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Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 17, 1922, with Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
The composer who made Bohemian national music viable within and beyond Czech borders was Bedrich Smetana, himself trained in Austrian-run schools, who spoke only German as a youth, but was radicalized during the revolutionary fervor that spread across Europe during the late 1840s. The new element that Smetana brought to Czech music was the employment of folk styles as part – the crucial part – of an independent musical language rather than inserting them as exotic coloring in scores that could have been written by a non-native. Exemplars of his method are the comic opera The Bartered Bride, his sparkling, spiky polkas for solo piano, the string quartet From My Life, and the set of six independent symphonic poems, Má vlast (My Homeland).
Má vlast was composed over a period five years: Vysehrad and Vltava (Moldau in German) in 1874, Sarka and From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields in 1875, Tábor and Blánik in the winter of 1878/79. By the time of the first public performances of Vysehrad and Vltava at the same concert in Prague in 1875, the depredations of venereal disease had made Smetana deaf, to which in the following years would be added blindness and the hallucinations and self-destructiveness that caused him to be institutionalized. He died in a Prague asylum for the insane in May of 1884.
Smetana had not originally considered a set of symphonic poems, rather a single work tracing the course of the Vltava River from its source in the Bohemian forest to its majestic passage through Prague. But the notion took on a life of its own, becoming a musical picture of the landscape of Bohemia and episodes in its history.
The Moldau, which has achieved the strongest independent life among the six symphonic poems, is a rondo (with coda) in which the haunting, G-major main theme is introduced by the upper strings and woodwinds, with the lower strings suggesting the river waves. To quote poet-composer Václav Zeleny, who devised the programs, i.e., story lines, for all six tone poems: “This composition depicts the course of the Moldau. It sings of its first two springs, one warm the other cold, rising in the Bohemian forest, watches the streams as they join and follows the flow of the river through fields and woods... a meadow where the peasants are celebrating a wedding. In the silver moonlight the river nymphs frolic, castles and palaces float past, as well as ancient ruins growing out of the wild cliffs. The Moldau foams and surges in the Rapids of St. John, then flows in a broad stream toward Prague. Vysehrad Castle appears (the four-note theme from the first of the six symphonic poems) on its banks. The river strives on majestically, lost to view, finally yielding itself up to the Elbe.”
Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He has also written for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and for periodicals in Europe and the United States. He recently completed his 15th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.