Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884)


[Bullet6] Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 15 (1855)

[Bullet6] String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor "From My Life" (1876)


Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884)

Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 15 (1855)

Chamber music played a very small part in the works of Czech composer Bedrich Smetana. His most popular works, outside his native land, remain the opera The Bartered Bride and the cycle of tone poems Ma Vlast (My Fatherland), of which by far the most often played and recorded is The Moldau. Though few in number, his three chamber music compositions played an important role in his musical output. His two string quartets and the piano trio all held extra-musical significance for Smetana. His First String Quartet in E minor (1876) is entitled "From My Life" and musically chronicles his youth, loves and vocation, culminating with the onset of his deafness. The Second Quartet in D minor (1882) serves as sequel to the First, continuing his life story.

The G minor Piano Trio predates the String Quartets and evokes an even more poignant and tragic time in the composer’s life. The Trio is flanked on both sides by orchestral tone poems of Nationalist-political content : Wallenstein’s Camp Op. 14 , and Haakon Jarl Op.16. However, it was the death of his eldest daughter Bedriska (Fritzi), then only five years old, on Sept .6 1855, that caused the composer to give vent to his grief in the intimacy of chamber music. The Smetanas had endured such loss before. In the first six years of their marriage, they had four daughters, three of whom died. It was a difficult time for the Smetanas on other fronts as well. The music school they had opened in Prague was a failure, and life in their homeland was made increasingly difficult as a result of Smetana’s political activities. The aborted Czech revolution caused the Hapsburg Empire to crack down and make life uncomfortable for Czech patriots. This caused Smetana and his wife to move to Goteburg , Sweden where more unhappiness awaited them.

The Trio, in memory of young Fritzi, who at her tender age, had already displayed remarkable musical talent, was completed in two months. The premiere performance took place on Dec. 3 , 1855 in the Prague Konvict Hall, with Smetana himself as pianist, Antonin Bennewitz, violin and Julius Goltermann, cellist.

The first movement, Moderato assai, is by turns turbulent and grief-filled, as might be expected, and contains a lovely cadenza for piano. (Smetana was a fine pianist, distinguishing himself early in his career by his performances of the works of Liszt, Thalberg, and Henselt. Liszt in turn was supportive and encouraged Smetana in the development of his compositional talents.) Smetana departs from the usual three movement format, in that the second movement, Allegro ma non agitato, is not the usual slow movement, although it contains two sub-sections marked Alternativo I and Alternativo II which serve as introspective interludes to the polka-like Allegro. The third movement 's principle theme is derived from the tune S’il jsem proso na souvrait (I was sewing millet), a protest song associated with the Rebellion of the 1840’s. Smetana also used this theme in his Characteristic Variations on a Czech Folksong for violin and piano (1843) and as the primary theme for the finale of his Piano Sonata, also in G minor, of 1846. This Presto movement eventually slows down to a funeral march marked Grave, quasi-marcia, followed by an impassioned song and finally a return to the Presto, ending the work in the key of G major.

1996-97 Season, Program II, Sunday December 15, 1996

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Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884)

String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor "From My Life" (1876)


Smetana suffered the same tragic fate that befell Beethoven: deafness. Yet, like Beethoven, while deaf he composed some of his greatest works, including the six Symphonic Poems of his cycle Ma Vlast (My Fatherland) and the two string-quartets. In Smetana’s case the deafness which struck him at about age 50, was followed by mental deterioration. Both men probably suffered as much from the cures and remedies prescribed by their physicians, from drinks of mercury in Beethoven’s case, to electrical treatments in Smetana’s. Father of the Czech musical revival, composer of the ebullient Bartered Bride, Smetanadied in an insane asylum outside of Prague. Yet the spirit of what Smetana pioneered was carried on into our century by Antonin Dvorak, Leos Janacek and Bohuslav Martinu.

As might be expected from this Quartets’ subtitle From My Life, there is an autobiographical program to this work, although the music can stand quite on its own without one’s knowing the program. (Smetana felt it to be a private matter). However, he did provide written commentary. As to the choice of the Quartet medium, Smetana wrote "in a sense it is private and therefore written for four instruments, which should converse together in an intimate circle about the things that so deeply trouble me."

"As regards my Quartet, I gladly leave others to judge its style, and I shall not be in the least angry if this style does not find favor or is considered contrary to what was hitherto regarded as ‘Quartet Style’. I did not set out to write a Quartet according to recipe or custom in the usual forms...with me the form of every composition is dictated by the subject itself and thus the Quartet, too, shaped its own form. My intention was to paint a tone picture of my life."

Smetana comments on each of the four movements. "The first movement depicts my youthful leanings toward art, the Romantic atmosphere, the inexpressible yearning of something I could neither express nor define, and also a kind of warning of (my) future misfortune." I placed the word "my" in parentheses because in the course of researching these notes, I found the same quote, with the exception of the word "my" in two different books. One musicologist whose quote did not contain "my" went on to explain that the misfortune alluded to was Smetana’s having to flee his homeland for Sweden because of the Revolution of 1848 The other musicologist whose quote included "my" explained that Smetana was referring to his future deafness. Even with the composer’s own words, there is disagreement.

Again, Smetana, on the second movement; "A quasi-polka brings to mind the joyful days of youth when I composed dance music and gave it away right and left to other young folk, being known myself as a passionate lover of dancing." This tune given to the viola is to be played, according to the composer, "quasi tromba" (like a trumpet).

The third movement, he continues," reminds me of the happiness of my first love, the girl who later became my first wife." Smetana’s wife died during their exile in Sweden, which could account for the pensive quality of this movement - could this be the misfortune alluded to ?

The fourth movement describes "The discovery that I could treat national elements in music, and my joy in following this path until it was checked by the catastrophe of the onset of my deafness, the outlook into the sad future, the tiny rays of hope of recovery, but remembering all the promise of my early career, a feeling of painful regret."

There is a point in this movement where the music abruptly breaks off, followed by a low tremolo. Above this, the violin plays a long high piercing note. "The long insistent note in the finale owes its origin to this (his deafness). It is the fateful ringing in my ears of the high-pitched tones which, in 1874, announced the beginning of my deafness. I permitted myself this little joke because it was so disastrous to me."

After a series of short quotes from the various movements building to a climax, the music fades away into silence.

The entire work was completed within two months. The first performance was a private one, in Prague, in 1878 with Antonin Dvorak as violist. The official premiere took place in Prague on March 28, 1879 played by Ferdinand Lachner, Jan Pelikan, Josef Krehan and Alois Neruda. The work also exists in a transcription for orchestra by the great conductor George Szell.

1993-94 Season, Program I, Sunday October 3, 1993

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All original text on this page Copyright 1997 by Joseph Way