An introduction to Smetana’s Má Vlast

8 November 2021

Czech composer Bedřich Smetana wrote his cycle of six symphonic poems, Má Vlast (My Country) in 1874 – 9. He became completely deaf almost immediately on commencing the work in 1874, yet he continued to compose, and his later works are often considered his greatest. The complete cycle was premiered in Prague in 1882.

Symphonic poems are pieces of orchestral music that are highly descriptive, telling a story, or portraying a landscape – like painting a picture through music. The poems in Má Vlast are a love letter to Smetena’s homeland, depicting the landscape, history and myths of what was then known as Bohemia. The six poems, Vyšehrad, Vltava, Šárka, Z českých luhů a hájů, Tábor and Blaník form a cycle of over an hour in length:

Vyšehrad (The High Castle) depicts the medieval Prague castle that was the seat of the early Czech kings, continuing through to its eventual collapse into ruin.

Vltava, the most frequently played, is named for the river that runs through Prague (also known by the German: die Moldau) and which WNO Orchestra performed in 2019 during a concert at St David’s Hall. It portrays the ebb and flow of the two streams that come together to form the country’s main river on its journey through forests and meadows, past mountains and on through Prague.

Šárka tells the tale of the revenge of a girl (Šárka) cheated on by her betrothed, who swears vengeance on men in general – the Czech legend of The Maiden’s War. It is often suggested that this piece especially, greatly influenced film-music composers of the 1930s and 1940s.

českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields) is included in our Cardiff Classical Concert, on Sunday 22 May 2022. This paints a picture, a celebration of the Czech landscape and the scenes of rural life, the customs occurring within it – such as a lively village festival.

Tábor depicts the city of the same name in the south of Bohemia, where the Hussites were based during the Hussite Wars (or Bohemian Revolution) of the early 1400s. Smetana quotes from a Hussite hymn in the theme for this piece.

Blaník is another folklore inspired poem, named for a mountain where legend has it that the great army of St Wenceslas slept, ready to wake when needed (rather like the Army of the Dead in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings).

It is perhaps surprising, considering the complete cycle’s premiere was in 1882, that it took until July 2011 for Má Vlast to be performed at the BBC Proms in full. But then, it is a piece with a mixed history – the Nazis originally banned performances of it in the then Czechoslovakia (due to its potent nationalistic nature) so it wasn’t performed again until a 1941 performance in Berlin by the Czech Philharmonic. Má Vlast was also symbolic in 1990 after the Velvet Revolution led to the Czech’s breakaway from Soviet-backed Communist rule, enabling the first free democratic elections in 40 years. It can be truly said to live up to another translation of its name: ‘My Homeland’.