Overture to The Bartered Bride

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            Smetana’s most familiar composition in this country is probably The Moldau, and now we encounter what is surely his other popular “American hit”—and deservedly so.  Smetana was 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 (1866), a delightful comedic opera that is performed almost every year in Prague to the enchantment of tourists and natives, alike.  While the world of opera today is a diverse one, during the early and middle nineteenth century it was the domain of the Italians and the French--and to a lesser degree, the Germans.

            Early on, Smetana was a follower of the so-called New German School of Liszt and Wagner, but later determined to establish a true Czech operatic style.  His second effort in the genre, The Bartered Bride (better translated as “the sold bride”) did not garner immediate success, but by the 1890s it was achieving worldwide recognition.   Mahler conducted its American première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1909; he was so fond of it that he even quoted a snippet of it in the final movement of his first symphony.

            Unusually, the overture was written before the opera, proper, and really doesn’t quote any themes from the opera; it just functions as a marvelous and vivacious mood setter.  The opening is a bit unusual:  it begins with a spirited string fugato.   That is, rather than the whole orchestra kicking off with a loud beginning, the various members of the string section enter one by one with an intense, running figure that is somewhat like a fugue.   Later, we encounter other themes that exemplify the composer’s mastery of the wonderful syncopated world of Bohemian dance rhythms.  It’s a joyful, delightful overture that aptly begins an opera whose gaiety has never failed to please audiences everywhere.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan