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Classical Composers A-Z: Bedrich Smetana

Peter Wintersgill presents a word portrait of the Bohemian composer Bedrich Smetana.

Born
2nd March, 1824, in Litomysil, Bohemia.

Father
Frantisek, brewer, violinist, liked hunting and dancing.

Mother
Barbara, father's third wife, coachman's daughter.

Family
Third child and first son in family of ten - five stepsisters.

Childhood
He grew up in a musical home, was found early to be a child prodigy. Had violin lessons from father, aged four, went to school and started playing in a string quartet at five. First played in public at six, and started composing at eight. Was self-taught as a pianist and composer.

Adolescence
Moved to Prague at 19, had further violin lessons from Probsk, while earning his living by giving music lessons to children.

Heard Liszt play, who later became a close friend and helper, also met Berlioz and the Schumanns.

Early Adult Life
He took an active part in the abortive revolution of 1848, being the great patriot that he was. In 1849 he married Katerina, a fellow musician, who bore him three daughters. In 1851 he wrote his first piano piece, Album Leaves. About this time he opened a music school. His eldest daughter died at five of scarlet fever. In memory of her he wrote a piano trio in 1855.

Next year he went to Sweden and became director of the Goteberg Philharmonic Society and met Liszt again. His first orchestral works were three tone poems, Richard III (1851), Wallenstein's Camp (1860) and Haok Tarl (1861).

Later Adult Life
He returned to Prague from Sweden in 1863, at which time there was an upsurge of nationalist feeling in Bohemia (later to become Czechoslovakia), still under the Hapsburg yoke. He started another music school, also a choral society. In the same year he completed his first opera, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia. In 1864 he completed his comic opera The Bartered Bride, which was a great success at its premiere in 1866 and has remained popular ever since.

In 1862 he became conductor of the new Provisional Theatre, and five years later wrote his tragic opera Dalibor, for the opening of the Prague National Theatre. This was a failure.

In 1874 he suddenly became completely deaf, which has been attributed to syphilis, but may have been due to otosclerosis.

His deafness, as with Beethoven, was no bar to composing. In 1879 he completed a cycle of six tone poems, Ma Vlast, My Country. The second of these, Ultava, about a river, was very popular. He also wrote two string quartets, the first in E minor, entitled From my life (1876) contains a high pitched E, said to represent the noise in his ears (tinnitus) which accompanied his deafness. His 44 Czech dances for piano (1879) contain the only genuine folk tunes in his works. His last opera, Viola, was based on Twelfth Night, unfinished.

Towards the end he became very wasted with delusions and hallucinations. He became insane and spent his last year in an asylum. He died on May 12th, 1884, aged 60 of cerebal syphilis.


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