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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens
Richard Taruskin

Various reasons for its separate popularity, especially with non-Czech audiences, are not difficult to surmise. It makes virtuosic use of some very traditional, widely accepted representational devices; its program, or sequence of events, is represented in the music in an unusually straightforward, descriptive fashion; and its style, while never actually quoting a Czech folk song, is of a marked (and for Smetana, atypical) popular character that appeals to foreign audiences by virtue of its exoticism, the reverse side of the nationalist coin. Yet where patriotic symbolism is concerned, the famous main theme of Vltava is heavily fraught with irony, both on the producing and on the consuming ends.

By adding a few enumerations to the program as printed in the published score, one arrives at a serviceable list of its musical sections:

  1. 1: (E minor) The river springs from its two sources, splashing gaily over the rocks and glistening in the sunshine.

  2. 2: (E minor) As it broadens, the banks re-echo with the sound of:

  3. 3: (C major) hunting horns [“Forest hunt” in the score] and

  4. 4: (G major) country dances [“Peasant Wedding” in the score].

  5. 5: (A♭ major) Moonlight—gathering of nymphs.

             [reprise of 2: (E minor)]

  6. 6: (modulatory [developmental?]) See now, the Rapids of St. John, on whose rocks the foaming waves are dashed in spray.

  7. 7: (E major [=2 in parallel key]) Again the stream broadens toward Prague, where it is welcomed by

  8. 8: (E major [=Ex. 9-3 in augmentation]) the old and venerable Vyšehrad.

The pictorial effects are as deft and effective as they are traditional. The undulating springs and rivulets in section 1 partake of a convention with a centuries-old tradition behind it. The hunt fanfares (section 3) go back just as far conceptually, and their orchestral realization derives from Der Freischütz. The country dance that represents the peasant wedding (section 4) is cast as a polka, a dance that Smetana treated very much the way Chopin treated the mazurka, with eighteen original polkas for piano (and another four in a larger set of České tance or “Czech Dances”) composed over the course of his entire career and covering a whole spectrum of tempos and moods.

The name of the dance, incidentally, is evidence of a pre-nationalistic exchange among neighboring Slavic populations. It derives from polska, Czech for “Polish girl,” and most scholars agree that this Bohemian national dance was originally appropriated from the Polish krakowiak, described in connection with Chopin in chapter 7. But in the heyday of Czech nationalism this etymology was widely denied in favor of derivations from půlka (Czech for “half,” wishfully applied to the short heel-and-toe half steps of the dance) or pole (Czech for “field,” i.e., peasant land). What was once a generalized Slavic affinity had narrowed to a specifically national one. To claim that the latter is incorrect or inauthentic merely because it is recent is to misread, from an outsider's position, the whole process by which music acquires—and keeps on acquiring—significance. As historical and cultural contexts change, so does musical signification.

The best possible illustration of this fluidity involves the recurrent broad theme representing section 2, the main stream of the river, the most famous melody Smetana ever wrote (Ex. 9-4a). Needless to say, as the emblem of the Czech national river, hence as a beloved emblem of nationhood in its own right, the theme has been presumptively identified, by Czechs and non-Czechs alike, as a folk song. And it is a folk song. But not a Czech one. It is a Swedish tune that Smetana heard in Göteborg as part of the incidental music to a folk pageant by a playwright whose sister-in-law was a pupil in Smetana's piano institute (Ex. 9-4b).

While it is unlikely that the composer remembered its provenance when appropriating it as an epitome of českost (probably accepting it when it came to him as the product of his own imagination), the fact that his memory could thus treacherously disguise itself as an invention—let alone one of such crucially fraught character—is all the evidence we need to refute the notion that českost, or any other kind of national character, is an immanent (“in-dwelling”) or inherent property of a tune (invented or otherwise), or even of the Kunstidee of a Weltgenie. The Swedish origin of the melody that has represented Czech nationalism to the world for more than a hundred years is an eternally piquant reminder that art is artful rather than natural. Neither českost nor any other artistic character is an essence waiting to be tapped by genius. Like all the others, českost is a construction in which producer and consumer must collaborate.


ex. 9-4a Bedřich Smetana, Moldau theme


ex. 9-4b Swedish folk song: Ack, Värmeland, du sköna


ex. 9-4c Zionist hymn, Hatikvah (“The Hope”)

And the consumer is just as free as the producer to alter the terms of the bargain. A decade after Smetana's Moldau had become an international repertory standard, its big tune was co-opted by an arranger named Popovici for a collection of “Moldavian” (Eastern Romanian) songs, where it was given the title Carul cu boi (“Cart and oxen”), and where it was spotted in 1888 by Samuel Cohen, a Bohemian-born musician then living in Palestine, and fitted to the words of Tikvatenu (“Our hope”), verses published in Jerusalem two years earlier by the Polish-born Hebrew poet Naftali Herz Imber (1856–1909). The resulting hymn, Hatikvah (“The hope,” Ex. 9-4c), was first published as such in 1895 in Breslau, a city in East Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland). Two years later it was adopted by the First Zionist Congress, meeting in Basel, Switzerland, as the official Zionist anthem, and as such became the national anthem of the State of Israel on its founding in May 1948.

The Moldau theme, in its Czech manifestation, can thus be looked upon as a stage in the history of a melody as it passed from its Swedish origins to its Israeli destination. But of course even this characterization is misleading. There are no origins and no destinations in such histories, only stages.

The only place in Vltava that retains the aggressively progressive approach of Smetana's earlier symphonic (and keyboard) poems is section 6, the portrayal of the rapids, where the violence of the imagery justifies the extravagant harmonic effect of a sudden stall on an augmented sixth chord in its most dissonant voicing (comparable to the 4/2 position of a dominant seventh), which then becomes the occasion for a swirling surface counterpoint of clashing scales figuring contending eddies and surges. When the harmony is adjusted (by the inflection of C to C♯) to a diminished seventh chord, the scales become near-octatonic for a spell, only their D-naturals holding them within the orbit of the chord's traditional function.

The other way in which the Lisztian precedent governs this symphonic poem is in its tonal plan, outlined within the program as set forth above. If item 4, the most overtly folkish component, is temporarily left out of the account, the scheme conforms to the same circle of major thirds found in Schubert's Wanderer-Fantasie (where Liszt first found it). Of course if item 4 is taken into account (as it must be in the actual listening experience), the circle of major thirds coexists somewhat uneasily with a diatonic arrangement of thirds around a C major triad (or, more pertinently, thirds above and below the tonic E).

The two-tiered scheme may in fact represent a programmatic set of tonal alternatives: the diatonic arrangement (leaving out A♭) omits the one fantastic or mythological element, while the symmetrically chromatic arrangement (leaving out G) omits the one folk—or even specifically human—element. The opposition of diatonics and symmetrically arranged chromatics to distinguish the human and magical spheres within a folk or mythological narrative was a convention, first established by Glinka in Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), that turns up in many Slavic operas, and also (as we have seen) in Smetana's Macbeth and the Witches.

But Smetana wrote no operas with supernatural plots or characters, and it would be very rash to assume that Glinka's operas, epoch-makers though they were, were among his models. Smetana, a loyal Austrian subject who saw his country's best chance for national revival within the structure of a liberalized empire, remained cool throughout his career toward cultural emanations from the Slavic east, which (like Chopin) he associated with Russian (alias “Pan-Slavic”) imperialism. His nationalism, though it occasionally found expression in vernacular terms, remained more a civic than an ethnic (let alone a racial) nationalism. And so he made scant common cause with Balakirev when the Russian composer came to Prague in January 1867 to conduct the first performances of Glinka's operas outside Russia.

As the newly named chief conductor of the Prague opera theater, Smetana was tangentially involved in these productions, and Balakirev blamed him for everything that went wrong with them, calling him a swine and accusing him of sabotage on behalf of what he called the “Polonophile” party, Slavs who had taken up the Polish cause against Russia after the bloody events of 1830–31. A letter from Balakirev to Glinka's sister, Lyudmila Shestakova, suggests another dimension to the Russian's animosity toward his hosts: “When the curtain went up [on A Life for the Tsar]—oh, horror! What costumes!! The peasants were wearing some kind of peaked caps and overcoats with white buttons, and they had beards, but not Russian ones—Jewish ones!!!”10


fig. 9-2a Poster announcing the premiere performance of Smetana's opera The Bartered Bride.


fig. 9-2b The Bartered Bride, stage design for act III.

Payback time came four years later, when Smetana's second (and best known) opera, a Figaro-ish comedy of peasants and landowners called The Bartered Bride, received its foreign premiere in St. Petersburg, where the chief conductor, Eduard Nápravnìk, was a naturalized Czech. César Cui, Balakirev's comrade-in-arms, was waiting. An excerpt from his review, published in the Russian capital's leading daily on the morning of 18 January 1871, will be enough to put to rest forever any notions of pan-Slavic solidarity among musical nationalists, or any idea of an ecumenical nationalist movement in music. “I frankly confess to my readers,” Cui began,

that it is much more pleasant to write about the Czech composer Smetana than about Beethoven. No matter what I write about Beethoven, I will always remain beneath my subject, while no matter what I write about Smetana, I will always be above it, so empty and nonsensical is this opera of his …. Mr. Smetana is obviously an experienced musician who has filled up a lot of music paper …. The best thing about The Bartered Bride is its slight whiff of Czech music, related to ours, which gives the opera a bit of color and makes it more bearable …. But as to quality, the music is simply a blank. Every sort of nothingness passes in review: sentimental nothingness, and pastoral nothingness, and poetic nothingness, and plain nothingness …. It's not a composition, it's the improvisation of a tolerably gifted fourteen-year-old.11

And on and on in this vein. Yet one must suspect that there was more at work here than just personal spite. The German music historian Carl Dahlhaus once speculated about

the possibility that the different manifestations of musical nationalism were affected by the types of political nationalism and the different stages in political evolution reached in each country: by the difference between those states where the transition from monarchy to democracy was successful (Great Britain, France) and unsuccessful (Russia), or between states formed by the unification of separate provinces (Germany, Italy) and those formed by the secession of new nation-states from an old empire (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Finland).12

What may seem naive about this meditation are its universalist assumptions: that there is a single political evolution (toward democratic nation-states) in which all countries participate, successfully or unsuccessfully; that is a lingering legacy of Hegel. But if we look at things not from the perspective of political progress but from that of imperial powers vs. ethnic minorities, Dahlhaus's idea may bear more interesting fruit. It may suggest a more convincing way of accounting for the haughty tone a lordly Russian took toward the work of his ostensible brother Slav, who in his homeland was not master but vassal.


(10) Quoted in Brian Large, Smetana (New York: Praeger, 1970), p. 209.

(11) César Cui, “Muzïkal'nïye zametki: ‘Prodannaya Nevesta’, komicheskaya opera g. Smetanï,” Sankt-Peterburgskiye vedomosti, 6 January 1871.

(12) Carl Dahlhaus, Between Romanticism and Modernism, trans. Mary Whittall (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), p. 89.

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. 12 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009003.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 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009003.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 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009003.xml