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EXPLORING MUSIC: ''Thank You, Mr. Simon'' Bedrich Smetana

The MHS Review 398 VOL. 12, NO.2 • 1988

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David M. Greene


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Bohemia (now, essentially, Czechoslovakia) produced three nationalist composers of in­ternational stature in the 19th century: Smetana, Dvorak, and Janacek. Of these, Smetana was the pioneer, and probably, historically speaking, the most important. And though he lived only 60 years, the last ten of which saw his health in steady and severe deterioration, his catalog of works is quan­titatively considerable. Yet the fact remains that, outside of his native country, most music lovers know him by a single opera plus a cy­cle (to be generous) of symphonic poems and the two string quartets.

Though like Dvorak's his music is characterized by limpid melody, I myself do not find most of it as immediately appealing.' Loving, as I have, "The Moldau" and "From Bohemia's Meadows and Forests" since adolescence, I have always yearned to be equally delighted by the other sections of My Country, but have never succeeded. I assume that perhaps the music is too "ethnic." Heaven only knows the Czechs plug it like mad. They have, for example, recorded all the operas (some several limes), and most of the rest of the canon. But, I am told, even in Czechoslovakia there are those who prefer Dvorak--as well as those who think him, by contrast, a sellout to international capitalism or something.

In terms of Smetana's apparently limited popularity here, the present record plays it safe. The first side is devoted to the most familiar (non-vocal) excerpts from the only Smetana opera ever to have played the Met­--or any other major American stage as far as I know. Prodana nevesta (The Bartered Bride, as we know it), was the composer's se­cond opera. A comedy of Czech village life, brimming with the rhythms of native dances, it seems an ideal folk opera and just the sort of thing one would have expected from an ardent nationalist. It is surprising, then, to learn that Smetana was not always successful in dealing with the text musically. The Austrian overlords had forbidden any offical recognition of the Czech language, and Smetana had grown up speaking German. It was not until he was in middle life that he seriously applied himself to learning it.

The opera gave him other troubles too. Originally the musical numbers were con­nected by spoken dialogue, it was in two acts instead of three, and there was no dance music as such. Though, even after it became a success, Smetana tended to shrug it off as trivial, it had been born of three rather power­ful impulses: the adverse reception of its predecessor The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, a remark by an Austrian musician that the Czechs seemed incapable of writing real music, and his acquaintance with Peter Cornelius' musical comedy The Barber of Bagdad. The Bride was initially disliked by Prague audiences, who found it naive and sil­ly. Between the 1866 premiere and 1870 the composer overhauled the score three times, eventually assuring its worldwide success.

We have come to expect from Geoffrey Simon old wine in new bottles and, though with the second composition on the recor­ding there is no orchestral urtext to go back to, he offers us an effective and half-forgotten transcription. In 1874 the onslaught of Smetana's illness (syphilis) manifested itself in the sound of a persistent high A in his ears, which soon led to total deafness. Shut, as it were, within himself, he tried to express the triumphs and tragedy of his life in an autobiographical string quartet that, according to him, depicts his dreamy childhood, his youthful love of dancing, his courtship, his musical maturity, and, in that persistent whistling note, his growing deafness.

Shortly after he came to this country, where for his last 24 years he triumphantly led the Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell conclud­ed that the quartet had really been conceiv­ed in orchestral terms, and set about or­chestrating it. Szell, Budapest-born, had studied composition with Max Reger and Jan Bohuslav Foerster, and had been a perform­ing prodigy, making his piano debut at 11 and his conducting debut at 16. At the outset he was also regarded as a promising composer, though in later life he pretty much gave up writing music. My point is that in this transcription he knew exactly what he was doing and the results are, in effect, a sym­phony that Smetana didn't know he had writ­ten. Szell premiered his effort with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 194 I, and later used the piece as filler for his monophonic recor­ding of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, which has not been available for 20 years. Thank you, Mr. Simon.

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