Two Centuries of Smetana

30 May 2024

This year marks the 200th birthday of the ‘Father of Czech Music’, the beloved composer Bedřich Smetana. Long a favourite of ours at Welsh National Opera, Smetana’s music has featured frequently in our recent orchestral concerts and his work is championed by his fellow Czech countryman and WNO Music Director Tomáš Hanus.

Born in Leitomischl, Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) in 1824, Smetana grew up in the Habsburg Empire during a time when the Czech language and culture was suppressed by the authorities. As a child he showed great musical promise and he studied in Prague during the 1840s, becoming a revolutionary for a short period during the city’s uprising in 1848. He spent some time abroad as a conductor and director of his own music school in Gothenburg, Sweden, before moving back to Bohemia in 1861. In 1866 Smetana became the principal conductor of the new Provisional Theatre in Prague, where he built on and expanded the theatre’s existing Czech and Slavonic repertory.

Smetana wrote eight Czech operas for the Provisional Theatre, including The Bartered Bride (1866) the most celebrated during his lifetime and most well-known of his operas today. His work in cultivating a Czech repertoire was so thorough that by the time the permanent National Theatre was finally opened in 1882, Smetana had already supplied a core of Czech operatic repertoire and was significant in influencing the work of the next generation of Czech opera composers such as Dvořák, Janáček and Krása.

The Bartered Bride was one of WNO’s first ever productions and premiered at Cardiff’s Prince of Wales Theatre in May 1949. 

During the 1870s, Smetana took on a great orchestral project which resulted in the six-movement suite Má Vlast (My Homeland), a piece that celebrates the Czech national mythology, history and landscape. It was first performed in full at Prague’s Žofín Palace in 1882 and remains today one of the most important pieces in the Czech repertoire and hugely culturally significant to the Czech people. The suite’s second movement, Vltava, is the most famous, and depicts the river’s journey through the rapids and the woods.

On 12 May every year, the anniversary of Smetana’s death, the Prague Spring Festival opens with a performance of Má Vlast – last year WNO Orchestra was privileged to give the opening concert in Smetana Hall led by WNO Music Director Tomáš Hanus, having performed the piece earlier in 2023 at St David’s Hall in Cardiff.

What better way is there to celebrate Smetana’s bicentennial year than hearing some of his music live in concert? To get in on the action, don’t miss WNO Orchestra’s Summer concert tour which features Smetana’s sparkling Overture to The Bartered Bride. Crossing Borders visits Brecon, Southampton, Cardiff, Bangor, Newtown, and Aberystwyth from 4 to 21 July 2024.