Bedřich Smetana: Vltava (the Moldau), Šárka, and Blaník, from Má vlast

Written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Before the mid-19th century, the musical culture of Bohemia overlapped seamlessly with that of Austria. Mozart, for instance, was practically adopted by Prague in the late 1780s, writing his Prague Symphony, and premiering Don Giovanni there. “My Praguers understand me,” he is quoted as saying. And Czech composers like Jan Václav Voříšek made their careers in Vienna, writing in the same general style as Beethoven or Schubert. Both nations were part of the Habsburg monarchy (later the Austrian Empire). And most educated Czechs spoke German as a first language, the Habsburgs having suppressed Czech as all but a peasant language for more than 100 years.

In 1848 a wave of revolutions swept through Europe, and Czech factions rallied for increased freedoms and democratic reforms. For seven days Prague was the site of an armed uprising. A young composer and pianist named Bedřich Smetana supported the revolt, writing marches for revolutionary units, and in some accounts manning a barricade on the Charles Bridge. The Austrian Army crushed the rebellion, arrested its leaders, and Smetana fled to his parents’ home in the countryside.

Two decades later, Smetana was an established composer in Prague. He had spent a number of years abroad in Göteborg, Sweden, working as a music teacher, and established a friendship with Franz Liszt during his travels. In the meantime, Bohemia had grown more open and a National Revival was in the air, belatedly fulfilling some of the ideals of 1848. Bourgeois Czechs began to draw cultural distinctions between themselves and their Austrian neighbors, and they established a Provisional Theater and other purely Czech institutions. Smetana—who had always spoken German—worked to improve his feeble Czech, eventually gaining fluency. He wrote nationalistic operas including The Bartered Bride, becoming the main musical contributor to the Revival, and was appointed conductor of the Provisional Theater in 1866.

Personal disaster struck Smetana in July 1874 when he not only lost his hearing, but began to suffer from unbearable tinnitus (likely symptoms of syphilis). He had to step down from conducting, but, like Beethoven, continued to compose with his mind’s ear. He worked on a series of orchestral tone poems on Czech themes, ultimately collected as a six-piece cycle called Má vlast (My Fatherland). On today’s concert we hear three: Vltava (1874), Šárka (1875), and Blaník (1879).

Smetana’s friend Liszt had invented the symphonic poem, and this picturesque, narrative form was a perfect vehicle for a new national Czech canon. Not to mention that by aligning with Liszt’s progressive circle, Smetana further differentiated himself from the conservative Viennese lineage by then exemplified by Johannes Brahms (though Brahms had no issue championing a younger Czech nationalist, Antonín Dvořák.) No longer was Czech music indistinguishable from that of its neighbor.


Vltava depicts a trip up the longest river in Bohemia (sometimes known in English by its German name, the Moldau). The music churns and grows, introducing a sweeping, folklike melody. In his own outline of the piece, Smetana described:

The work tells of the flow of the Vltava, beginning from its first two tiny sources—the cold and warm Vltava, the joining of the two little streams into one, then the sweep of the Vltava through the groves and along the meadows, through the countryside where harvest festivals are being celebrated; in the light of the moon the dance of the water-nymphs; on the nearby rocks proud castles rear up, wide mansions and ruins; the Vltava swirls in the St John’s rapids, then flows in a broad sweeping current on to Prague, where the Vyšehrad comes into sight and finally disappears in the distance with its majestic sweep into the Elbe.


Šárka is a character from The Maidens’ War, a 12th-century Czech legend about a group of Amazon-like female warriors who revolt against men. The music here is almost Wagnerian, with descriptive instrumental touches: clinking armor (percussion), snoring soldiers (bassoon), and calls to arms (trumpet). In Smetana’s words:

It begins with a description of a maddened girl [Šárka], who swears revenge on the entire male generation for the infidelity of her lover. From afar the arrival of Ctirad [a knight] and his weapon-bearers can be heard, as they march forth to humiliate and castigate the women. From afar they hear the (dissembling) cries of a maiden who is tied to a tree. On catching sight of her, Ctirad is struck by her beauty, and, filled with passionate love for her he frees her; she then hands him and his weapon-bearers a potion which makes them merry and intoxicates them, and they fall asleep. A bugle call resounds and is answered from where the women are hidden in the distance, and they dash up to do their bloodthirsty deed. The horrors of a mass slaughter, the rage of Šárkaher thirst for revenge now slaked—that is the end of the composition.


Blaník is a mountain southeast of Prague that is said to conceal an underground army that will one day defend the Czech lands in a moment of great danger. In some versions of the legend this army is led by Saint Wenceslaus, in others it is made up of Hussites (a movement of religious reformers founded in the 15th century). For this piece, Smetana drew on the Hussite hymn “Ye Who Are God’s Warrior,” and described:

After their defeat the Hussite heroes hide in Blaník hill and wait, in profound sleep, for the moment when they are to come to the help of their country… On the basis of this melody (the Hussite motif) the resurrection of the Czech nationits future happiness and glory develops.… As a small intermezzo there is also a short idyll contained in this work, a sketch of the landscape around Blaník, a little shepherd-boy rejoices and plays (oboe) and the echo answers him.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.