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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens
Richard Taruskin

Smetana was adamant that a true national opera need not and should not rely on folk songs, even in the case of comic operas where their use had always been traditional. The Czech writer Josef Srb-Debrnov, a close friend of Smetana's who later translated a libretto for him, recalled a heated debate between the composer of The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and František Rieger, the director of the theater where the opera was to be produced. Rieger maintained that a national style had to depend on folk songs if it was to be recognizable as such. Smetana flew into a rage and (in Tyrrell's paraphrase) told Rieger that an opera written to such a prescription “would be a mere collection of songs, a potpourri, and not a unified artistic whole.”6 Later he wrote that “imitating the melodic curves and rhythms of our folksongs will not create a national style, let alone any dramatic truth—at the most only a pale imitation of the songs themselves.” Ironically enough, he might have been describing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, potpourris not of Hungarian folk songs but (mainly) of Gypsy cabaret tunes. Liszt composed them, in full awareness of their ethnic spuriosity, not to give his ostensible countrymen an icon of self-representation, but to give his Western European audiences an exotic treat. (That Hungarian audiences nevertheless accepted them joyfully as a national icon adds a typically ironic wrinkle to the story; but their joy in the music was conditioned partly, even primarily, by the “world” celebrity of the composer.)

The Nationalist CompactThe Nationalist Compact

ex. 9-1 Bedřich Smetana, Braniboři v Čechách, two recitatives for Oldoich

There is an echo of New German ideology in Smetana's rejection of Volkstümlichkeit (folk-likeness), recalling Brendel's stipulation that national character is mere Schmuck (decoration) rather than substance, and can act only as a brake on musical progress. There is also an echo of the object lesson implicit in Glinka's achievement, to the effect that national musics had to be internationally respectable and competitive if they are even to prove nationally viable (that is, a dependable source of national pride and prestige). What makes the matter seem paradoxical is the insistence of Czech musicians and music lovers, from Smetana's day to this, that his style is despite everything intensely and inherently national in character, instantly recognizable as such by any native listener.

In such an insistence there is always a pinch of mystique, a trusty and (some would say) indispensable component of all nationalistic or patriotic ideologies. The mystique is finely encapsulated in a much-quoted statement on Smetana's českost (“Czechness”) by the writer Jan Branberger, dating from 1904, when Bohemian separatism, a sentiment Smetana never knew, had become rife:

When he began to write Czech folk operas, Smetana could not rely on any theory of Czech song, for he did not know its characteristics. He was, however, a great genius, a musician in whose soul slumbered unconscious sources of melody delightfully and faithfully Czech. He had no need to develop his Czechness, and with his first operatic note, he at the same time created a Czech dramatic style. Smetana grew out of his Czech inner self, thereby solving at a stroke all questions of style: he wrote just as his enormous instinct led him.7

There may be less of paradox here than meets the eye. Branberger's theory of Smetana's instinctual Czechness, which imbued anything he wrote with national character simply because he wrote it, is more than an avowal of nationalism. It is also heavy with the Germanic (and specifically New German) concept of “world-genius,” casting Smetana as a musical Prometheus who created českost out of nothing but his own Kunstidee (artistic inspiration, to recall some terminology encountered in the last chapter).

More modern treatments of the subject, like that of Michael Beckerman, the leading American authority on Czech music, counter the theory that Smetana's českost was the unalloyed Kunstidee des Producenten by making room for what New German theory specifically rejected as a source of artistic law, namely the Ohren des Consumenten (the “ears of the consumer”), in the construction of national character. In Beckerman's interpretation, českost (or Russianness, or Germanness, or any -ness at all) arises not directly out of style, whether a personal style or a collective vernacular, but out of “musical symbols rich in associative possibilities.” The source of these possibilities may lie in the national history, or in stylistic resonances, or even in a strongly asserted Kunstidee. But for their actualization a compact or bargain is required between producer and consumer. “Českost comes about,” Beckerman writes, “when, in the minds of composers and audiences, the Czech nation, in its many manifestations, becomes a subtextual program for musical works, and as such, it is that which animates the musical style, allowing us to make connections between the narrow confines of a given piece and a larger, dynamic context.” It is this dynamic consensus that Smetana must have been trying to describe to Rieger. And although he sought first (and, in his own mind, foremost) to realize it in the realm of opera, we can also observe it within the Lisztian genre of the symphonic poem, which Smetana continued to cultivate, albeit less progressively and more popularly than before. During the 1870s, he created a monument of českost in this medium that many (especially outside the Czech lands, where the language of his opera librettos is not understood) have regarded as his masterpiece.

Between 1872 and 1879 Smetana composed a cycle of six symphonic poems to which he gave the collective title Má vlast (“My fatherland”). It is actually a rather heterogeneous collection of pieces, all separately premiered; it was not until the first four had been composed that the idea of performing them as a cycle even occurred to the composer. Three of the poems—including the first two, Vyšehrad (“The high castle,” 1872–74) and Vltava (“The Moldau,” 1874)—are descriptive of places or of nature. (The remaining nature piece is no. 4, “From Bohemian Fields and Groves,” 1875.) One (no. 3, šarka, 1875) is drawn from pre-Christian Slavic mythology. The last and longest pair (no. 5, Tabór, 1878; no. 6, Blaník, 1879) deal with episodes in the fifteenth-century religious wars led by Jan Hus, the pre-Reformation Protestant, whose achievements the Austrian authorities were just then bent on eradicating through a policy of “re-Catholicization.”

Despite its poetic and stylistic heterogeneity, the cycle is unified by the use of recurring musico-poetic emblems of the kind that Beckerman describes. Tabór and Blaník are both shot through with a prefabricated symbol in the form of a Hussite hymn, Ktož jsú Boži bojovnící (“Ye warriors of God”), first printed in 1530, which all Czechs know by heart, but which non-Czechs can learn to recognize in the course of listening (Ex. 9-2). The technique is anything but new, of course; as embodied in the emblematic cantus-firmus Mass cycles of the fifteenth century, it could be traced all the way back to Jan Hus's time. It could also seem a throwback to the kind of reliance on found objects that Smetana made such a point of despising in the case of folk songs. (But of course noble hymns had a better social pedigree than folk songs.)

The Nationalist Compact

ex. 9-2 Hussite hymn: Ktož jsú Boži bojovnìcì (“Ye Warriors of God”)

Smetana's use of the old Hussite hymn is in any case of less historical interest than another musico-poetic emblem in Má vlast: a Kunstidee of Smetana's own devising that frames the entire cycle like a Berliozian idée fixe or an operatic reminiscence motif. But where operatic reminiscence motives and Berliozian idées fixes derive their significance from within the work in which they figure, Smetana's emblem achieves the wider resonance that Beckerman describes. It is first heard as a harp solo at the very beginning of Vyšehrad (Ex. 9-3), where its evocative “bardic” timbre (previously employed in Hakon Jarl to evoke Scandinavian antiquity), coupled with the composer-poet's explanatory preface to the score, invests it with a sort of invented past. “At the sight of the venerable rock,” Smetana writes,

the poet's memory is carried back to the remote past by the sound of the harp of the bard Lumír. There rises the vision of the rock in its ancient splendor, its gleaming golden crown that was the proud dwelling place of the Premysl kings and princes, the ancient dynasty of Bohemia. Here in the castle, knights would assemble at the joyous summons of trumpets and cymbals to engage in splendid tourneys; here the warriors would gather for combat, their arms clanging and glittering in the sunlight. Vyšehrad resounded with songs of praise and victory. Yearning for the long-perished glory of Vyšehrad, the poet now beholds its ruin. The devastation of furious battle has thrown down its lofty towers; fallen are its sanctuaries; and demolished the proud abodes of its princes. Instead of songs of triumph and victory, Vyšehrad quakes at the echo of savage war-cries. The tempests are stilled. Vyšehrad is hushed and bereft of all its glory. From its ruins there comes only the melancholy echo of Lumìr's song, so long forgotten and unheard.8

The Nationalist CompactThe Nationalist Compact

ex. 9-3 Harp solo at the outset of Smetana's Vyšehrad

Of the motivic kernel of “Lumír's song,” set off at the beginning of the score (like the opening échappée figure in Les préludes) with a fermata, Beckerman notes that its actual sounds, I – vi – V6 – I in the key of E♭, are in no way “specifically Czech.” In fact, whatever specific imagery the theme conveys probably comes by way of its rhythmic resemblance to the “Valhalla” motif, evoking the palace of the gods in Richard Wagner's opera Das Rheingold (1854); see Ex. 10-21. And yet, Beckerman observes, “when Smetana juxtaposes these chords with the image of the great rock Vyšehrad, and that image is further abstracted into a symbol of the enduring quality of the Czech people, the chords become imbued with a sensibility, and the sensibility becomes tied to something concrete.”9 He calls the method, derived as it is from nothing more ancient than Liszt, an attempt “to recreate the past with the technique of the future.” And just as the Vyšehrad motif acquires its national significance from a context and a calculated audience response, it then creates a context to lend national significance to other moments in the cycle, “redefining and enhancing,” as Beckerman puts it, “the very sensibility that produced it.” Two of its strategic returns are especially telling. One comes at the end of Vltava (“The Moldau”), the second poem in the cycle, which has established itself as a repertory item independent of the cycle.


(6) Tyrell, Czech Opera, p. 217.

(7) Jan Branberger in Ças, 24 January 1904; quoted in Tyrrell, Czech Opera, p. 218.

(8) Michael Beckerman, “In Search of Czechness in Music,” 19th-Century Music X (1986–7): 67.

(9) Beckerman, “In Search of Czechness,” p. 73.

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. 5 Mar. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009002.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 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009002.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 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009002.xml