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Music in the Nineteenth Century

CHAPTER 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens

Smetana, Glinka, and Balakirev

CHAPTER 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


If the New German School did not lack opponents at home, neither did its influence stop at the border. One of its most enthusiastic disciples was Bedřich Smetana (1824–84), who is now chiefly remembered (to quote the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians) as “the first major nationalist composer of Bohemia” (or, in today's vocabulary, the Czech lands). How could a Czech nationalist also be a “New German”? There are some paradoxes to sort out.

The first is best savored through a letter Smetana wrote to his friend and former pupil Ludevit Prochazka, the conductor of a men's singing society (Männerchor) in Prague, on 11 March 1860, shortly after his thirty-sixth birthday:

First of all I must ask you to excuse all my mistakes, both in spelling and grammar, of which you will certainly find plenty in this letter, for up to the present day I have not had the good fortune to be able to perfect myself in our mother tongue. Educated from my youth in German, both at school and in society, I took no care, while still a student, to learn anything but what I was forced to learn, and later divine music monopolized all my energy and my time so that to my shame, I must now confess that I cannot express myself adequately or write correctly in Czech.1

Indeed Smetana, the son of a prosperous brewer who serviced the local gentry (including Count Waldstein, one of Beethoven's patrons), was brought up to call himself Friedrich rather than Bedřich, and to aspire to a cosmopolitan career like any urban, educated, middle-class child of a loyal Bohemian subject of the kaiser (Austrian emperor). Indeed, his place of birth (Bohemia), his native language (German), and his early cultural orientation were all the same as Hanslick's, although (as his surname, which means cream in Czech, suggests) his ethnicity was different. At first that did not matter.

So in one important sense he did not come from beyond the borders of the German lands at all, since those borders (as drawn politically) extended far beyond the German-speaking nucleus. The fact that Smetana ultimately came to identify with his Slavic ethnicity, rather than with his original native language, his Teutonic cultural milieu, or his lifelong political allegiances, encapsulates more vividly than any other single musical-historical fact the metamorphosis that the idea of nation underwent over the course of the nineteenth century.

The divine music that claimed Smetana's time and energy from his early years was the music of German cultivated society—simply music to a German-speaking bourgeois in Bohemia or anywhere else—rather than the music of the Czech countryside, which like the Czech language was regarded as the property of illiterate peasants, baggage that could only keep one down on the farm. He never did learn to speak the language flawlessly, nor did he ever get to know much authentic Czech folk music. (Instead, he eventually became quite good at manufacturing his own.) A piano prodigy, Smetana had a life-shattering experience in 1840, when at the age of sixteen he heard Liszt play in Prague. Against the wishes of his father, who refused to support him, Smetana renounced higher education in favor of the life of a professional musician. For three years he worked as live-in piano teacher to the children of a German nobleman in Prague, meanwhile taking lessons in harmony and counterpoint from the best local teacher, a blind pianist and composer named Josef Proksch who had studied in Berlin and set up a private conservatory in his home. Smetana looked forward to becoming “a Liszt in technique and a Mozart in composition.”2

Chapter 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens

fig. 9-1 Bedřich Smetana.

But when the children of the house he lived in grew up and left, their piano teacher had to face reality, which for him meant the prospect of desperate poverty. Early in 1848, not knowing where else to turn, Smetana impulsively sent Liszt, who knew his teacher, the manuscript of his Six morceaux caractéristiques (that is, Charakterstücke) for piano, op. 1. The pieces in this set, all individually titled in German despite the French title page, were far from the first he had written; but they were the first (or so Smetana thought) that reflected a contemporary composerly outlook worthy of Liszt's approval, since all six pieces were unified by an idée fixe à la Berlioz.

Together with the music went three requests: first, for permission to dedicate the pieces to Liszt; second, for Liszt's assistance in getting them published; and third, for a loan of money to help Smetana set up a music school of his own like Proksch's.3 Liszt ignored the last request, but he lavishly praised the Morceaux caractéristiques by return mail and placed them with a publisher, winning Smetana's eternal gratitude. They spent three years in press, however, during which time Smetana took the risk of opening the music school anyway—he called it the Lehr-Institut im Pianoforte-Spiele (Teaching Institute for Piano Playing)—in August 1848. He lived practically hand to mouth, teaching at the institute and giving occasional concerts, for the next eight years.

The year 1848 was as politically eventful in Bohemia as elsewhere, and Smetana's early compositions reflected its turbulence. He wrote his share of patriotic marches and anthems during the Prague revolt in June, but a far less ephemeral token of his political allegiances were the works inspired not by the revolt itself but by the consequent abdication of the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand in favor of his eighteen-year-old nephew Franz Joseph, who would reign gloriously for almost seventy years, dying at the age of eighty-six in the midst of the First World War, thus mercifully spared his empire's defeat and dissolution.

Like most patriotic Bohemians of his social background, Smetana greeted Franz Joseph's accession with joy; for what they really wanted was not the full independence of their ethnic homeland (whose language they did not speak) but only its legislative and fiscal autonomy within a federalized empire. (Among Austrian territories, only Hungary would achieve this status, and not until 1867.) Franz Joseph was perceived as favoring this idea, which he was expected to implement by accepting the historic Bohemian throne, vacant since 1620.

In anticipation of this great event Smetana wrote his earliest orchestral works: a very old-fashioned Jubel-Ouvertüre (“Festive overture”) in D major, op. 4; and a big, brassy, cumbersomely titled Triumph-Symphonie mit Benützung der österreichischer Volkshymne (“Triumphal Symphony Utilizing the Austrian National Hymn”) in E major, op. 6. Even the patriotic marches of 1848 had quoted German songs (including a verse of Haydn's Austrian hymn), and Smetana gave further evidence of his loyalty to the house of Hapsburg by becoming a kind of court pianist to the deposed Emperor Ferdinand, who took up residence beginning in 1849 in the venerable Prague Castle.

Instead of constitutional reform and kingdom status, however, the Czech lands received stern treatment under Alexander Bach, Prince Metternich's successor as chief minister of state, whose repressive and ultimately counterproductive policy of “Centralization and Germanization,” enforced by a ruthless secret police, created a stifling political atmosphere during the 1850s and did more to stimulate the growth of Czech cultural nationalism over the next few decades than liberalization could possibly have achieved.

Despite the effort to stamp it out, the use of the Czech language among the educated classes grew; as a result of its spread, and of some significant demographic changes that followed the industrial revolution, Prague was transformed over the second half of the nineteenth century from a German- to a Czech-speaking city. Smetana himself reflected this change in his own linguistic habits, as we have seen; but the more immediate result of political and financial discouragement was his decision, in 1856, to emigrate. The two changes coincided: Smetana's first attempts to communicate with his countrymen in Czech followed his move to Göteborg (Gothenburg), a seventeenth-century university town on the Kattegat strait, Sweden's main seaport and second largest city.

He was an instant success in Göteborg. During his first year he opened another music school which immediately became the most fashionable one in town; he was named the director of the city's leading choral society; and he inaugurated a prestigious series of chamber music concerts at which he regularly appeared as pianist. Perhaps most decisive of all in reshaping Smetana's career, though, was renewed contact with Liszt, whom he visited at Weimar in the summer of 1857. After this visit, Smetana became so committed a disciple that Liszt invited him (along with Serov and a few other favored foreigners) to attend the great 1859 convocation in Leipzig and become a member of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein.

Smetana became in effect the exemplary New German, in some ways the most advanced of all. As he wrote to Liszt after another year in Göteborg,

Since I spent those unforgettable September days with you in Weimar… I conceived, not just the “notion” (for this I already had), but the necessity of the progress of art, as taught by you in so great, so true a manner, and made it my credo. Please regard me as one of the most zealous disciples of our artistic school of thought, one who will champion its sacred truth in word and deed. At present the means at my disposal are, it is true, scant,… but as far as my limited means go, I work for the liberation of our art from the chains which bind it, and in which incomprehension, incompetence and egoism have sought to have cast it for ever.4

The first fruit of his conversion was, of course, a series of symphonic poems, among the earliest to follow Liszt's example. The first was Richard III (1858) after Shakespeare, which had its counterpart in Liszt's Hamlet; next came Wallensteins Lager (“Wallenstein's camp,” 1859) after Schiller, a “battle piece” that had its counterpart in Liszt's Hunnenschlacht (“Battle of the Huns”). Although the title character, Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein (1583–1634), was nominally a Bohemian (the progenitor of the Waldsteins, in fact), he was (like Smetana) a loyal vassal of the Holy Roman Emperor, and actually laid waste to Bohemia during the Thirty Years’ War.

Schiller's dramatic trilogy, on which Smetana based his symphonic poem, concerned Wallenstein's defeat by the Swedes and his later treasonable attempt to negotiate a separate peace with them; Smetana's symphonic poem was, in ironic effect, an attempt to reap the approval of his Swedish audience at the expense of Bohemian nationalism. Smetana's third symphonic poem, Hakon Jarl (1861), about a mythical Norwegian usurper and the victory of Christianity over paganism in Scandinavia, also catered to the nationalism of his audience rather than expressing his own. The music, however, displays no particular Scandinavian coloration; its themes (both musical and poetic) are universally heroic and religious.

Where Smetana actually went beyond his mentor in his commitment to the aims of the New German School was in Macbeth (1859), later retitled Macbeth a čarodêjnice (“Macbeth and the witches”)—a symphonic poem in every sense except medium, for it was composed for piano solo, possibly envisioned as a vehicle for a comeback on the recital stage. Even Liszt, as we have seen, held back from transferring the programmatic method to the keyboard, at least where major works (like the Sonata in B minor) were concerned. But Smetana was determined to take the musico-poetic principle into every instrumental genre.

In this sense Smetana could be fairly described as Europe's most progressive musician as of 1859, and so he remained, one could fairly argue, virtually to the end of his career, when he wrote a programmatic—indeed autobiographical—string quartet (Z mého zivota, From My Life, 1876) that culminates with fine contempt for beauty in a ghastly high violin harmonic mimicking the onset of the deafness that heralded the composer's eventual deterioration from syphilis. If Smetanais remembered differently, if he is slotted into conventional historiography not as a leading progressive but as a leading nationalist, we shall have to seek the explanation not only in his music, but also in the conventions of historiography.

Even without the additional information given later by retitling it, it would be obvious that Smetana's “piano poem” took its cue from Macbeth's encounters with the witches in Shakespeare's tragedy. The piece is constructed in two parts, of which the first, in G minor, pits chilling Lisztian cadenzas for the witches, all based on heavily (and dissonantly) embellished diminished triads and sevenths, against a triumphant march theme that must surely represent not only Macbeth but also the nature of the witches’ prophecies to him. The second part, in the devilishly tritone-related key of C♯ minor, must surely represent the dramatic reversal of the plot, Macbeth's triumphant melody now being disfigured by a whole-tone scale, a device with a considerable history by 1859 (at least among progressive musicians), and one specifically associated with horror in several works (by Glinka, Vietinghoff [Scheel], and Tausig) well known to Lisztian adepts, and to us. The triumph music must now pertain to Macduff.

Like Liszt's Bagatelle ohne Tonart, Smetana's Macbeth was published only posthumously. That is one of the reasons why despite its astonishingly advanced style it does not figure more prominently in Smetana's historiographical image. The more important reason, of course, has to do with the composer's return to Prague and to a new calling as founder of a national school. What lured him home was no abstract or idealistic commitment but a career opportunity: the announcement in 1861 of a competition for a Czech opera to open a new national theater where Smetana eventually became the music director. After one last season in Göteborg, Smetana came home to stay in June 1862.

Ever since Weber's Freischötz, and especially since Glinka's triumph with A Life for the Tsar, it was assumed—especially among the Slavic peoples, but also among the other ethnic minorities within the Austrian empire—that the founding of a truly national musical life could be achieved only through an inspiring representation of the nation on the operatic stage, a purpose that could be served only by a “real opera” with big numbers and recitatives, not just a folksy singspiel. Chopin's teacher Józef Elsner was very disappointed at his pupil's failure to become that founder in Poland. The one who eventually did was Stanisław Moniuszko (1819–72), with Halka, an opera with a conventional plot about a peasant maiden (but here obviously standing for Poland) who is seduced and abandoned by a heartless feudal lord (just as obviously standing for the powers that had “raped” the motherland in 1795); it was first performed in concert in Vilna (now Vilnius, Lithuania) in the revolutionary year 1848, and was first staged in Warsaw in 1858.

The Hungarian founder was Ferenc Erkel (1810–93), with several historical operas beginning with Hunyádi László (1844), about a martyred fifteenth-century patriot, and culminating in Bánk bán (1861), which concerned a thirteenth-century revolt against foreign domination. The founder of Southern Slavic (Croatian and Slovenian) opera was Vatroslav Lisinsky (1819–54), with Ljubav i zloba (“Love and malice,” 1846), much touted in its homeland as the first opera after Glinka with a libretto in a Slavic language. Smetana was determined to play that decisive role in the Czech lands, where as of 1861 the only vernacular operas (mainly by the Prague conductor František Škroup) were still singspiels about merry tinkers and cobblers.

Smetana's maiden opera—the first of seven that covered all genres and established Czech opera as a “world” repertoire—could not have been more different from its local predecessors. Written to a libretto by Karel Sabina (1813–77), a major patriotic writer (but also, it later turned out, a secret police informer), it was called Braniboři v Čechách (The Brandenburgers in Bohemia). Like Erkel's Bánk bán it concerned a medieval war of liberation; and it began with these lines, set to a forceful accompanied recitative in the most progressive operatic manner, which could just as easily be read as pertaining to the nineteenth-century Austrians as to the thirteenth-century Prussians (Ex. 9-1 a):

Já ale pravim: Nelze déle

tu trpěti cizácké sbory.

Už potrěbí se chopit zbraně

a vyhnat z vlasti Branibory,

již hubí zem, náš jazyk tupí,

pod jejichž mečem národ úpí!

But I say to you we must no longer

Suffer foreign troops in the country.

Now is the time we must take to arms

And expel the Brandenburgers,

Who ruin the land and blunt our language,

Under whose sword the people suffers!

A little later the same character, the venerable Bohemian knight Oldoich, gives vent to an even timelier complaint: “Lord Otto Brandenburg has also suppressed our language, that glorious Czech language, so that you wouldn't recognize Prague!” Yet for all the emphasis on language—not just declared but exemplified in Sabina's libretto (as John Tyrrell, a historian of Czech opera, has pointed out)5 by the use of meters that faithfully reproduce the peculiar accentual pattern of the Czech vernacular—there is not the slightest hint of vernacular music in the score. On the contrary, Smetana (unlike Erkel, Glinka, Moniuszko, and the rest) actively resisted its influence, preferring to couch his national opera in the most advanced international musical style of the day, as a later recitative of Oldoich's (Ex. 9-1b) will show with its restless diminished harmonies, ending in a baldly displayed scale issuing directly out of the Lisztian technique of interpolating passing tones between the notes of a diminished-seventh chord. These are badges not of nationalism but of “progress-ism.”


(1) František Bartoš ed., Bedšich Smetana: Letters and Reminiscences, trans. Daphne Rusbridge (Prague: Artaria, 1955), p. 59.

(2) Diary entry, 23 January 1843; Smetana: Letters and Reminiscences, p. 5.

(3) Smetana: Letters and Reminiscences, pp. 24–26.

(4) Smetana: Letters and Reminiscences, pp. 47–48.

(5) John Tyrrell, Czech Opera (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 258.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-009.xml