10 facts you didn’t know about Smetana

By Julie-Anne Derome

“With God’s help and grace, I will be a Mozart in composition and a Liszt in technique”. Excerpt from his diary, 1843

1-He was a child prodigy
Bedřich Smetana was born on 2 March 1824 near Prague, part of Bohemia at the time. Smetana’s father was an accomplished musician and became his first tutor. Smetana began to show musical talent at a very young age. He performed in a string quartet at age 5, gave a solo piano performance at age 6, and wrote his first composition at age 8.

2-He was bullied out of school

Smetana’s father was a working-class brewer who lived out in farm country. When Smetana moved to Prague to attend school at age 15, more privileged students openly ridiculed him for his poor grasp of Czech (German being the vernacular of the broader region) and his lack of city manners. He ended up dropping out.

3-Smetana didn’t speak Czech well
At the time of Smetana’s life, Bohemia was ruled by the Habsburg monarchy and German was the official language. His generation of Czechs was educated in German, and he had difficulty expressing himself in what was supposedly his native tongue. To overcome these linguistic deficiencies, he studied Czech grammar in his 40’s, and made a point of writing and speaking in Czech every day.

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Imperial Coat of arms

4-Smetana was a good friend of Liszt
Early in 1848 (aged 24), Smetana wrote to Franz Liszt, whom he had not yet met, asking him to accept the dedication of a new piano work Six Characteristic Pieces. This was the beginning of a long friendship. He even spent time in Weimar, where Liszt lived, in 1859 after the death of his first wife.

5-Smetana married twice
Smetana married Kateřina, on 27 August 1849. Four daughters were born to the couple between 1851 and 1855. After Katerina’s death in 1859, he married Barbora (Bettina), sixteen years his junior in 1860.

6-Smetana encountered several personal tragedies
In the years between 1854 and 1856 Smetana suffered a series of personal blows. In July 1854 his second daughter, Gabriela, died of tuberculosis. A year later his eldest daughter Bedřiška, who at the age of four was showing signs of musical precocity, died of scarlet fever. Just after Bedřiška’s death a fourth daughter, Kateřina, had been born but she, too, died in June 1856. By this time Smetana’s wife Kateřina had also been diagnosed with tuberculosis. She died in 1859.

7-Smetana lived in Sweden
1856, after writing to his parents that « Prague did not wish to acknowledge me, so I left it », he departed for Gothenburg., Sweden where he lived until 1862, after which, he returned to Prague.

8-Smetana turned gradually deaf and mad
Smetana’s health began to deteriorate (which he blamed, in large part, on the stress caused by his critics) and he went completely deaf in the early 1870s, but the last decade of his life was his most prolific. Smetana lived most fully as a composer while he was slowly dying as a man. By 1874, he became totally deaf. In 1879, Smetana had written to a friend, the Czech poet Jan Neruda, revealing fears of the onset of madness. By the winter of 1882–83 he was experiencing depression, insomnia, and hallucinations, together with giddiness, cramp and a temporary loss of speech. by the middle of February 1884 he had ceased to be coherent, and was periodically violent. On 23 April his family, unable to nurse him any longer, removed him to a Lunatic Asylum in Prague, where he died on 12 May 1884.

9-Smetana wrote only 4 chamber music works
Apart from a juvenile fantasia for violin and piano, Smetana composed only four chamber works, yet each had a deep personal significance.
The Piano Trio in G minor of 1855 was composed after the death of his daughter Bedřiška;
He returned to the chamber genre 20 years later with his first String Quartet. This E minor work, subtitled From My Life. Autobiographical in character, illustrating the composer’s youthful enthusiasm for his art, his friendships and loves and, in a change of mood, the onset of his deafness represented by a long harmonic E in the final movement above ominous string tremolos.
In 1880, he wrote a violin and piano duet From the homeland, a mixture of melancholy and happiness with strong affinity to Czech folk material.
His second String Quartet, in D minor, written in 1882–83 in defiance of his doctor’s orders to refrain from all musical activity, was composed in short snatches, « a swirl of music of a person who has lost his hearing. » It represents Smetana’s frustrations with his life, but is not wholly gloomy, and includes a bright polka.

10-He is a Czech national hero
By the time of his death, his genius had been fully recognized by the Czech classical music community, by political leaders who saw his celebration of folk music as the soundtrack to independence, and by the people at large. His 1884 funeral was a national event, as crowds of people processed through the streets of Prague in his honor. In 1936, a museum was dedicated to preserve relics of his life and work. It is still a major tourist attraction in the city.

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National Museum – Bedřich Smetana Museum

Bohemia on April 20, 2018 at 7.30pm at Bourgie Hall

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