The Moldau (Vltava)

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            Smetana is the first great Czech composer of the nineteenth century, and—owing to the general trend towards nationalism during the late romantic period—the first significant Czech composer to integrate indigenous folk elements into his musical style.  He is known the world over for having composed what is more or less the Czech national opera, The Bartered Bride, as well as a wealth of other works.   He exerted a significant influence on his younger colleague, Antonín Dvořák, and along with the latter, is honored with his own museum in present-day Prague.   The tone poem for orchestra, a distinctive creation of the progressive wing of composers during the nineteenth century, may be said to be the brainchild of Franz Listz, and in 1857 Smetana visited Liszt in Weimar, and took his ideas to heart.   The Czechs and Russians really adopted Liszt’s tone poem ideas with much greater alacrity than did his countrymen, and consequently, we have numerous examples by Smetana’s successors: Dvořák, Fibich, Janácek, Novák, Suk and Ostrčil.

             Between the years 1874 and 1880 Smetana wrote a cycle of six tone poems, each depicting some important aspect of Czech history or geography.  The whole cycle is entitled, Má vlast, or My Fatherland; The Moldau is the second of the six works, and, unfortunately, the only one of them that is regularly heard in this country.   Actually, the real title of the The Moldau is Vltava, the Czech name for the river, over which spans the bridge in Prague crowded by tourists today.   Moldau is the German name for the river, which foreign oppressors used during the long years of Czech domination by German-speaking countries; it was not used by Smetana, nor today by anyone else.

            It is easy and pleasing to follow the “story” of this tone poem, for Smetana “painted” the elements in the changing trip down the river most evocatively.  Moreover, he left us signposts in his own written notes.   The river begins high in the hills as a small mountain stream, heard in the burbling woodwinds and strings.  It courses through the forests and meadows, passing along the way a rustic peasant wedding heard through a folk dance.   It then moves into darkness, illuminated only by the moon, and we hear mermaids dancing serenely in the night.  The famous St. John’s Rapids inspire a stormy passage, with swirling whitewater.   The music broadens majestically (with the river) as we approach Prague, and Smetana calls upon the brass to paint the imposing crags of the rocks of Vyšehrad —the magnificent overlook in Prague, home of the mythological origin of the Czech people.  Incidentally, both Smetana and Dvořák are buried there in Vyšehrad Cemetery, the resting place of the cultural “heroes” of the Czech people.  Finally, the music soars to its emotional heights as the river leaves Prague on its way to the (smaller) Elbe and the sea.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© William E. Runyan