Smetana, often regarded as the founder of Czech classical
music, was born in Litomysl in Bohemia. Although his parents'
eleventh child, he was the first son to survive infancy, and his
father, an avid amateur violinist, lavished attention on his
musical education. By the age of six he had played in a string
quartet and given his first piano recital; two years later lie was
writing music. When the family moved to Nemecky Brod — a centre of
political and cultural thought - Smetana developed an interest in
philosophy and literature.
In 1843 he settled in Prague and earned a living as tutor to an
aristocratic family, at the same time studying composition and
piano privately. His diary records his early ambition: "By the
grace of God and with His help I shall one day be a Liszt in
technique and a Mozart in composition."
After taking part in the fighting at the barricades during the
abortive 1848 nationalist uprising in Prague, he made the first of
many visits to Sweden in 1856 and opened a music school there. His
friendship with Liszt (whom he had met several years earlier) led
in 1858 to an invitation to visit Leipzig where he attended concerts of contemporary music
by composers such as Wagner.
In 1866 Smetana conducted his first successful large-scale
composition, The bartered bride, which is one of his most
popular works. Its overriding mood is uncharacteristically one of
joyous optimism, and Smetana later related how many of the
delightful melodies were inspired by his habitual evening walks
along the banks of the Vltava river. Also in 1 866 he was
appointed to the coveted post of principal conductor of the Prague
Provisional Theatre orchestra (in which Dvorak was principal
violist). Тhis allowed him to promote new works by fellow Czech
composers as well as to include more French and Italian music,
rather than the almost exclusive diet of Austrian and German music
performed in most Czech concert halls.
Smetana's massive orchestral work Ma Vlast (My
Fatherland) occupied the composer for seven years. Completed in
1879. this cycle of six tone poems soon became one of his
best-loved pieces, and was performed frequently throughout Europe
and America. It represents the struggles of the politically and
culturally oppressed Czech people, expressing in music their
long-held desire for independence.
During these years, Smetana's health began to deteriorate
seriously. The onset of venereal disease brought increasing
deafness and badly affected his ability to concentrate. Over the
next few years, living in virtual isolation, he composed two
operas - The kiss (1876), an attractive blend of serious,
romantic and comic elements, and The secret (1877). The
autobiographical string quartet, From my life, also
composed during these years, includes a piercing whistling sound
in the last movement which graphically depicts the effects of
Throughout his last years Smetana's mental health degenerated
as well, and in 1884 he was committed to a Prague lunatic asylum.
With his death, two months later, Czechoslovakia lost its first
truly nationalist composer, one who would provide a source of
inspiration for generations of artists to come.