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8.223326 - SMETANA: Orchestral Highlights from Operas

Bedfich Smetana (1824- 1884) Orchestral Highlights from Operas

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)

Orchestral Highlights from Operas


Bedřich Smetana is a figure of the greatest importance in the development of Czech music, creating and inspiring a synthesis of native tradition and the classical forms of music in which he had been trained. Born in 1824, the eleventh child and the first son to survive infancy of a brewer who had profited from the thirst of Napoleon's troops and had later becorne brewer to Count Waldstein, he showed early promise as a pianist and violinist and wrote his first compositions at the age of nine.


Smetana's father was a keen amateur musician, a violinist, and was able to teach his son. There was, however, a period of some eight years during which Smetana had little professional musical training, while attending schools in various provincial towns. In 1838, however, he persuaded his father to allow hirn to study in Prague and there took the opportunity to devote himself to music rather than to anything else. This happy state of affairs continued only for a year, after which he was despatched to undergo more rigorous schooling under an uncle's supervision a! Pizen (Pilsen). Here he found scope for his abilities in playing for dances at social gatherings and pleasure in meeting again Katerina Kolarova, who in 1849 was to become his first wife. In 1843 he left school and moved to Prague, determined to make a living as a musician, and supporting himself by employment as piano teacher to the family of Count Thun.


1848 was a year of nationalist disturbance in Europe. Smetana started a music school, but the political events of the time engaged his sympathies and he was to remain deeply committed to ideas of Czech nationalism, although his own first language remained German. After his marriage he was employed as a teacher and pianist to the former Emperor Ferdinand V, the retarded heir to the Habsburg throne. These years, however, brought various difficulties and disappointments, with the death of three of his four children and the illness of his wife. Finally, in 1856, he sought a solution for money troubles by moving to Göteborg, where he opened a successful music school and became closely involved with the musical life of the city. Five years later he returned to Prague, while retaining some association with Sweden.


It was after his return to Bohemia that Smetana set about the composition of music for the theatre. In 1863 he completed The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, which he finally conducted at the Czech Provisional Theatre three years later, in 1866, the year of The Bartered Bride, when he was at last appointed principal conductor of the Theatre. Two years later Dalibor was staged, to accusations of Wagnerism, followed in 1872 by the completion of Libuše and two years later the opera The Two Widows. Smetana had his enemies and rivals, and there was a growing movement for his dismissal from the Provisional Theatre. In 1874 he was forced to take leave of absence as a result of his increasing deafness, and accompanying tintinnitus. In spite of the limitations this imposed on his ability to compose, he completed the opera The Kiss in 1876 and The Secret two years later. In 1881, at the opening of the new National Theatre, his opera Libuše was staged, while he continued to work relatively slowly on his opera The Devil's Wall, which he had started in 1879 and eventually completed in 1882. His health continued to deteriorate, with intermittent loss or memory and of speech, and he died in May, 1884, in an asylum in Prague.


The stormy Overture to The Brandenburgers in Bohemia introduces a medieval story of the Brandenburg Burgrave Otto V, whose army occupied Bohemia after the defeat and death of Otakar II. In Smetana's opera, a work of obvious topical reference, the peasant hero Jíra accuses the German mayor Tausendmark of corruption, a charge for which he is at first made to suffer, though later exonerated.


Dalibor is set in the 15th century. The protagonist, a knight, avenges the death of his friend, the minstrel Zdenek, by killing his slayer, the Burgrave of Ploskovice. The sister of the Burgrave seeks justice from King Vladislav, but changes her mind and tries to help him escape. The plan fails, and both are killed. The opera, with its rescue plot, as Milada, in disguise like Beethoven's Leonora, attempts to save a prisoner condemned to starvation, has clear political overtones.


The libretto of Libuše, again by the writer Joseph Wenzig, author of Dalibor, takes as its title the name of the princess, descendant of the first Czech to lead his people into Bohemia, whose marriage began a new and prosperous dynasty. She settles an argument between her two young brothers over their inheritance by dividing it into two equal parts, but jealousy is aroused by the intervention of one of Libuše's ladies-in-waiting. Matters are brought to a rational conclusion when Libuše takes as her husband Premysl, the founder of a Bohemian ruling dynasty. The opera is described as ¡§festive¡¨ and was performed at the opening of the National Theatre and again when the theatre was rebuilt after a disastrous fire.


The Two Widows is a comic opera on a much smaller scale. It deals with two widows Caroline and Agnes, and the latter's ill-concealed love for the rich young neighbour Ladislav, who trespasses on Caroline's land in order to meet Agnes, but is caught and imprisoned by Caroline's dim-witted gamekeeper Mumlal. The Kiss and The Secret belong to the same unpretentious group of later operas. The first concerns the proposed marriage between the widower Lukas and Vendulka, who refuses, in accordance with an old superstition, to kiss him before their wedding. Matters are resolved only after Lukas has kissed a great many other girls. The Secret also deals with country matters, with the long delayed marriage between Kalina and Roza, and between Vitek, Kalina's son, and Roza's niece. The secret of the title lay in the promised existence of a treasure that should make Kalina rich, a treasure that turned out not to be gold, as Roza suspected, but herself.


The Devil's Wall, described by Smetana as a comic-romantic opera, deals with the legendary attempt by the Devil to change the course of the River Vltava to avoid the building of a monastery. The hermit Beneš conjures with the Devil to prevent the marriage of the rich Marshai of Bohemia, whose wealth will come to the monastery, of which Beneš hopes to become abbot. The work, with strong elements of dramatic parody and music that belies the composer's illness, has some complexity of intrigue, as the Devil, Rarach, does his worst, at times dramatically identified as the Doppelgänger of Beneš.


The Overture to the puppet play Oldrich and Boźena was written in 1863 as an introduction to the work of M. Kopecky, for whose Doktor Faust Smetana had provided an Overture the previous year.


Czecho-Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Košice)


The East Slovakian town of Košice boasts a long and distinguished musical tradition, as part of a province that once provided Vienna with musicians. The State Philharmonic Orchestra is of relatively recent origin and was established in 1968 under the conductor Bystrik Rezucha. Subsequent principal conductors have included Stanislav Macura and Ladislav Slovák, the latter succeeded in 1985 by his pupil Richard Zimmer. The orchestra has toured widely in Eastern and Western Europe and plays an important part in the Košice Musical Spring and the Košice InternationalOrgan Festival.


For Marco Polo the orchestra has made the first compact disc recordings of rare works by Granville Bantock and Joachim Raff. Writing on the last of these, one critic praised the orchestra for its competence comparable to that of the major orchestras of Vienna and Prague. The orchestra has contributed several successful volumes to the complete compact disc Johann Strauss II and for Naxos has recorded a varied repertoire.


Robert Stankovsky


Robert Stankovsky was born in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, in 1964, and after a childhood spent in the study of the piano, recorder, oboe and clarinet, turned his attention, at the age of fourteen, to conducting, graduating in this and in piano at the Bratislava Conservatory with the title of best graduate of the year. In spite of his youth Stankovsky has had considerable experience as a conductor with the major orchestras of Slovakia, including the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, the Capella Istropolitana, the Bratislava Radio Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Central Bohemian Symphony Orchestra, the Košice State Philharmonic Orchestra and others. He has conducted in East and West Germany, in Hungary, Russia, Austria, the Netherlands, Spain and in the United States of America and is at the moment conductor of the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Bratislava, and of the Košice State Philharmonic Orchestra. He has made recordings with the Ukrainian Radio Orchestra in Kiev and since November, 1988, has been permanent guest conductor of the Leipzig Grosses Rundfunk Orchestra. Stankovsky is regarded as one of the best conductors of the younger generation in Czechoslovakia. For Marco Polo Stankovsky has recorded symphonies by Rubinstein and Miaskovsky in addition to orchestral works by Dvorák and Smetana.

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