Smetana, like Dvorˇák, was a Bohemian, with a capital “B,” born in the village of Litomysl, Bohemia, into the family of a prosperous brewer who was a keen amateur violinist. It was from his father that young Friedrich, as the boy was called by his German-speaking family in mainly German-speaking Bohemia, received his initial musical instruction. But young Friedrich was a natural, picking out tunes on the family spinet at the age of three and who, by the time of his first formal training at age six, was a bona fide child prodigy pianist. It is important to mention that Friedrich was fiercely loved by his parents, not only because he was a good-natured and extraordinarily talented child, but for the fact that he was alive at all at age six: his ten siblings had all died before reaching the age of two. Still, Smetana’s father Frantisˇek (Franz), while loving music, considered the profession of musician as unworthy, indeed “effeminate.”
The boy was destined for a career in business, or possibly the law, and accordingly sent to Prague at age 14 to attend that city’s Academic Gymnasium. There, predictably, he spent more time playing chamber music – even writing some for his friends – and attending concerts, than preparing for “real” life.
In 1840, Smetana heard Liszt play in Prague and this determined the 16-year-old on a career, like Liszt’s, of performer-composer. Although he eventually achieved some success as a pianist, with the encouragement of Liszt and Robert and Clara Schumann, it was as a composer, particularly as a nationalist composer, that he would gain renown and widespread influence during his lifetime and beyond. But not until he became a Czech, as differentiated from a Bohemian, composer.
That transformation took place before and during the abortive Prague Revolution of 1848, when Smetana briefly manned the barricades with his Czech brethren – according to one biography speaking barely a word of their language – against their Habsburg overlords. Smetana’s politicization did not lead to his “discovery” of Czech folk music; he knew it already. It led, rather, to his discovery of its importance as an element of an original compositional style. Smetana is best known as a musical patriot, above all for the folksy comic opera Prodaná nevista (The Bartered Bride) and the monumental orchestral tone poems of Má vlast (My Fatherland). These are the products of Smetana the public figure, the musical father of his country, now proudly assuming his Czech first name, Bedrˇich.
The private man composed two autobiographical works, the String Quartet in E minor (“From My Life,” 1876) and the present Trio, dating from 1855. The Trio was an attempt at coming to terms with the recent death from scarlet fever of his young daughter Bedrˇiska.
Long after the Trio’s composition, Smetana wrote a letter to one of the doctors who had tried to save his failing hearing and it contained the following: “The death of my eldest daughter, an exceptionally talented child, motivated me to compose... my Trio in G minor. It was performed the same year in Prague [the composer took the piano part]... The audience was unresponsive and the critics hated it.” A year later it met with a much warmer reception, however, when it was performed, again with the composer at the piano, with Liszt in attendance, in Smetana’s Prague apartment. Liszt was profoundly moved and arranged for subsequent performances in Germany and Austria.
The G-minor Trio has never achieved the fame of the E-minor Quartet. The latter is an “easier” work, of balanced light and shade, from a man who had experienced both great joys and great sorrows. The grief-stricken composer of the Trio was only 30 years old and, as may be guessed, particularly aware of the fragility of life. To pile misery on woe, Smetana’s wife, Katerina, would give birth to another daughter shortly after Bedrˇiska's death, and that child would live for only eight months.
“Self” is perhaps the central notion of Romanticism, and it is with his grieving self that Smetana is concerned here. The somber principal subject of the opening movement is announced on the violin’s G string, unaccompanied, and the ensuing material of the movement never strays far from G minor. While both the following movements are also begun in and remain dominated by that dark tonality, there is some major-key alleviation of the sorrowing there. The second movement is a serious scherzo which, one of the composer’s early biographers suggests, is a “portrait” of the child, beginning with sadness over her loss and then, in a slow, wistfully Schumannesque alternativo (Smetana uses this expression in place of the usual “trio,” but it serves the same function, to provide contrast), then a return to the scherzo and another alternativo, dignified and lofty, perhaps a vision of the grown woman. The finale is a rondo beginning in energetic defiance, but soon subsides into a tranquil, hymn-like elegy: a benign sadness, an end to the pain.
Notes by Herbert Glass