Of the many impulses that enlivened 19th-century Romanticism, none was more ardently promoted by its adherents than nationalism. Toward the middle of the century, some of those countries that had embraced foreign traditions – mainly German ones – began to turn inward, seeking an expression that touched more deeply their own native instincts. In Bohemia, nationalistic pride was kindled first by Smetana, then by Dvorák, later by Janác?ek. The Bartered Bride, Smetana’s second opera (1866), stands in a pre-eminent position, credited with having established in its country a national musical consciousness.
Early in his career, Smetana enjoyed success in two capacities: As a pianist he was reputed to be an especially fine Chopin interpreter; as a conductor, he headed Sweden’s Gothenburg Philharmonic Society for several years. Leaving the latter post and returning to Prague, he aided the cause of Czech musical art first by supporting the movement to build an opera house, second by writing truly Bohemian operas to put on its stage. Bride’s homely story of village life is cloaked in bright music that has enough melodic and rhythmic folk flavoring to make the Bohemian heart beat faster, and enough pure musical value to agitate the non-Czech pulse.
The music of the Overture is drawn largely from the finale of Act II. In this scene, the hero signs a contract relinquishing his claim to his fiancée, and the legal sale is witnessed by the townspeople. The Overture begins with full orchestral thrust, out of which a scherzo-ish figure accumulates in the strings, and then a syncopated dance figure makes its vigorous appearance. These materials are developed with great instrumental brilliance – the Overture’s high spirits are activated as much by virtuosic orchestration as by vital, folkish picturesqueness.
After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.
The rustic but elaborately varied Polka comes at the end of Act I, sung and danced by villagers gathered in front of the inn to celebrate a spring holiday. At the beginning of Act II the people are now inside the inn. The men sing a drinking song, and after the women join them, all dance a furiant, a fast Bohemian folk dance playing with metrical cross-currents. Act III takes place outside again, on the village green in front of the inn. A circus has come to town, and it offers a sample of its acts accompanied by the “Dance of the Comedians,” another varied folk dance, a spirited skoc?ná.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.