting was feeling the effects of the fuel shortage, you paid for your seat in the gallery with a bundle of banknotes that would once have allowed you to hire a luxurious box for a year. You sat in your overcoat, because the auditorium was unheated, and pressed close to your neighbors for warmth--and the theater itself, once brilliant with uniforms and expensive gowns, was so dismal and grey! No one knew whether it would still be possible for the opera to keep going next week if money went on falling in value and there were no coal deliveries. Everything seemed doubly desperate in this scene of former luxury and imperial extravagance. The musicians of the Philharmonic sat in the pit, also grey shadows of themselves, emaciated and exhausted by deprivation, and we in the audience looked like ghosts in this now ghostly theatre. But then the conductor raised his baton, the curtains parted, and it was more wonderful than ever before. The singers and musicians gave of their best, for they all felt that this might be the last time they performed in the theatre they loved. And we listened with bated breath, more receptvie than ever, knowing that for us, too, this might be the last time. Thousands of us, hundreds of thousands, lived like this. We all strained ourselves to the limit in these weeks and months and years on the brink of downfall. I never felt the will to live in a nation and in myself as strongly as I did then, when the end of everything, life and survival itself, was at stake.The quote is describing Vienna, not Prague, and I've taken its references to any German speaking territory out, because the conditions could describe anywhere in Europe during the wars. It's from The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, his memoir of what it meant to be an exile from a fragile kingdom of culture that ceased to exist with Hitler because Hitler wanted to make a version of it permanent. Like so many rich German Jews, Zweig found himself a bit chased by Hitler, first to London, but when the Blitz came to England, Zweig wrongly sensed that a free England's days were numbered, so he crossed the Atlantic Ocean to New York, where he found something arguably worse than Nazis - vulgarity, and left for Brazil. Zweig, a Jew and lifelong socialist and pacifist, thought himself as much a citizen of the world as an Austrian, but whatever world to which he belonged had revoked his citizenship. He was, in his own words: “miles and miles away from all that was formerly my life, books, concerts, friends and conversation.” And in the Brazillian town of Petropolis, he and his wife took an overdose of barbituates; when they were found, they were holding hands.
This concert on the fifth of June, 1939. The Germans, double crossing Hitler's promise to Neville Chamberlain, captured Czechoslovakia on March 15th of that same year. Every movement of Ma Vlast's six was followed by a thunderous ovation that can be heard over the radio aircheck. What we cannot hear is the spontaneous eruption of the Czech national anthem which followed the performance - a real life equivalent to the Marseillaise scene in Casablanca. This was music making so powerful that the Nazis banned the piece from performance in occupied Czechoslovakia until the Czech Philharmonic, with their nearly-forgotten founding music director, Vaclav Talich, forced the issue by playing the work in Berlin and creating a sensation there. Afterwards, Smetana's Ma Vlast was allowed to be performed again in the occupied Czechoslovakia, but just the next year, the Nazis dismissed Vaclav Talich from his post and closed most of Prague's important cultural institutions.
In orchestral music, as in every kind of music, there are some concerts that go into legend. Many of these concerts have been recorded, and legend is sometimes more important than the performance itself. At this point in history, the most legendary conductor is of all is probably Wilhelm Furtwangler. His most famous performance is Beethoven's 9th in 1942. Some music lovers, not me, think it's an unparalleled event in musical performance and a large part of the aura around that recording is a disproven rumor that Hitler was in the audience. His performance of the same piece in 1951 is similarly legendary for a lot of people because it commemorated the postwar resurrection of the Bayreuth Festival which Wagner founded to promote his own music - and Hitler used for all manner of propaganda, when Bayreuth came back, it was as though German culture itself came back. Furtwangler's Beethoven 9 from 1954 is legendary because he apparently decided during that performance that he no longer wanted to live, and died three months later. A certain kind of classical music lover will always say that they hear Furtwangler's agony in the '42 performance, or a kind of awed solemnity in '51, or his serenity in the '54 performance. Classical music obsessives were always a strange breed of people, but given how against the current you have to swim to love this music in 2018, you have to be still weirder to love this music now.
A few perhaps will say the same about Bernstein's excruciatingly slow Beethoven's 9th in 89' Berlin after the fall of the Wall, or his Shostakovich 5 from '59 - the height of the Cold War when he took the New York Philharmonic to play it in Moscow, where Shostakovich loved the performance so much that he hugged Bernstein onstage. Such legends have grown around Bruno Walter's performance of Beethoven's Fidelio at the Metropolitan Opera after braving the u-boats to come to America in 1941 and his Mahler 9 in '38 - two weeks before the Anchluß, or Willem Mengelberg's performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in the year before the Nazi invasion of Holland, or Carl Schuricht conducting Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde in '39 Amsterdam when, at a quiet moment some lady shouts out 'Deutschland über Alles, Herr Schuricht", or Furtwangler's Bruckner 5 in 1942 Berlin when you can supposedly hear bombs going off in the distance - that recording is one of my favorite recordings of anything, but I've never heard even a dull thud. Whether or not these performances are worthy of their reputations, there's an aura that seems to have grown around them because at crucial moments of life and death, music simply seems to mean more, and whether the performances are objectively better, many of them certainly are riskier - more extreme tempos, rawer sounds - or at least that's what it seems like through the compressed sonics. Whether or not these performances deserve their reputations, they're larger than life statements of music making from an era when life was so large because it was suffused with death. Except for Beethoven 9, Smetana's Ma Vlast is almost unique in that it has at least three such legendary performances, and they're all fully worthy of their reputation, and we'll talk a lot more about that third, more famous performance, later.
So now, a few minutes on Wagner from a very perceptive though eccentric music writer: David P. Goldman. (whole thing)
Siegfried, the opera from which this excerpt comes, premiered in in 1876. Ma Vlast was begun in 1874. The score was finished five years earlier, so it's conceivable albeit doubtful that Smetana had played through the score on his own time. But unless Smetana had the score, and more informed musicologists than I would know better, it stands as an uncanny coincidence that both Wagner and Smetana were creating their own forms of musical nationalism at the exact same historical moment, using almost completely reciprocal musical chord progressions from each other.
Entrance to Heil dir, Sonne (up to 1:14)
And here, now, is Smetana's motif, very nearly the same chords, but in backwards order. (up to 1:15:10)
Wagner chords free-float in a river of chromaticism without any solid ground upon which to stand. There's plenty of harmonic chromaticism and dissonance in Ma Vlast, but Smetana's chords fundamentally stand firmly on the solid ground of tonal harmony. But Wagner was the great influence upon every composer of his time, either in imitation or in rebellion. Smetana, like so many composers of his generation, owed Wagner everything. Here is Wagner's evocation of Germany's Rhine river in full flow Das Rheingold, which King Ludwig of Bavaria forced Wagner to premiere in advance of the entire Ring Cycle's completion and which he music world must have known intimately in piano reduction afterward. (Bohm/Bayreuth '66 up to 3:33) And now, here is Smetana's evocation of Czechoslovakia's Vltava River in full flow in the middle of The Moldau. (up to 19:24)
Personally, I think Smetana must have seen the score to Siegfried, however difficult it might have been to come by. Here are the two violin sections, alone at the top of their register, at the end of Brunhilde's awakening becomes complete and she hails the sun (Kraus/Bayreuth) up to the end of the clip). And now, the moment in The Moldau when The Vltava river goes so far beyond our line of vision that it disappears (Kubelik/Czech Phil up to 27:16). But if Smetana didn't see the score, then the parallels are that much more uncanny - one of those cosmic coincidences history sometimes presents us with in which two creators climb their way through opposite sides of the same mountain and meet at the summit.
It's fruitless to imagine a difference between these two nationalisms by the way their composers use harmony. But there's clearly a difference in the use of their musical materials and their musical aims. Wagner's harmonic use was expansive, trying to create something extra-musical in the midst of the richest musical tradition of his time, and perhaps of all-time - a world populated by gods and dwarves and soulstates and transfigurations. Whether or not Wagner meant it that way, it was music that quickly became catnip to intellectuals in a country who wanted to show the world that they were not only a great nation, but a better nation than others. Smetana merely wanted his music merely to get the Czechs a small space at the table of great music. One time, Smetana heard the great Austrian conductor Johann Herbeck, the first great champion of Bruckner, complain that for all the world's great Czech musicians, there were no great composers.
To show that Smetana's music, and Czech music itself, was ready to be thought as great as any other, Smetana deliberately channeled not only Wagner, but the giant of giants, Beethoven himself. Here is the beginning of the famous theme from Beethoven's 9th (up to 47:36). And here it is in completely disguised form as a polka-like dance in the first movement of Ma Vlast. (up to 0:15)
By the late-19th century Beethoven's music probably became seen as a lot more pompous than Beethoven meant it to be. But it's as though Smetana is presenting a conception of music, a Czech conception of music, completely foreign to Wagner-era Germany. More earthy and physical, more rooted in dance, more deliberately raucous, and far less concerned with the state of the soul. A music for direct application and instant communication, a music by which can not only be loved by the educated connoisseur but elevate peasants to the connoisseur's level. And a music that, at least in that sense, takes up Beethoven's mantle far more than Wagner ever wished to.
And it was Beethoven who provided Smetana with the most important way forward of all in the great crisis of Smetana's life - the crisis that would kill him ten years later. Nobody quite knows why Beethoven went deaf, the cause is sometimes attributed to an auto-immune disorder like Lupus, or perhaps to typhus, some quacks even think it was Beethoven's habit of dousing his head in cold water to wake himself up. But in Smetana's case, he woke up at the age of fifty to find himself deaf in one ear, and woke up three weeks later to find himself deaf in the other. The cause was simple and as nineteenth century as causes come: syphilis. Within eight years, Smetana would experience hallucinations and sometimes lose his power of speech, and within nine, he would be a violent threat to those around him. In 1884, one of the greatest and most eminent artists in the world would die in Prague's Katerinky Asylum for Lunatics. The crowd for his funeral was in the thousands, all lined up to pay tribute to the artist who gave them voice.
Harp solo in Vysehrad (Kubelik - up to 0:58)
Beginning a 75 minute orchestral work with a harp solo. Right away, we know that this is a different, kind of orchestra than was ever used before - not even Wagner or Berlioz begin an orchestral work with a harp solo. The harp is supposed to represent the legendary bard of Czech mythology, Lumir - so already by referencing mythology, we see the same nostalgia about which David Goldman talks. Perhaps Lumir strumming on a medieval lute. So what tale exactly is Lumir telling us?
Well, Vysehrad is the ancestral seat of Czech memory and its earliest glory, which, like so many small European nations, goes back far into the first millenium. It's the primal longing and nostalgia of the Czech historical narrative. The title of this movement is Vysehrad. Vysehrad is the site of the long since destroyed castle of the earliest Bohemian kings, two of whom also became Holy Roman Emperors. To this day, small churches exist on the site that were built between the eighth and eleventh centuries by the Premyslid Dynasty. Vysehrad was the original settlement of Prague, and to this day, it's customary for many Czechs to celebrate the New Year by going to the site.
But Smetana is also telling us a tale. The first two treble notes of the work are Bb and Eb, or in German notation, B, Es. The initials of Bedrich Smetana. It's an official declaration, a defiance, Smetana will go on.
It was only at fifty years old, when Smetana went deaf, that he began to compose full time. Until he was fifty, he was head of the Prague Provisional Opera and wrote a steady diet of music journalism. It was only when Smetana went deaf, neither able to conduct or to review performing musicians, forced by the manager of his opera company to sell the royalties to the company in exchange for an extremely meagre annual stipend, that he was forced into composition full time.
Within three months of his deafness, he'd written both Vysehrad and the most famous of all his works, The Moldau. It was a Beethovenian feat, and he'd fully earned the right to appropriate Beethoven's music for his own purposes.
But like so many composers, Beethoven was the giant from whose shadow he could no more free himself than the average Czech could from the Austrian Empire. One Bohemian king, Charles IV, became Holy Roman Emperor, and while his successor, Wenceslaus IV, was never named the Holy Roman Emperor, he was elected to the title many Central European Kings received before they became Holy Roman Emperor: King of the Romans (which actually meant King of the Germans, don't ask...). But after just one Holy Roman Emperor and one King of the Romans, the Bohemian claim to the throne of Central Europe was supplanted by the Hapsburgs of Austria, and thereafter the Bohemains and the Moravians, whom together make the Czechs, became subject to Austrian dominion for five-hundred years. The moment after Smetana quotes Beethoven's 9th, with its message of universal brotherhood, there is a long and noisy chromatic descent into the low notes of the orchestra that's supposed to symbolize the fall of Vysehrad Castle. For Czechs, universal brotherhood was a nice idea until it made them tyrannized for an endless series of generations.
Beethoven's 9th quote/Fall of Vysehrad - Ancerl (up to 9:25)
Both nationalism and internationalism are based on questions of identity and social justice. Polar opposites, because they're polar opposites and therefore based upon determining answers to the same questions, have more in common than any concept which might seem similar to them. Nationalism may seem like a poisonous disaster to us, but it seemed as much the answer to questions of how to redress social injustice in the 19th century to tens or hundreds of millions as internationalism or transnationalism or intersectionality seem in our day. They are all based on the idea that people should be free to live freely and proudly within their identities. There's no denying the truth of that statement, but will internationalism, in any of its various forms, do any better than nationalism when people come to the realization that they may have to take up the cause of redressing injustice by force? And more importantly, does it matter?
Humans will always dream of better days and better things, it's what keeps us alive from day to day. And their hopes and dreams of a better world are what enable them to build better worlds. Just as the dreams of greater equality through diversity inspire us today, dreams of greater equality through monoculture inspired people a hundred fifty years ago. In either case, is the hope that sustains us and allows us to, ever so slowly, move forward step by halting step into a world where problems can be solved.
When you go to Vysehrad, as I did fifteen years ago, you see the peaceful landscape, and you immediately see how and why it means so much to so many - no less than the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty might to an American, and you might feel some small measure of peace knowing that millions of people have come here for so many hundreds of years to feed their yearnings and hope for better days, and that is the sentiment on which Smetana seems to end Vysehrad. (Talich - to the end of the clip)
And so we come to The Moldau. One of the most beloved pieces of music ever written, in the Czech Republic and everywhere else in the world. A perfect piece of music in which not a note should ever be changed. And therefore, we are going to go through it note by note and talk about this miracle of composition. Interpolating the program note the composer used with my own description - forgive the purple prose, but The Moldau seems to invite it.
In the beginning was nature, and before there was even water, there was vapor, and the vapor on the rock of mountains turned to ice. The ice melts, and from there forms our bodies of water. (up to 1:04) Stream by stream, thread by thread, drip by drip, Smetana creates a musical river. It begins with the two streams that form the Vltava river, or Moldau in German, the cold Vltava and the warm Vltava, until they make a warm, wet river bed in which both streams unify into a single current. (up to 2:49)
Those of you who know the Israeli national anthem now hear exactly where it comes from. But before the theme was The Moldau, it was a folk song Smetana heard while living in Sweden, which apparently was originally an Italian song. I'm sure you hear the occasional ominous rush of the current which threatens to go from a river that invites people in to a river that dashes those who dare cross it upon the rocks. But then we hear the the thousand year procession of hunters in the woods and meadows Bohemian forest, noblemen and peasants alike, using their hunting horns to signify where they are so the other hunters don't shoot them, communing with the earth in an era before industrial farming when a hunter could still imagine himself part of nature's great chain of being. (up to 3:42)
And then, a wedding dance, a dance like so many Central-to-East European composers. The first and only people whose faces we will see on the course of this river tale. A wedding is life, and in this piece the continuity of life is all. (up to 5:18)
After the wedding the sun sets, and then comes wedding night. But perhaps, this being the 19th century, Smetana can't speak something so graphic out loud, so he calls it the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine. Mermaids have a great romantic pedigree in music: Wagner's Rhine Maidens, Dvorak's Rusalka, Mendelssohn's Fair Melusine, Zemlinsky's Seejungfrau. You hear not only the river flowing onward in the high winds with crossrhythms in the clarinet creating a sheen that sounds like moonlight, but the song of the mermaids in muted violins that in itself creates an aural sheen so luminous that could be moonlight in itself. (up to 7:43)
The sun rises, and The Moldau, as ever, is there for a new day. But rivers, like all nature, is as terribly dangerous as inviting. As we pass the now extinct St. John's Rapids, we see just how lethal this seemingly beautiful life force can be. Nature destroys people, families, cities, whole nation states. But a phenomenon not large enough to kill is also not large enough to give life. After St. John's Rapids, the Moldau reaches its widest point, wide enough to give birth to Prague and the entire story of this ancient and gorgeous city. And then it flows broadly onward, into the distance, in which bodies of water seem to move more slowly until they disappear from view, the mystery of nature, as ever, intact. (up to the end)
And now comes the incredibly underrated movement, Sarka, which tales Czech mythology's tale of the Maiden's War - an uprising of women against men. So we'll forego speculation about why it's underrated and just give us some prep to hear its best passage, one of the great endings in music, in all its magnificence. So in order to tell the tail of Sarka and the Maiden's War, we also have to tell the tale of Libuse.
Libuse is the legendary mother of the Czech people, daughter of the legendary Czech ruler, Krok, who is a bit like King Arthur. Libuse was the youngest and wisest of King Krok's three daughters who could see the future and was chosen by her father to be his successor. She married a ploughman named Premysl, and together they founded the Premyslid dynasty. One day, she spoke from a great cliff high above the Vltava river, and said "I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars.' On the site she built Vysehrad, and the town would be Prague.
After Libuse's death, a band of women staged a rebellion against Premysl, their general was a woman named Vlasta, and her lieutenant was Sarka. Sarka laid a trap for a band of armed men led by Ctirad. She tied herself out to a tree and claimed she was tied there by rebel maidens and put a horn and a jug of mead just out of reach to mock her. When Ctirad unties the tree, she pours the mead for the men as a thank you gift. But the mead has a sleeping potion. When the men fall asleep, Sarka blows a horn, and out come the rebel maidens, who slaughter all the men. Of course, Sarka and Vlasta and all their rebel maidens are defeated soon afterward, but the national mythology remembers her thereafter.
So all we're going to hear is the ending, when the men go to sleep, Sarka blows the horn, and we hear the slaughter. You hear the snoring in a low bassoon note, you hear Sarka blowing the horn in a manner that strangely resembles Götterdämmerung a year before Götterdämmerung's premiere, the suspenseful rustling of the leaves, a mournful clarinet solo with musical material that occurs all through the movement, and then all hell breaks loose. Everything we've heard so far is from Czech orchestras and conductors. But this is the recently deceased Austrian maestro, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. I'm telling which performance this is because so much of the effect of this passage depends on getting those incredibly difficult brass passages exactly right, particularly the trombone, in a manner that seemingly all the Czech orchestras and conductors seem content to keep sloppy, probably because it's just so hard to play correctly, and they do it while Harnoncourt makes an acceleration. Just incredible. Hearing it is the difference between the movement's ending being a musical punctuation mark at a much faster that makes a little bit of excitement before it's all over in a flash, and the musical violence that makes the music sound as it should, like an army of women is getting their long delayed revenge, and butchering all the men to a pulp. (to the end of the movement)
So now we come to From Bohemia's Woods and Fields. It tells no story, it merely paints a picture of the Bohemian forest. And some of the writing in the first few minutes is so modern that it could be from Sibelius's 4th Symphony or Tapiola, written forty or fifty years later. Surely, with Smetana's Swedish connections, Sibelius had to know plenty about his music. I don't know if too many musicologists have thought about looking for the roots of Sibelius's bleak and chormatic late style in Smetana's chilling fugue, but I'd imagine a good half-dozen PhD's could be written about it. (to 4:10 Kubelik/Chicago)
After these four movements, Smetana put the piece down for a few years during which he wrote his famously angst-ridden String Quartet - From My Life, and three operas that are played all the time in the Czech-speaking lands but rarely ever anywhere else. The first four movements of Ma Vlast can almost be seen as a symphony. It's customary in a lot of performances to take an intermission between the first three movements and the last three. That strikes me as a horrible break in the momentum. The first four movements clearly belong together, and they're meant to belong together. Even if the last two movements technically belong in the same piece with the first four, but they are a very different type of music - the work of a composer who's evolved to become something very different. Quite simply, the difference is down to the DNA level. The aim of the final two movements is extremely different from the first four. The first four movements are hymns to the greatness of the land. The last two are homilies, battle cries, calls to action and defense. The first four movements, even Sarka, have a diversionary, entertainment character to them; the final two are almost grim.
Tabor is a portrait of the Hussite Warriors of the 15th Century. Hussite warriors were proto-Protestants, a relatively rare phenomenon in the modern Czech lands, but for a while, they managed to stave off the combined military forces of the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church.
But the Taborites did not just presage Martin Luther, they were, if anything, proto-Communists. In 1419, they announced the Millenium of Christ, that all property would be commonly held with no taxes, they showed mercy to those whom they defeated, they forgived heresy. The Pope called for five separate Crusades against them, and the armies of the Pope were defeated five separate times. When they were finally defeated, they were killed to a number between 13,000 and 18,000.
It all began with the priestly intellectual, Jan Hus, who was, until Vaclav Havel, the key figure in Czech history who, like Martin Luther, gained his eminence by denouncing Catholic corruption. When it came time for Luther to do the same a hundred years after Hus, Luther deliberately drew lessons from the mistakes that costed Hus his life and plunged the Kingdom of Bohemia into a series of wars they ultimately could not win. In the beginning, we hear what at least sounds like battle preparation (Neumann/Leipzig, until 1:40). We hear the Hussite's zealot faith portrayed in a hymn tune (until 6:34). We hear their grim battle and the ultimate defeat they know is inevitable (up to 10:38).
If you were to play the fifth movement, Tabor, on its own, it probably wouldn't work. It only really gets going after more than six minutes of exposition, it has an almost Philip Glass like obsession with the three D's that clearly take their cue from the Allegretto in Beethoven's 7th. So many conductors, great ones, seem completely at a loss to make this music work. Both Karel Ancerl, the great Czech conductor with a particular affinity for difficult music, and Charles Mackerras, the Australian universalist who had a particular weakness for Czech music, seem to 'sort of' get it, but neither can't bring themselves to slow down enough for certain passages not to sound awkward. Lovro von Matacic comes still much closer, with a full measure of weight and raucousness in the orchestral sound; but never a stickler for precision, Matacic creates a very deep, very unprecise, spread out, very Furtwanglerian, German orchestral sound that has no spring of the dance to it, and deep is something this music cannot be accused of being. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is one of the world's most imaginative musicians, and has the imagination to take Smetana's tempo markings at their word - shocking I know; nobody conveys the ominous suspense in the introduction as well as Harnoncourt does, but in different performances Harnoncourt is let down by both the Vienna Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, neither of which give him the requisite heft and raucousness this movement requires. Even Vaclav Talich, the ur-Czech conductor who learned how to conduct Dvorak from the composer, doesn't seem to know what to do with Tabor. Rafael Kubelik, the Czech superstar and my favorite conductor in the world, left five recordings of this piece, and always tried to romanticize it with that huge heart of his - lots of phrase bending and huge pauses and tempo changes, but in doing so he would lose the piece's very fragile through line. The only others are Czech specialist maestros who went around the world seemingly conducting nothing but Czech music like Jiri Belohlavek with the Czech Philharmonic and especially Vaclav Neumann with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, these are conductors whom foreigners often write off as dull when we hear them in the most familiar rep, but who've probably conducted every scrap Smetana ever wrote multiple times. The idiom of Smetana is so foreign to most of us because many things about it are counterintuitive. Smetana left metronome markings only for the last three movements, and any music lover who looks at the score and metronome markings for these final two movements will be shocked by how slow he wants many passages to be played compared to most performances and recordings we hear. There are many sparse passages in Smetana which you would think cannot carry the weight of a slow tempo, but, in fact, they only work at slow tempos. If you try to make Tabor into something speedy, with Lisztian bravura, it will fall flat. But if you turn directly into the inertia, the orchestra can impose an enormous weight of sound, and the perhaps Bruckner-like stoicism of it can be terrifying in a manner like a pagan mask.
It's just another example of how while Smetana is, easily, in the pantheon of musical geniuses, there's so much music by him that hardly anybody knows, and because nobody knows it, the idiom becomes still harder to understand once you finally hear it often enough to have a chnace. But there are two kinds of musical genius, just like there are two kinds of artistic genius. So I'm going to talk about this by quoting and then let the quoter quote a quote. Here is what Isaiah Berlin has to say... about what Friedrich Schiller has to say about it.
In his once celebrated essay, published in 1795, which he called Uber Naive und Sentimentalische Dichtung, Schiller distinguished two types of poets: those who are not conscious of any rift between themselves and their milieu, or within themselves; and those who are so conscious. For the first, art is a natural form of expression, they see what they see directly, and seek to articulate it for its own sake, not for any ulterior purpose, however sublime.
Homer, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, even Goethe are poets of this kind. They are not, as poets, self-conscious. They do not, like Virgil or Ariosto, stand aside to contemplate their creations and express their own feelings. They are at peace with themselves. Their aim is limited, and they are able, if they have genius, to embody their vision fully. These Schiller calls naive. With them he contrasts those poets who come after the Fall. When man enters the stage of culture, and art has laid its hand on him, the primordial, sensuous unity is gone … The harmony between sense and thinking, which in the earlier stage was real, now exists only as an ideal. It is not in a man, as a fact of his life, but outside him, as an ideal to be realised.
The unity has been broken. The poet seeks to restore it. He looks for the vanished, harmonious world which some call nature, and builds it from his imagination, and his poetry is his attempt to return to it, to an imagined childhood, and he conveys his sense of the chasm that divides the day-to-day world which is no longer his home from the lost paradise which is conceived only ideally, only in reflection. Hence this ideal realm is bounded by nothing; it is in its very essence indefinable, unattainable, incapable of being embraced by means of any finite medium, no matter how great the poet’s capacity for finding, molding, transforming his material. Let me quote Schiller again: “Visual art reaches its goal in the finite; that of the imagination . . . in infinity.” And again, “The poet … is either himself nature, or he seeks her.” The first of these Schiller calls naiv, the second, sentimentalisch.
The naive artist is happily married to his muse. He takes rules and conventions for granted, uses them freely and harmoniously, and the effect of his art is, in Schiller’s words, “tranquil, pure, joyous.” The sentimental artist is in a turbulent relationship to his muse: married to her unhappily. Conventions irk him, although he may defend them fanatically. He is Amfortas and seeks peace, salvation, the healing of his own or his society’s secret and patent wounds. He cannot be at rest.
His observation is forcibly pushed aside by fancy, his sensibility by ideas, he closes his eyes and ears so that nothing may disturb his self-absorption in his own thoughts … His soul suffers no impression without at once turning to contemplate its own play … In this manner we never receive the object itself, only what the reflective understanding of the poet made of the object; and even when the poet is himself this object, when he wants to portray his feelings to us, we do not apprehend his feelings directly, at first hand, but only their reflection in his soul what he thought about them as a spectator of himself.Smetana was as much the second type, the sentimentalisch - which does not mean sentimental in the sense that we use it today, as there exists in music. So was Wagner, so was Schumann, so was Mahler, so even perhaps was Beethoven. But so many of their rivals and competitors were naive geniuses: Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Verdi, Liszt, Chopin, Strauss, Mozart, Schubert. To these naive geniuses, composing comes easily - and even if the meaning is closer, it does not mean naive in the sense that we mean it today. It's not that these composers are naive people, it's that their genius is naive - the person who has it is completely ignorant of where it comes from. Music for them is like a stream they could never stop if they wanted to turn it off. Whatever qualities their music has, the moment they write the music down, so much of it seems to be perfect, like it comes all too easily to them.
So let me formulate this slightly differently. The first type, the naive type, is musical geniuses. The second type, the sentimental type, is geniuses who chose music and wrote their music with an expressive purpose in mind. Their great musical gifts are hard-won, they take a long time to ferment, and their gifts sometimes dry up before the end of their lives. In some ways, their music can be extremely clumsy, but their great works always manage to do the right thing at the right time.
Smetana was clearly not a musical genius but a genius who chose music. He saw, when no one else did, that Wagner had exhausted tragic opera but that comedy was still a mine worth digging. He saw that his nation had need for an opera which spoke to their experiences, and from those two insights, he created The Bartered Bride - an opera that everybody knows, even if you don't think you know it. (up to 0:32)
This semi-didactic way of writing was how Smetana got inspiration. He seemed to say, 'What do my people need?' and what they seemed to need, above all else, was music that spoke to their experience. Almost all his mature piano music is dance music. His mature songs can just about all be sung by amateurs. His mature operas are all either from Czech mythology, Czech history, or realistic dramas about Czech people.
I don't know if that is the reason, but except for The Moldau and The Bartered Bride, Smetana doesn't really cross borders. Even Ma Vlast, which has had a number of great conductors champion it, gets much more lip service as a masterpiece than it ever gets performances. The average city with a competent C-List orchestra might play it once every twenty years when some veteran Czech conductor comes into town. Every major musical country has their secret geniuses who don't seem to translate - even Germany has Max Reger and Carl Maria von Weber while Austria has the Franzes Schmidt and Schreker. I have yet to hear a snatch of work by Franz Schmidt and think to myself that this guy has a memorable thought, but that is the nature of so much art - not everything is going to speak to everyone. Abroad from here, people recognize the greatness of Gershwin and Ives all the time, they even play Barber's Adagio ad nauseum even if they don't play any other Barber, but believe it or not, the genius of Aaron Copland still seems to be our little secret. Everybody else seems to find it a kitschy picture-postcard soundtrack.
And yet, like Copland, there is something about the incredible dignity and longing in this music that, at least I, find impossible to stop listening to. But like Copland, it is precisely the power of this music which is dangerous. Just as Copland, the gay Jewish Communist, was co-opted by Reagan's campaign for his Morning in America ads, Smetana, the great Czech nationalists, was co-opted by Czech communists. And this is the moment when we have to tell the story of Zdenek Nejedly - the sinister Czech version of Forrest Gump.
Nejedly was born in Litomysl, which was also the hometown of Smetana. He went to Charles University in Prague, where he studied music and philosophy, the latter with Tomas Masyryk, the first President of a democratic Czechoslovakia. While of student age, Nejedly asked Dvorak for his daughter's hand in marriage, and Dvorak refused him. This may not be the reason for Nejedly's lifelong effort to promote Smetana's importance at the expense of Dvorak's, but I doubt it's unrelated. Nejedly, a university graduate, hated the music of musicians taught at the Prague Conservatory, which he associated with Dvorak, with Germanization, with conservatism, with music being just music rather than a didactic tool for social responsibility.
As a music journalist, Nejedly was so anti-conservatory musicians that he was banned from writing for Czech newspapers. He then began a music journal called 'Smetana' which he ran for sixteen years. It was not without its good causes - which included the music of Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg's great opera - Wozzeck, but the first four years of the journal seemed to be largely devoted to attacking the legacy of Dvorak and every scrap of music Dvorak wrote. When musicians rose in defense of Dvorak with a petition of support, Nejedly took note and sought to end the careers of the musicians who sided with Dvorak in a hail of vitriol, which included a number of great and undervalued Czech composers, one of whom was Dvorak's son-in-law Joseph Suk - of whom Dvorak obviously approved in a manner he didn't of the man who later sought to trash his legacy; another of whom was Leos Janacek, whom in 2018 seems arguably a greater composer than either Smetana or Dvorak.
Like so many ideologues from small nations, Nejedly was both a Nationalist and a Communist. Nejedly, obviously no stranger to controversy, became one of the Communist Party's most effective spokesmen once the party was legalized in the early 20's. For twenty years, he largely devoted himself to political activism. He wanted to write three grand multi-volume biographies about three great men of his era - Smetana, Masyryk, and Lenin. He barely even scratched the surface of the Smetana biography, but during World War II, he fled to the Soviet Union, and so eminent a political figure was he considered by his return after the war's end that Eduard Benes, postwar leader of the democratic Czechoslovakia, appointed him Minister of Education, Arts, and Sciences, and in 1946 he was appointed Minister of Social Security.
When Stalin created the iron curtain in the late 40's, it was time for show trials, and few people could possibly have been in a better place to settle scores than Nejedly. Nejedly's vitriolic public criticisms of Janacek turned many old friends and allies against him. One old friend in particular, Josef Hutter, whose sole crime was in not shunning another friend who'd criticized Nejedly, was given a show trial, at the end of which was sentenced to thirty-nine years in prison.
Nejedly had still higher ambitions. While at a meeting at which Stalin berated his Czech lapdog, Klement Gottwald, Stalin is reported to have said "I could have anyone do your job." He then gestured to Nejedly, "Even Nejedly could do it!"
From that moment on, Nejedly wanted nothing more than to be the dictator of the country, and until the end of his life apparently did everything in his power to earn the good graces of his party's Russian masters. He was thought of by the Czech party elite as a contemptible old man and a joke. The university students, required to read Nejedly's book: "The Communists - Inheritors of the Grand Progressive Tradition of the Czech Nation" as part of the Marxist curriculum, thought of him as just another faceless Marxist apparatchik, and most probably had no idea he was even a musician.
The musical legacy of Zdenek Nejedly was the requirement that Czech students listen to Smetana ad nauseum. Bussed to sit in concert halls, regularly listen to recordings, learn to play Smetana. Nothing kills love of music like being conscripted to love it, and nothing killed Smetana's reputation faster than his greatest champion. Nothing can kill the reputation of a naive musical genius, their work will always speak for itself. But a sentimental artistic genius needs the right environment for his work to speak properly, and if Smetana could not even speak in the Czech lands, what hope had he elsewhere?