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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens
Richard Taruskin

After these many digressions let us return to Má vlast and witness the outcome of its musico-poetic strategies by comparing the coda of Vltava (Ex. 9-5) with the peroration of Blaník (Ex. 9-6). The former brings the Moldau theme into sudden juxtaposition—or collision—with the explicitly labeled “Vyšehrad Motive,” the theme on which the previous poem in the cycle had been built. The castle-rock theme is in a grandiose threefold rhythmic augmentation with respect to the rushing river music that continues beneath it, carrying echoes of the forest fanfares, and so the effect of climactic magnificence is inescapable, even to an audience unaware of the thematic recall. To an audience properly aware, of course, the effect is an ecstasy of českost.

Folk and Nation

ex. 9-5 Bedřich Smetana, Vltava, mm. 359–62

Folk and Nation

ex. 9-6 Culmination of Bedřich Smetana's Blaník with its combination of emblematic themes

But it pales beside the orgy of českost at the end of Blaník—the culmination of the whole cycle—when the “Vyšehrad Motive” is reprised in counterpoint with the Hussite hymn, first cited in Ex. 9-2. The thematic juxtaposition here has no express narrative or pictorial import. It is sheer nationalistic pomp, symbolic of a national glory that was only a dream in 1880, when the cycle was first performed as a totality. Its counterpart is the final act of Libuše (first performed the next year), an opera based on the central founding myth of Bohemia, in which the title character, the legendary first queen of the land, has a prophetic vision in which all the heroic events of the national history (to her the national future) pass in review, culminating in a phantasmagoria of the Prague castle, magically illuminated, while the clairvoyant queen sings exultantly, “Můj drahý národ český neskoná!” (“My beloved Czech nation will not perish”) (Ex. 9-7). During World War II, when the Czech lands were temporarily annexed to Nazi Germany, not only Libuše but also Blaník (and hence complete performances of Ma vlast) were banned as potentially seditious. The remarkable fact was that Smetana's Lisztian technique—in its day a trophy of rampant Germany—had made it possible to rouse an anti-German rabble wordlessly.

Folk and Nation

ex. 9-7 Bedřich Smetana, Libuše, Act III, “Můj drahý národ český neskoná!”

Except for the G-major episode in Vltava, moreover, the nation-building deed is done without any recourse to Volkstümlichkeit, conventional folksiness. The folk, the implication is clear, was for Smetana—as for the urban, educated, politically ambitious public that he served—only one part of the nation, and by no means necessarily the most significant one. The Nazis agreed. Smetana's comic operas, socially conservative works that celebrated the peasantry in idealized harmony with the gentry, and did it by an infusion of folksy charm (replete with pastoral drones and even a quoted peasant tune or two; see Ex. 9-8), were perfectly innocuous in the eyes of the occupiers.

Almost from the time of its premiere, moreover, and despite César Cui's sullen hostility, The Bartered Bride has proved a highly exportable commodity, affably representing the Czech nation to other nations, perhaps in its friendly exoticism reinforcing a reputation for bumpkinry that breeds condescension. Where The Brandenburgers in Bohemia was never produced during the nineteenth century except in the theater where it had its premiere, and Libuše only in the Czech lands, The Bartered Bride went around the world, playing by 1897 in fourteen cities in nine countries on two continents, and in eight languages. By now the Czechs themselves regard this most popular Czech opera as a national treasure, a compendium of folk life and character types expressed (quite Mozarteanly!) through a compendium of national dance rhythms. Originally, however, it was Smetana's monumental and progressive compositions, not his volkstümlich ones, that appealed most to Czech national sentiment.

Thus for a long time Smetana was honored at home as the composer of Libuše and Má vlast, and abroad as the composer of The Bartered Bride and The Moldau. That difference in perception embodies many hidden realities about nationalism in art, and highlights in particular the role of reception in defining both what is national, and its relationship to the exotic. Dahlhaus's dictum that “what does and does not count as national depends primarily on collective opinion,”13 needs only one qualification: there can be more than one such opinion, representing different collectivities or interpretive communities, and they are always negotiable.


(13) Dahlhaus, Between Romanticism and Modernism, pp. 87–88.

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. 16 Jul. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009004.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 16 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009004.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 16 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009004.xml