The Czech composer Bedřich Smetana certainly did not lack self-belief. Writing in his diary in January 1843, he boldly predicted that ‘by the grace of God and with His help, I shall one day be a Liszt in technique and a Mozart in composition’.

Although the teenage Smetana had already demonstrated considerable prowess as a pianist, such confidence in his potential as a composer was all the more extraordinary given that at the time he had only written small salon pieces and dances for piano, and had not yet benefited from any formal training.

When was Bedřich Smetana born?

Bedřich Smetana was born on 2 March, 1824, in the Bohemian town of Litomyšl. His father, a master brewer, introduced him to music at a young age.

Against his father's wishes he moved to Prague, determined to become a professional musician. Living in dire poverty, he eked out a meagre living as a piano teacher to the family of a wealthy German nobleman.

Who did Bedřich Smetana study with?

At the age of 20, he enrolled as a private pupil of the blind pianist and composer Joseph Proksch. Learning the fundamentals of composing essentially from scratch, he diligently absorbed Proksch’s teaching while at the same time refining his piano technique and expanding his musical horizons.

He continued to focus his creative energies on writing piano music using Schumann and Chopin as models, the latter inspiring him to stylise Czech dances such as the Polka much in the same manner as the Polish composer’s Mazurkas and Polonaises.

Two other composers proved to be even more crucial influences. In 1846, Berlioz visited Prague to conduct his Symphonie fantastique and Roméo et Juliette. Smetana was overwhelmed by the revolutionary quality of both works, and from then on allied himself with the most progressive trends in European music. His other idol was Liszt, who visited Prague quite regularly to give recitals.

Smetana and Liszt

In 1848 Smetana somewhat presumptuously sent Liszt the manuscript of his Six morçeaux caractéristiques Op. 1 for piano, a cyclic composition structurally unified by the use of a Berliozian idée fixe. In the accompanying letter, he requested permission to dedicate this work to Liszt, begged for his assistance with publishing the music and asked him for a loan in order to establish a piano school in Prague.

Although Liszt ignored the last of these requests, he accepted the dedication, lavished considerable praise on Smetana’s composition and secured its publication in Leipzig. Such a positive outcome had profound consequences, as Smetana now became one of Liszt’s most ardent disciples.

Smetana’s nationalist sensibilities were strongly aroused by the political situation that followed the abortive 1848 Revolution in which Bohemia ultimately failed to disentangle itself from the autocratic rule of the Austrian Hapsburgs.

He had grown up exclusively speaking German, but the brutally repressive behaviour of the Austrian occupiers during the following decade provoked him to forcefully assert his Slavic roots and begin the slow process of mastering the Czech language.

The early 1850s proved to be a particularly difficult time for Smetana. He had become increasingly disenchanted by Prague’s stifling atmosphere and reacted badly to the cool reception accorded to his Piano Trio in G minor, a grief-stricken work inspired by the tragic death at the age of four of his first-born child.

To alleviate his growing depression, Smetana decided in 1856 to seek work abroad. For the next five years he was based in Gothenburg, working assiduously to develop musical life in the Swedish city. Meanwhile, a visit to Weimar in 1857 effectively shaped his future development.

He was invited there by Liszt to attend the premieres of his Faust Symphony and the symphonic poem Die Ideale, and spent much time in Liszt’s company. Engaging in conversation with the Austrian conductor Johann von Herbeck, Smetana was undoubtedly provoked by Herbeck’s assertion that that the Czechs were incapable of creating music of their own. Taking this remark very much to heart, he later declared: ‘I swore there and then that no other than I should beget a native Czech music’.

Smetana’s years in Gothenburg were tremendously productive. Amongst the most significant works from this period were three symphonic poems, Richard III, Wallenstein’s Camp and Hakon Jarl, and the harmonically daring piano fantasia Macbeth and the Witches, all of which placed him amongst the most stylistically advanced members of the New German School of Liszt and Wagner.

Smetana and Czech music

Indeed, Smetana had become so close to Liszt that the older composer invited him to become a founder member of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein. There is a certain irony that this invitation coincided with Smetana’s growing desire to return home to carry out his mission of pioneering an indigenously Czech style of composition.

The catalyst for his return in 1862 was the announcement of a competition for a Czech opera that would open a newly built national theatre in Prague, an institution of which he eventually would become music director in 1866. Following the enormous success of operas such as Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, Smetana was convinced more than ever that the only way in which a genuinely national Czech music could be achieved was through powerful representation of the nation on the operatic stage.

Yet he vehemently rejected the notion that such works could be created simply through appropriating folk song. Such an opera, Smetana declared, would end up ‘being a mere potpourri and not a unified artistic whole. Imitating the melodic curves and rhythms of our folksongs will not create a national style, let alone any dramatic truth.’

Since previous attempts at writing opera in the Czech language had been musically negligible, Smetana’s first work in the genre, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, proved to be a milestone.

The opera’s scenario takes place during the medieval era at the time Prussian invaders were occupying the Czech lands. It opens with a powerful recitative set to the words ‘we can no longer suffer foreign troops in our country’. The message that ‘it was now time to take arms to expel the Brandenburgers who ruin our land and blunt our language’ was unequivocally targeted towards the ruling Austrian authorities.

The Brandenburgers in Bohemia was the first of three operas drawing upon Czech history and myths, the others being Dalibor (1867), a powerful drama with a plot that is strikingly close to Beethoven’s Fidelio, and the static and monumental Libuše (1872). Although Dalibor and Libuše contain some sublime music, none of those three operas has managed to secure a place in the repertory outside of the Czech Republic.

In stark contrast, Smetana’s second opera The Bartered Bride (1866), which demonstrated an almost Mozartian mastery of comic writing, became immensely popular. Unfortunately, the composer came to resent its success, believing that it deflected attention unfairly away from his other operatic achievements.

As music director of the National Theatre, Smetana managed to accomplish a great deal in establishing a professional ensemble with relatively high standards of performance that also offered audiences an eclectic and varied repertory.

What a terrible blow it must have been to have to relinquish this post in 1874 because he succumbed to the symptoms of syphilis, and had become completely deaf. Yet it is entirely characteristic of Smetana’s strength of character that he bore this disability with fortitude, only ceasing to compose during the last days of his life when his mental faculties broke down and he was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum.

What is Smetana known for?

Given these circumstances, one can only marvel at the quality and quantity of music that he produced from 1874-83. The peaks of his achievement were undoubtedly the cycle of six symphonic poems under the collective title Má Vlast (My Country) which demonstrate a brilliant mastery of orchestral texture and an imaginative and fluid approach to musical structure.

Even more affecting are the two String Quartets. The first, subtitled ‘From my Life’, reflects upon his former happier existence, brutally interrupted in the Finale by the buzzing sound in the high register of the first violin that graphically depicts his oncoming deafness. Its successor is just as confessional, the elliptical structures, turbulent mood swings and occasionally harsh dissonances providing an uneasy premonition of his mental decline.

When did Smetana die?

Like Beethoven, he became deaf and like Schumann, he died in Prague Lunatic Asylum on 18 May, 1884, two months after his 60th birthday.

Smetana’s death in 1884 inspired an outpouring of national mourning. Many tributes were paid to the composer, Liszt lamenting his passing with the declaration that ‘he was undoubtedly a genius’.

One particularly eloquent assessment of his achievement came from the writer Frederick Niecks: ‘Smetana stands forth as a musician of extraordinary imaginative and constructive power, and as a patriot of the genuinely noble ideal, not the pseudo blatant chauvinistic type. Like so many geniuses, Smetana starved in early life and never greatly prospered.

'Struggle, death and transfiguration – martyrdom and canonisation; this is the typical fate of the true artist.'

We named Smetana one of the greatest Czech composers of all time


Erik LeviJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Erik Levi is a journalist and critic for BBC Music Magazine and a visiting professor in music at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is a leading authority on the music of the 20th century, and has written books on the topic of music in the Nazi era, including 'Music in the Third Reich' (1994) and 'Music and the Nazis' (2010). He is also a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio 3 and is on the reviewing roster for International Piano Magazine.