Celebrating the bicentenary of the father of Czech music

This year, musicians, composers and lovers of classical music celebrate the 200th birthday of the 19th century Czech composer Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884), who achieved world fame with his six-part symphonic cycle "My Fatherland" and his opera “The Bartered Bride”. Smetana is revered in his homeland as the father of Czech music.

What impresses me, as a musician and composer (although my career has been, and still is, in evolutionary biology), is his incredible fortitude in struggling through ill-health, critical scorn, personal tragedy, poverty, madness, and (like Beethoven) deafness to create a wonderful body of music.

On March 2, 1824, the third wife of a short, music-loving Czech beer brewer in Litomyšl, east of Prague, gave birth to a long-awaited son, Bedřich (in German: Friedrich), after seven daughters from previous relationships. The Smetana family enjoyed the extraordinary musical talent of their son, who played, as a child, the piano and violin very well, and began to compose at an early age.

After several moves to different Czech cities, Bedřich went to Prague, against his father's wishes, to study music. From 1845 onwards, the young Smetana, who was only 1.60 m tall, worked as a pianist and piano teacher. He was desperately poor. In his distress, he appealed to his idol Franz Liszt (1811–1886), who found a publisher for Smetana's Opus 1 – “Six Piano Pieces”. Liszt supported the younger Czech with advice and recommendations for many years.

Smetana first married at the age of 25. His wife Kateřina died of tuberculosis about ten years later after bearing four daughters, three of whom died early. The surviving daughter, Sophie, eventually became her father’s loyal carer.  A second marriage to a headstrong, selfish lady a year later resulted in two more daughters.  

Bedřich SmetanaBedřich Smetana (1824-1884)

Since creative people are often unappreciated in their home country, Smetana took a position in Sweden. After five relatively happy and successful years as a Kapellmeister (bandmaster) in Gothenburg, where the compositions of the "Little Czech" were praised and appreciated, he returned to Prague in 1861 to work, initially as a piano teacher with his own teaching institute.

From 1868, Smetana worked as a theatre conductor and bandmaster in Prague, although again under poor financial conditions. The so-called "Old Czechs" – conservative and feudal in character – fought the progressive, artistic "Young Czech" Smetana, who clearly expressed his love of his fatherland. Although his first language was German, the musician regarded himself as a Czech patriot.

Unfortunately, to add to the misery of constant conflict and sniping, Smetana became increasingly deaf. In 1874 he had to resign. The Old Czechs were petty philistines, but they occupied powerful positions and made sure that his pension was just a pittance. At the age of 50, Smetana was impoverished, disabled, and largely unemployed (he had to contribute new compositions to his former employer).

So the father of Czech music spent the last nine years of his tormented life as a guest of his daughter Sophie and her husband. Stone deaf, he still composed world-famous works, such as  his “String Quartet in D minor”. (Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony when he was deaf.)

To add to this misery, Smetana also suffered from mental illness that was so severe that he was committed to the "Prague State Lunatic Asylum". He died on May 12, 1884, at the age of 60.



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Smetana’s legacy

Apart from his successful 1866 opera "The Bartered Bride", Smetana left behind other stage works, chamber music, orchestral compositions and, as a virtuoso pianist, numerous piano solo pieces, which he often combined into series of thematically interconnected pieces.

His most famous orchestral work, the six-part cycle "My Fatherland (Má vlast)", was completed in 1874, when he was already deaf. The second part of this masterpiece, "The Moldau (Vltava)” is a 13-minute expression of genius in which he symphonically traces the flow of the Czech Republic’s major river. The first two symphonic poems of the cycle premiered in 1875; the other, equally brilliant parts 3, 4, 5 and 6, followed in 1880.

Why does “The Moldau” overshadow the other five parts of the cycle? Smetana used a melody in E-minor, adapted from an old Czech folk song, which he leads through other keys in a romantic fashion, with a furious finale in a radiant E-major. “The Moldau” was included in a 2009 collection of “The 50 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music”. However, since it is preceded by a relatively long, abstract introduction, and contains more complex themes in the middle sections of the symphonic poem, this masterpiece is, unfortunately, little known amongst young music lovers.

Having a Czech background myself, I have re-composed, so to speak, a "Rocky Smetana-Moldau", using the original score as a guide. My six-minute piece for piano, synth-symphonic orchestra and drums rises above delicate, gentle melodic arcs and ends in rocking chords that should correspond to contemporary taste – Smetana@200! Track 2 is a Smetana-inspired composition entitled “By the Bay Melody”, a reference to Smetana’s happy years in Sweden. The cover painting was created by my father, the artist Alfred Kutschera (1928–2004), who died 20 years ago; the music producer is Roman Beilharz (Germany).

My hope is that Bedřich Smetana will become better known among under-25-year-olds, who like rhythmic, piano-based neo-classical Prog-Rock Synth music. (Tell me whether I have succeeded in the comments below!)

Bedřich Smetana was a Czech patriot. Without his brilliant music, I know that my life would be poorer. I would like to see this “Czech Beethoven” be appropriately honoured on his 200th birthday. “The Moldau” is  a brilliant example of the Latin epigram, Ars longa vita brevis, Life is short, but art lives on!  

Listen to Ulrich’s take on “Die Moldau”. Leave your comments below! 

Ulrich Kutschera, PhD, is a Professor of Biology who works at research institutions in Germany and the United States. As an evolutionary biologist/physiologist and author of about 340 scientific publications and 17 books, he has discovered/described numerous species (mostly of leeches, bacteria, and myxomycetes), published new theories on the mechanisms of evolution, and critiqued gender ideology, creationism, Covid lockdowns etc. He is also a professional musician and a composer of neo-classical, piano-based music.

Academic website: www.evolutionsbiologen.de

Music website: https://bio.music-hub.com/ulrichkutschera

Twitter: https://twitter.com/kutschera_u

Image credits: the Moldau River flowing through Prague / Bigstock 


Showing 8 reactions

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  • Tim Lee
    David, are you a classical music snob? Do you like Il Divo? Their “I believe in you” has the passion and joy that, with my uneducated ears, I don’t sense in the more esoteric classical pieces that I’ve heard. Perhaps I need to listen more.

    A music teacher friend likes Mozart, Beethoven, Corelli, Locatelli, Bach, Vivaldi and Telemann and I’ve only heard Mozart, Beethoven, ,Bach and Vivaldi. I do like Ulrich’s composition here, though I’ve never heard of Smetana.
  • David Page
    commented 2024-06-03 10:09:13 +1000
    Tim, referring to someone who loves (some) classical music as an aficionado robs the music of its passion and joy.
  • Tim Lee
    Not being a classical music aficionado, I have less esoteric tastes. Recently came across one of the most inspiring songs I’ve ever heard…
  • David Page
    commented 2024-06-02 11:16:20 +1000
    Michael, I hope you are joking.
  • Michael Cook
    commented 2024-06-02 11:12:06 +1000
    Honestly, you guys have NO IDEA about “the finest piece of music ever written”. Haven’t you ever heard of Stockhausen?
  • David Page
    commented 2024-06-02 10:41:08 +1000
    Patrick, Beethoven’s Ninth is probably the finest piece of music ever written. Perhaps you should look into yourself to find out why you don’t think so.
  • Patrick Obrien
    commented 2024-05-31 21:31:43 +1000
    I would listen to Ma Vlast over Beethoven’s 9th any day. And my favorite section of that work is the last, Blanik. So triumphant,
  • David Page
    commented 2024-05-29 08:39:24 +1000
    Could he really be compared to Antonín Dvořák? I don’t see how.