In the summer of 1874, Bedrich Smetana's health began deteriorating rapidly under the onslaught of advancing syphilis, and by the end of October he was completely deaf. He was forced to give up his post as principal conductor of the Provisional Theater in Prague and move to the country to live with his married daughter, supported by a meager and often delayed pension.
Though in poverty and pain, Smetana continued to compose, turning often to chamber music for intensely personal reflection. He wrote a pioneering programmatic string quartet, Z mého zivota (From My Life), Op. 116, in 1876. "With me the form of every composition is dictated by the subject itself and thus the Quartet too, shaped its own form," Smetana wrote to a friend in 1878. "My intention was to paint a tone picture of my life."
In 1879 he completed a vast programmatic project, Má vlast (My Fatherland), a cycle of six symphonic poems begun in 1872. These are vivid depictions of Czech landscapes and historical incidents, great public murals compared to the private self-portrait of From My Life. The next year Smetana followed this with a similar sort of thing, only in miniature: Z domoviny (From My Homeland), Op. 128, two showpieces for violin and piano. These are not without their haunted moments - particularly the poignant second one, in G minor, with its suggestions of gypsy-flavored sentiment - but generally are closer to the more open and earthy parts of Má vlast than to the darker patches of From My Life; Smetana looking out again, rather than within.
- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Director of Publications.