Smetana’s My Homeland is more closely associated with the history of the Czech Philharmonic than perhaps any other work except for the New World Symphony. On the first radio broadcast of a concert in this country on 11 May 1925, the Czech Philharmonic played Má vlast. Four years later, the work was chosen for the orchestra’s first phonograph recording with Václav Talich for the His Master’s Voice label. During the Second World War, Talich included the entire work including the banned movements Tábor and Blaník on the programme of the concerts of the Czech Philharmonic in Berlin and Dresden, and by doing so he got the ban lifted in Prague as well. The legendary recording of the concert at the National Theatre in 1939, at the end of which the public spontaneously sang the national anthem, was released by Supraphon eight years ago. The Czech Philharmonic played Má vlast at the time of the Velvet Revolution, and upon the return of Rafael Kubelík from exile the orchestra opened the Prague Spring festival with the work in 1990 and played it in June of that year on Old Town Square. Má vlast has to be a part of the core repertoire of every chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, and for foreign artists, performing it at the Rudolfinum is always a special experience. Semyon Bychkov has been preparing himself diligently for these subscription concerts since last year, and he has already performed Má vlast with orchestras in Munich, Cologne, Hamburg, Madrid, Amsterdam, and Cleveland.
My Homeland, a cycle of symphonic poems
78 minutes (without intermission)
Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov was born in Leningrad in 1952, immigrated to the United States in 1975, and has been based in Europe since the mid-1980’s. In common with the Orchestra, Bychkov has one foot firmly in the cultures both of the East and the West.
Following his concerts with the Czech Philharmonic in 2013, Bychkov and the Orchestra devised The Tchaikovsky Project, a series of concerts, residencies and studio recordings which allowed them the luxury of exploring Tchaikovsky’s music together. The Tchaikovsky Project launched in autumn 2016 with Deccaʼs release of Symphony No. 6 coupled with the Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture, and was followed a year later with the release of the Manfred Symphony. The Tchaikovsky Project culminates in autumn 2019 with the release of all Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, the three piano concertos, Romeo & Juliet, Serenade for Strings and Francesca da Rimini, followed by residencies with the Czech Philharmonic in Prague, Tokyo, Paris and Vienna.
In 1989, fourteen years after leaving the former Soviet Union, Bychkov returned to St Petersburg as the Philharmonic’s Principal Guest Conductor, the same year as he was named Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris. His international career had taken off several years earlier when a series of high-profile cancellations resulted in invitations to conduct the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestras. In 1997, he was appointed Chief Conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne, and the following year, Chief Conductor of the Dresden Semperoper.
Bychkov conducts the major orchestras and at the major opera houses in the US and Europe. In addition to his title with the Czech Philharmonic, he holds honorary titles with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with whom he appears annually at the BBC Proms, and the Royal Academy of Music with whom the Czech Philharmonic will initiate a series of education initiatives from 2020. He was named "Conductor of the Year" at the 2015 International Opera Awards.
On the concert platform, the combination of innate musicality and rigorous Russian pedagogy has ensured that Bychkov’s performances are highly anticipated. With repertoire that spans four centuries, this season, in addition to his commitments to the Czech Philharmonic which include an extensive tour across Japan and concerts in Russia, China and Spain, Bychkov will conduct the Munich Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw at home and in Germany, as well as performances of Strauss's Elektra in Vienna and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in London.
Bychkov’s recording career began in 1986 when he was signed by Philips and began a significant collaboration which produced an extensive discography with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio, Royal Concertgebouw, Philharmonia Orchestra, London Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. Subsequently a series of benchmark recordings – the result of his 13-year collaboration (1997-2010) with WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne – include a complete cycle of Brahms Symphonies, and works by Strauss, Mahler, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Verdi, Detlev Glanert and York Höller. His recording of Wagner’s Lohengrin was voted BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Year in 2010; and his recording of Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2 with the Vienna Philharmonic chosen as BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Month.
“Lo, our shining sun, mighty Vyšehrad! You stand boldly and proudly on the summit – upon the rock you stand as a menace to all foreign foes!” These are the opening verses of Písně pod Vyšehradem (A Song beneath Vyšehrad), which was “discovered” in 1816 by Josef Linda. This was the first of a series of dubious artefacts surrounded by conjectures and myths. In 1848 it was set to music by Eduard Hanslick, later a feared Viennese music critic; the song was heard in Ferdinand Břetislav Mikovec’s drama Fall of the Přemyslid Dynasty, which was premiered on 9 January 1848 at the Estates Theatre. Any search for undocumentable connections would amount to walking on thin ice, but one can still imagine that the twenty-four-year-old Bedřich Smetana might have attended some of the performances, and that the mental picture of the old castle Vyšehrad standing proudly on the cliff above the Vltava River became firmly entrenched in his memory.
Smetana worked in Sweden from 1856 to 1861. Shortly before departing for Gothenburg, he met Franz Liszt in Prague. Liszt gave Smetana the piano reduction of his symphonic poem Tasso. In April 1857 Smetana wrote Liszt that he was financially better off in Sweden, but that he was isolated artistically, “not only because of the total lack of musical performances of any kind, but also because of my artistic orientation. The people here are still frozen in some kind of antediluvian artistic ideas; Mozart is their idol, but they don’t understand him, either; they’re afraid of Beethoven, they find Mendelssohn to be unpalatable, and they don’t know any newer music. I was the first to perform Schumann here.” This simply stimulated Smetana into action. He prepared performances of challenging oratorios and cantatas with an amateur choral society, and he introduced the works of Wagner and Liszt to a smaller circle of listeners. “You see, my esteemed friend, that I am engaged in activity here such as I would never have achieved in Prague.” Three of Smetana’s symphonic poems date from those years. All are based on dramas: Richard III after Shakespeare, Wallenstein’s Camp after Schiller, and Hakon Jarl after the play by the Danish dramatist Adam Oehlenschläger.
Logically, a work inspired by his homeland was one of the tasks Smetana set himself upon returning to his own country, and something of the kind was also expected of him. There was widespread debate in those days about music’s ability to tell a story, and Smetana’s position was clear. The symphonic poems he now decided to composer had a different point of departure than the three he had written in Sweden. The new compositions were to be allegories highlighting “the most important moments of our [Czech] glory and misfortune”, as he told the music journal Dalibor in June 1873. On 7 November 1872, the music journal Hudební listy had already written that Smetana was planning to compose the orchestral works Vyšehrad and The Moldau(Vltava), while the report in Dalibor announced plans for a five-movement cycle consisting of Říp, Vyšehrad, Vltava, Lipany, and Bílá hora. We will never know whether this was just a journalist’s effort to “top” Hudební listy, which stood in opposition to Smetana in those days, or whether the composer had actually changed his conception for the cycle. Before he was able to complete the first two movements, he lost his hearing and was forced to resign from his conducting post at the Provisional Theatre. Nonetheless, he finished Vyšehrad in mid-November 1874, Vltava three weeks later, and Šárka in February 1875. The first two movements soon received performances. Vyšehrad was premiered on 14 March 1875, but by then Smetana was unable to hear his work: “Vyšehrad, my symphonic poem, was played for the first time at a philharmonic concert today; it had to be repeated. Although I was listening in the gallery, I still could not hear anything,” he wrote to himself that day. Vltava was first played a month later on 4 April, but Šárka was not performed until 17 March 1877.
After Smetana composed a fourth symphonic poem, From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields (Z českých luhů a hájů) in October 1875, the series seemed to be complete. It was not until four years later that a report appeared in Dalibor about a “new orchestral trilogy”, one movement of which was to be called Tábor, and another Blaník. On 9 January 1879 Smetana set things straight in a letter to Otakar Hostinský; this would not be a new cycle, but rather a “continuation of the old tetralogy”. If the report about the originally planned cycle was accurate, Bílá hora (White Mountain), the site where the Bohemian estates were defeated in 1620, was not ultimately included, and the defeat of the Hussites at Lipany was replaced by the proud Hussite city Tábor. Říp, a place associated with the legend of the arrival of the Bohemian patriarch Čech, was replaced by the mountain Blaník.
Tábor and Blaník were completed four months apart on December 1878 and March 1879 respectively. Then on 14 October 1879 Smetana addressed a letter to the Council of the Royal City of Prague, in which he announced his intention of dedicating the cycle to Prague: “[…] that is where I got my musical education, where I performed in public for many years, and where I was afflicted with that illness that is the most terrible for a musician.” The last two symphonic poems were performed together on 4 January 1880. That May, Franz Liszt wrote: “The name Bedřich Smetana shall never be forgotten in your homeland. This is permanently guaranteed by your works. […] A number of ignoble opponents are resisting my ‘influence’ on the concert administration, but I will not fail to give strong recommendations of performing Smetana’s works to some conductors who are disposed towards me.”
The first complete performance of the whole cycle took place on 5 November 1882 inPrague at ŽofínPalace with the expanded orchestra of the Provisional Theatre and Adolf Čech conducting. On the day of the concert, one of Bohemia’s newspapers announced the work as: “entirely organically coherent in all of its resplendently golden wealth, as we are now afforded a chance to luxuriate in the grand, magical work as a whole, our hearts and minds having already been so often overwhelmed through the power of enchantment of its beautiful individual parts.”
The Czech Philharmonic, which was not founded until fourteen years after the first complete performance of My Homeland (Má vlast), played the complete cycle for the first time at a concert held at a brewery in the Prague neighbourhood Smíchov in 1901. For the orchestra, the cycle became emblematic, and the ensemble’s chief conductor Václav Talich chose it for the first live radio broadcast of the Czech Philharmonic in 1925. During the Nazi occupation, Talich performed My Homeland to boost the nation’s morale, and curiously, its inclusion on concert programmes was permitted by the top leaders of the occupation authorities once the orchestra had been allowed to play it at Goebbels’ invitation in Berlin and Dresden. Five years later, Rafael Kubelík decided on My Homeland for the concert celebrating the first post-war free election.
Smetana’s cycle is the product of an individual approach to “musical narrative”. Some composers of programme music prepared detailed “guides” for their compositions, while others provided only clues, leaving the rest to the listener’s imagination. Smetana was inclined towards the latter approach, but his own commentary on the cycle still exists, for example, in the form of correspondence. In the case of Vltava, his comments are written directly in the score. There is imagery of the river’s flow, and as it passes through Prague, there is a reminiscence of the glory of the historic seat of the Bohemian rulers at Vyšehrad; in this way, the first two symphonic poems are interconnected in the listener’s mind. In 1877 Smetana wrote to Adolf Čech that the third part is “the legend of the girl Šárka seen against the backdrop of the landscape named for her”, but “it is up to each listener to surrender himself to is imagination and to add poetic content of his own that suits his taste”. Smetana characterised the portrayal of idyllic nature in the movement From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields as “a general portrayal of the feelings one has when looking at the Bohemian countryside”. For Tábor, he originally wrote only the text of the song Kdož jste boží bojovníci (“Ye who are warriors of God” – an ancient Czech Hussite hymn) in the score as a motto, but he later emphasised “perseverance and dogged tenacity”. The details of the composition “cannot be broken down, because it encompasses the overall glorification and praise of the Hussites in their struggles”. Smetana’s connection of the Hussite motif with the legend of Blaník is unique, as it creates a single whole from the two symphonic poems. Then at the very end, he ingeniously unifies the whole cycle with the return of the Vyšehrad motif.
In 1879 Smetana acquiesced to a request for more comprehensive description of the content of the cycle’s movements, but there still remained enough room for guesses and attempts at decryption. For example, how does one reconcile the dignity of the ambitious cycle with the children’s song Kočka leze dírou (“A cat crawls in through a hole”)? And is that melody really present at all in The Moldau? After all, there are countless musical motifs based on the notes of an ascending scale. Is the opening harp motif of Vyšehrad intended as Smetana’s monogram B-eS (the names of the notes B flat and E flat), or was the choice of keys dependent upon practical consideration of the instruments’ tuning? The important thing is the masterful way Smetana was able to use the musical forms in question for his poetic imagery: Vyšehrad is basically in sonata form, and Vltava can be interpreted as a transformed rondo form or the synthesis of a multi-movement cycle into a single movement, as is Šárka. The symphonic poem From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields is in ternary form with the use of fugal elements. Tábor can likewise be interpreted as a transformation of sonata form with interconnected variations of the Hussite chorale quotation, and a similar principle in the structure of Blaník also creates internal coherence.
Let us conclude with the words that were written in the newspaper České noviny on the occasion of the first complete performance of the cycle: “My Homeland is the splendid pinnacle of all that Smetana has created in the field of instrumental music, a sublime hymn to the glory of the Czech nation. […] Today we shall be witnesses to the glory of Smetana and thereby become witnesses to our own glory, for My Homeland, even if it were the only work by our master, would suffice to make him one of the greatest musicians of all nations and ages.”
Subscription A, B
Wed–Fri / 6:30 p.m. / Rudolfinum – Suk Hall
Thu–Fri / 6:30 p.m. / Rudolfinum – Suk Hall
Sat / 2 p.m. / Rudolfinum – Suk Hall
Pre-concert talks are offered free of charge as a bonus before the evening concerts of the A, B and C subscription series. They are given by conductors, soloists and members of the Czech Philharmonic, as well as musicologists and music writers who take part in discussions or lectures which will prepare for the evening concert.
They are presented by Eva Hazdrová-Kopecká, Pavel Ryjáček or Petr Kadlec.
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