The composers of Bohemia

Europe during the latter part of the 19th century, much like Europe in the late 20th century, was a complex place, in which there was sometimes a fine line between patriotic movements premised on the idea of the nation as a universal moral conception, and movements that were manipulated by the practitioners of British geopolitics, to the end of destabilizing strategically important regions. The purpose of this article is to call attention to a movement that represented a nationalism of the best sort, optimistic and morally uplifting.

In the case of the land which today is called the Czech Republic, a "People's War" was waged in which the most powerful weapon was music. The movement for Czech independence from the Hapsburg empire is the sole example in history of a war of independence where the generals were composers, and the infantry were orchestras.

The area occupied by the modern Czech Republic was, in earlier times, the kingdom of Bohemia. Bohemia was for centuries one of the political, cultural, and religious centers of Europe. But like neighboring Moravia and Slovakia, Bohemia waged a continuing struggle to maintain its independence from its expansion-minded neighbors. After the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, Bohemia was extinguished as a nation and absorbed into the Hapsburg Empire, until the end of the first world war. By the end of the eighteenth century only the peasantry spoke Czech; it had been otherwise superseded by German as the national language. But the music of Bohemia, the most characteristic feature of her national culture, remained alive.

During the eighteenth century, the musical tradition of Germany had an important influence in Bohemia. Many of the greatest Bohemian composers ultimately resided in Germany. One example was Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745), who settled in Dresden. Not much is known about Zelenka; at the Dresden court, it was forbidden to publish or even copy his music. Of his surviving compositions, his trio sonatas in particular have a grandeur and contrapuntal mastery which can only be compared to Zelenka's friend and colleague, Johann Sebastian Bach. Another example was Jan Vaclav Antonín Stamic (1717-1757), known in Germany as Johann Wenzel Stamitz, who with his sons Jan and Karel founded the well-known Mannheim School. In Mannheim they set a new standard of quality for orchestral performance in all of Europe, and expanded the compositional format of the symphony, paving the way for Franz Joseph Haydn. As well, there was Beethoven's close friend Antonín Rejcha (1770-1836), who played the flute in the same Bonn orchestra where the young Beethoven played the viola. The orchestra was conducted by Rejcha's uncle, Josef Rejcha, also a composer. And finally, there was the piano virtuoso and composer Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812), whose compositions represent a conceptual bridge of sorts, between the method of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and that of Ludwig van Beethoven. Dussek's piano compositions were among those assigned by Frederick Chopin, to his pupils.

Although these composers wrote with a method and style similar to that of their German counterparts, there is a uniquely and recognizably Czech aspect as well, characterized by a special kind of harmonic and rhythmic audacity.

It was during the latter part of the nineteenth century that Bohemian music really came into its own, and emerged as a potent weapon of cultural warfare. The principal figures in this period were Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) and Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904).

Bedrich Smetana

Smetana is regarded as the founder of a Czech national music. An ardent patriot, he manned the barricades during the 1848 Prague uprising, which was crushed by the Hapsburgs. He wrote at that time a song called Pisen svobody (Song of Freedom) that is familiar to Americans thanks to the bilingual recording by Paul Robeson. Smetana came to conceive of musical composition as a patriotic mission.

An important milestone for the growing cultural movement for Czech independence was the laying of the foundation stone for the Prague National Theatre; Smetana participated in the ceremony on behalf of all Czech musicians, proclaiming, "In music is the life of the Czechs." When, like Beethoven, he was confronted by the personal tragedy of the loss of his hearing (in fact, Smetana was tormented by incessant, painfully dissonant noise), he wrote:

"Believe me that I need all my courage and strength to keep myself from becoming so desperate as to plan to use violence to end my suffering. Only the sight of my family and that thought that I must go on working for my people and my country keeps me alive and inspires me to new creation."

Although as a pianist he was a famed interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann, it is true that some of Smetana's compositions suffered the pernicious influence of his friend Franz Liszt, founder of the so-called "neo-romantic" school. However, even in an early composition such as Smetana's orchestral prelude to Friedrich Schiller's play Wallenstein's Camp, in which some Lisztian techniques are used, two things are apparent: first, that Smetana is emerging as a far more interesting and original musical personality than Liszt, and second, that he is beginning to evolve a distinctly Czech idiom. And in another early work, the Piano Trio in G minor (in which Lisztian methods are not used) , he achieves something which Liszt never could: a powerful expression of the emotion of agapé or Christian love. Written following the death of his favorite daughter, the piece captures Smetana's deep sorrow transfigured by his more enduring optimism.

The crowning achievement of Smetana's life is his cycle of six symphonic poems entitled Má vlast (My Fatherland). Of the six, which should be heard as a whole, most Americans are only familiar with the lightest and most pastoral, Vltava (The Moldau ). The last two are the most powerful: Tabor, named after the main seat of the Hussites during the Hussite wars, and Blaník, named for the mountain of legend where the Hussite heros are sleeping, waiting for the moment when they will come to the aid of their country. Both use as their principal thematic material the Hussite chorale, "Ye who are the warriors of God."

Completed late in Smetana's life, long after he had lost his hearing, Má vlast electrified the Czech population. V.V. Zeleny, who was present at the first performance of all six completed works (conducted by Adolf Cech on November 5th, 1882), wrote:

"The magnificent tone pictures of which "My Fatherland" is composed are the greatest adornment of our program, and have been these seven years since the first performance of "Vysehrad" [ the first of the six ] and since the concert given by Smetana in 1875; but now they appear before us as a mighty whole, as a single work, as Smetana's greatest poetic achievement, and as the proudest hymn of praise with which the mind of an artist ever glorified his country. That is the significance of the memorable day which the Czech musical world counts among its greatest celebrations and to which only the first performance of [Smetana's opera ] "Libuse" can be compared. The listeners who gathered to hear this great performance felt this significance in the depths of their souls; since the opening of the National Theatre there has never been such an exalted mood among any Czech assembly as last Sunday at the Zofin Hall. The solemn opening chords of the harps in "Vysehrad" which were awaited with tense expectation, and the irresistible upward surge of the glorious introduction raised us all to such a degree of enthusiasm that immediately after its moving conclusion, the cry "Smetana" rang out from hundreds of throats. On that day he celebrated one of his greatest triumphs. After the "Vltava" a real hurricane of applause broke loose; his name resounded on every side amidst indescribable cheers, the audience rose to its feet, waving hats and scarves towards the master to whom glorious bouquets with splendid ribbons in national colors were handed, and the same unending storm of applause was repeated after each of the six parts of the cycle. It was listened to with growing excitement and enthusiasm to the last chord and the listeners held their breath to the end, so that during the soft passages the mere turning of the program rustled throughout the hall. After "Blaník" the audience was quite beside itself and people could not bring themselves to take leave of the composer who, though he had not heard his work, was happy in the knowledge that he had made others happy."

At the end of his tragic life, during which he lost a wife, several children, his hearing and finally his reason, the Czechs mourned him as a national hero. In the words of one of his contemporaries, Ladislav Dolansky,

"For me Smetana was always a model of the purest patriotism. When he pronounced the words 'my nation', his voice vibrated and the hearts of those who heard him beat faster."

This period of Czech history saw the emergence of a nationalist Renaissance among Czech artists. In addition to Smetana there were his friend Jan Neruda, the poet and critic; the painter Josef Manes; and many others. But the one individual who made the most lasting and universal contribution to Bohemia and to the world was the composer Antonín Dvorák.

Antonín Dvorák

The great achievement of Dvorák, who began his career as a violist in an orchestra conducted by Smetana, was to join the warmth, gaiety and optimism of native Czech music to the great classical forms developed by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. The most important influence on the young Dvorák was that of his friend and benefactor, Johannes Brahms, who at that time was the last remaining stalwart of the classical tradition. As the story has it, upon hearing a performance of Dvorák's Symphonic Variations, Brahms presented him with a fine cigar, which was the somewhat reticent Brahms' way of saying that he felt that the classical tradition was in safe hands.

Compositions such as Dvorák's Scherzo Capriccioso for orchestra or the Opus 81 piano quintet demonstrate a structural depth and mastery of development described by many, including Smetana, as "Beethovenian." When Brahms first read the score of Dvorák's mighty 'Cello Concerto, which was composed during Dvorák's visit to America, he grumbled, "Why on earth didn't I know that one could write a violoncello concerto like this? If only I had known, I would have written one long ago!" Pablo Casals was fined 3,000 French Francs for breach of contract, when he refused to perform, after hearing a boorish conductor denigrate the Dvorák concerto.

Dvorák, too, was a great patriot. He fought for years with his publisher, Simrock, to get the titles and lyrics of his compositions, and his Christian name, published in Czech as opposed to German. After he had achieved international stature as a composer, he won.

The Czechs viewed Dvorák, like Smetana, as an artistic champion of Czech nationhood. When he died, the people of Prague learned of his death when they came one night to the opera and found the auditorium of the National Theatre draped in black. He was buried in Prague's most hallowed cemetery, and Mozart's Requiem was performed.

Leos Janácek

Between the efforts of Dvorák, Smetana, and other Czech composers such as Dvorák's son-in-law Josef Suk (1874-1935), and Dvorák's Moravian friend and partisan, Leos Janácek (1854-1928), the idea of nationhood was kept alive as a vital force among the Czech populace during the final decades of Hapsburg rule. They paved the way for the establishment of the modern nation of Czechoslovakia during its fleeting independence after World War One, and for the new, joyful resurgence of Czechoslovakian nationhood we witnessed a few years ago, after the demise of Communism.

Now, however, all the nations of eastern Europe are being put to a new trial as the Anglo-Americans impose the neo-colonialism of the IMF upon them. A crucial test of the Czech Republic's fitness to survive will be the willingness of her leaders to turn to the classical tradition in Czech culture, to give the Czechs once again the courage, and the wisdom, to fight for their freedom.

The sense of pride in the positive achievements of one's national culture, which shines through in the compositions of Smetana and Dvorák, is a force which no military, nor propaganda campaign can overcome. For our readers who are unfamiliar with the compositions of the Bohemian nationalists, there are two recordings available that have special merit, especially as an introduction:

HEINZ HOLLIGER, the Swiss oboe virtuoso and musicologist, has done much to call attention to the importance of J.D. Zelenka. His recordings of Zelenka's trio sonatas, with an all-star group of musicians, are magnificent.

ALEXANDER SCHNEIDER, violinist, conductor, and associate of Pablo Casals, has made an excellent recording of Dvorák's string and wind serenades with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

In addition, readers are encouraged to listen to some of the many recordings made by such outstanding Czech musicians as violinist Josef Suk (great- grandson of Dvorák), conductor Rafael Kubelik, and the Smetana Quartet. Beethoven once said that the best musicians come from Bohemia.



The Hussite wars of the fifteenth century were triggered by the execution in 1415 of Jan Hus, a complex figure who is regarded variously as a religious reformer, a religious rebel (Martin Luther claimed him, long after his death, as an adherent to the Protestant camp ), and a political spokesman for the cause of Bohemian nationhood. The Hussite Chorale, entitled Kdoz jste Bozí bojnovnici (Ye who are the warriors of God ) was sung by Bohemians preparing for battle, with such intensity that it struck terror into the hearts of the disciplined soldiers they were about to engage. Thus music became an actual weapon of combat. Kdoz jste Bozi bojnovnici was used by first Smetana and later Dvorák as thematic material for patriotic compositions. Smetana, a non-practicing Christian, and Dvorák, a devout Catholic, chose to ignore the theological controversy surrounding Hus, and used the chorale strictly as a symbol of Czech national aspirations. Dvorák managed to offend religious partisans with his overture Husitská (Hussite ) by drawing on both the nominally Protestant Hussite chorale, and the nominally Catholic St. Wenceslaus chorale, for thematic material; he regarded them both simply as Czech national patrimony. The overture excited further controversy when it was performed by the conductor Hans von Bülow in various parts of Germany, where it was correctly regarded as an (unwelcome) assertion of Czech sovereignty; von Bülow replied to one of his critics in 1887, saying "I will answer for everything I conduct. Next to Brahms the most important composer is Dvorák."

The Hussite chorale is constructed in three phrases. In English translation, the text reads:

Ye who are God's warriors and of his law,

pray to God for help and have faith in Him;

that finally with him you will be victorious.

The two concluding symphonic poems of Smetana's cycle Má Vlast are entitled Tábor and Blanik. Both are based on the Hussite chorale. Tábor is developed in a highly idiosyncratic manner; the composer presumes on his audience's familiarity with the chorale melody, and proceeds to use fragments of the melody as motivs for development, not stating the melody in its entirety until halfway through the piece, and then repeating it once at the conclusion. Tábor begins and ends with an ominous, martial repetition of the first four notes of the Hussite melody; Blaník begins with the same motiv, but immediately shifts to a qualitatively higher mode of development, where the composer derives a theme from the first line of the chorale, and develops it contrapuntally. After a pastoral interlude in the middle of the piece, Smetana introduces a series of marches, fashioned by taking the third line of the chorale and extending it with a sort of trailer. The marches escalate in intensity, until, in what is surely a commentary on the Czech national character, the triumphal march is transformed into a triumphal polka!

Dvorák's use of the Hussite chorale in Husitská is somewhat derivative of Smetana's approach, but in Husitská the chorale is not the center of attention; Dvorák uses it more to "set the stage." He limits himself to use of the first phrase, with hints of the second. In the introduction he weaves a polyphonic texture where the various groups of strings enter one after the other, descending by octaves, on a subject derived from the first line of the chorale. He then extrapolates further from this idea by creating a theme with similar features. His other main theme is derived from the St. Wenceslaus chorale.

Posted by permission of the author ~ © 1996.

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