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Bedřich Smetana

Member of the National Theatre between 1883 and 1884 Born 2 March 1824 in Litomyšl; died 12 May 1884 in Prague. Bedřich Smetana is one of the foremost Czech composers; his creation is inextricably linked with the building up of an independent Czech music culture. In compliance with his father’s wishes, he began devoting to music at the tender age of four, learning to play the violin and, later on, the piano. After completing his education at the Pilsen grammar school, he left for Prague, where he took private composing lessons with Professor Josef Proksch and concurrently earned his living as a music teacher. In 1848 he founded his own school of music. In the same year he married Kateřina Kolářová, with whom he had four daughters (three of them dying very young). From 1856 to 1861 he worked as a composer (already respected), music teacher, pianist and chorus-master in Gothenburg, Sweden, where he gave several dozen rapturously received concerts. En route back home to Bohemia, between 1857 and 1859 he visited in Weimar Franz Liszt, whom he considered a paragon and who at that time championed Smetana’s work in the Central European context. Liszt primarily influenced Smetana in composing symphonic poems – subsequently he wrote in Sweden Richard III, Wallenstein’s Camp, Macbeth and the Witches and Hakon Jarl. In 1859 Smetana’s wife Kateřina died. A year later he married Barbora “Betty” Ferdinandová (they had two daughters together) and returned to Sweden to spend there another year. Following his return to Bohemia, he sought in vain the post of Director of the Prague Conservatory and battled long-term financial problems. He only gained real acclaim in 1866 with the staging of the opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia (premiered at the Provisional Theatre), for which he had previously received the award for the best Czech opera in a competition announced by Count Harrach. However, his most cherished opera was The Bartered Bride (libretto by Karel Sabina), which had its premiere in 1866, also at the Provisional Theatre. Owing to its success, in 1866 he became conductor of this theatre’s orchestra. Within a short time, he became indispensable to this institution, which at that time was crucial for the development of an independent Czech culture and was the direct predecessor of the National Theatre. As a conductor he significantly participated in enhancement of the level of Czech and world repertoire performances, and his works (The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, The Bartered Bride, Dalibor – 2nd version, The Two Widows, The Kiss) have become pillars of the Czech musical/dramaturgical creation of that time. In 1868, to mark the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone of the National Theatre, his opera Dalibor was premiered at the New Town Theatre. The story of a valiant knight was derived from mythical Czech history, similarly to the story of another of Smetana’s operas – Libuše, about the famous Czech princess predicting glory for the Czech nation. Libuše was specially composed for the opening of the National Theatre (premieres in 1881 and 1883) and up to the present day has been primarily staged on festive occasions. In the summer of 1874 Smetana lost his hearing in his right ear and by the autumn had become completely deaf. In June 1875 he moved from Prague to a forester’s lodge in Jabkenice near Mladá Boleslav. Despite being seriously ill, he composed other genuine masterpieces – the operas The Kiss, The Secret and The Devil’s Wall (all three to Eliška Krásnohorská’s libretto), two string quartets, the piano cycles Dreams and Czech Dances, and a host of choral works. In Jabkenice he also completed the cycle of symphonic poems My Country (Vyšehrad, Vltava, Šárka, From Bohemia’s Meads and Woods, Tábor, Blaník), which today represents one of the most distinct works of the Czech symphonic repertoire. Subsequently, Smetana’s health deteriorated to such an extent that at the end of April 1884 he had to be taken to a mental hospital in Prague, where he died. His composing legacy as regards operas, symphonic, choral and chamber works is still perceived as a treasure of Czech national music.

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