Sunday, March 29, 2009 ... Deutsch/Español/Related posts from blogosphere

Bedřich Smetana: The Moldau

Yesterday, I missed the birthday of John Amos Comenius, the 17th century Czech "teacher of nations": see the picture on the left side. Sorry for that. Use some standard sources such as the Wikipedia link if you're interested.

In May 2009, it will have been 125 from the death of Bedřich Smetana, one of the two most famous Czech composers. A few weeks ago, it has been 185 years from his birth. The most natural video to include in this text is my video collage of his most renowned composition, "Vltava", composed during 18 days at the end of 1874.

We could say that with those 50,000 of happy viewers, the video has already passed the test of time. ;-)

Aside from German, Friedrich Smetana learned Czech when he was 60+ years old which was good enough for him to be social-engineered by the patriot movement to the role of our beloved national composer - while the 17 years younger Antonín Dvořák, who was a genuine Czech patriot and who was honestly homesick while in the U.S., has to be satisfied with the #2 position. Outside Czechia, the numbers might be different.

Social engineering often works. We love Smetana as the ultimate symbol of Czechness, and so do I, despite realizing that this whole thing is partially based on a myth.

Vltava ("Moldau" in German) is the Bohemian national river because among the rivers whose whole path (red on this map) lies on the Czech territory, it is the longest (and most powerful) one. Sorry, I have not been trained to talk about rivers or classical music (or any non-technical stuff, for that matter) in English but let me try, anyway.

Actually, this river is more powerful than Labe when they get unified near Mělník, a Czech town, so the resulting river should be called Vltava. The old Germans didn't know how to compare the throughput of rivers so they called the river Labe (German: "Elbe"), mostly because Vltava changes its direction much more dramatically than Labe does, despite its bigger capacity.

But let me return to the beginning of the composition. There are two springs of Vltava (two flutes), that eventually merge in some romantic places of Southern Bohemia: let me omit the Czech names of those places. The composition continues in the Bohemian Forest. The pictures explain a lot of other themes included in the composition such as
  • the forests and hills around the young river
  • kayaks :-)
  • the 2nd most famous Czech children's song, "A cat is crawling through a hole, a dog through the window" (yes, the title sounds pretty long and stupid in English!)
  • this basic theme was also modified and has been used in the Israeli national anthem
  • the large Lipno dam that Smetana predicted a century in advance
  • a wedding in the countryside (beginning of the 2nd part) - with a Czech polka (Ewa Farná appears there because she is also a Czech Pole, or "Česká Polka" in Czech haha); among her recent songs, I recommend you The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind small
  • water nymphs, with a characteristic, minor, mysterious, Russian-like melody, take over around 1:45, 2nd part; Antonín Dvořák, Smetana's younger competitor, liked this segment of Slavic mythology and dedicated "Rusalka" to it - an opera he was able to complete in 4 months of 1900
  • castles and chateux surrounding the river - including Hluboká nad Vltavou (The Deep Castle Above Moldau), the pretty white castle where the EU foreign ministers met on Friday, two days ago
  • the combative Hussites' theme around 5:25 in the second part (expanded in another symphonic poem of Smetana's "My Country", namely "Tábor", the Hussites' new-born city following the rules of communism: the most famous Hussite song, "Ktož sú boží bojovníci" i.e. "Who Are Those God's Warriors", only appears in Tábor)
  • around 6:30, the cat is again crawling through the hole - in the original children's C-major edition. The cat is crawling through the hole, and the dog is crawling through the window. If it won't be raining, we won't get wet. If it won't be raining, we won't get wet. ;-)
  • at 7:00, 2nd part, the four basic slow tones of "Vyšehrad" (an old Castle in Prague, on the opposite side of Vltava than the Prague Castle) emerge: they are carefully studied and recombined in "Vyšehrad", one more part of "My Country"; the four tones describe the music of droplets of water created by stones that fall from the rock to the river; there's a cemetery with important national personalities on Vyšehrad
  • behind Prague, the river is getting ready to be swallowed by Labe ("Elbe"); some pictures of Prague's bridges over Vltava are accompanied by some fictitious bridges
  • you may notice at 8:17, 2nd part, that there is not just one Vltava joining Labe but two of them :-); the other one is an artificial canal built to help the ships
  • I guess that the city I added to the end is Dresden, Germany (on Elbe)
Smetana knew what he was doing. It's not only a cool and emotional composition but it is based on a sophisticated project, too. ;-)

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