Childhood & Early Years
Bedřich Smetana was born as Friedrich Smetana on 2 March 1824 in the Bohemian town of Litomyšl, under Habsburg Empire, now situated in the Czech Republic. His father František Smetana was a brewer, who had amassed some wealth during the Napoleon Wars. František was also an amateur violinist.
Smetana’s mother Barbora Lynková was his father’s third wife. Smetana Bedřich was their third child. His five surviving siblings were Antonín, Karel, Barbora, Františka and Albína. He also had five surviving half-sisters: Anna, Marie, Žofie, Ludmila and Klára, from his father’s earlier marriages.
He began learning music from his father while he was still a child, giving his first performance in October 1830 at the age of six at a concert held at the town’s Philosophical Academy. He played a piano arrangement of Auber's overture to La muette de Portici and received tremendous applause from the audience.
In 1831, he moved with his parents to Jindřichův Hradec. Smetana began his education at an elementary school there, later moving to the local gymnasium (a type of secondary school). As was the practice in those days, Bedřich had his education in German, remaining unacquainted with the Czech language until much later.
Smetana studied violin and piano under different masters and began to write folk music and dance tunes by the age of eight. However, his father František Smetana, who was uneducated himself, did not greatly encourage his son’s interest in music, asking him to concentrate on his academics.
On 1835, the family moved to a farm in the south-eastern region of Bohemia. As there were no good schools near their home, Smetana was sent first to the gymnasium at Jihlava and then to a Premonstratensian school at Německý Brod before finally being enrolled in the Academic Grammar School in Prague.
In Prague, Smetana started missing classes after being mocked by his classmates for his country demeanors. He began to spent more time in attending concerts and operas instead. When his father came to know about this, he sent him to Plzeň to complete his education under the supervision of his cousin Josef Smetana, a teacher at the Premonstratensian School.
Smetana studied in Plzeň from the summer of 1840 until August 1843, eventually, completing his school education. In January 1844, he joined the Prague Music Institute, headed by Josef Proksch, to learn music while supporting himself by teaching piano to the children of Count Leopold von Thun.
From 1844 to 1847, Bedřich learned musical theory and composition at the Prague Music Institute. Steadfast in his ambition, he made a journal entry on 23 January 1845, “By the grace of God and with His help, I shall one day be a Liszt in technique and a Mozart in composition”.
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In 1847, Bedřich Smetana commenced his music career with a tour of western Bohemia as a concert pianist, but had to abandon it midway because it was a financial failure. He, therefore, returned to Prague and continued earning his livelihood by teaching private pupils.
In 1848, there was a pro-democracy uprising in Prague, led by his old friend Karel Havlíček, against the Habsburg rulers. Although Smetana briefly joined it and wrote a series of patriotic songs, he was able to evade imprisonment when the movement was crushed.
In 1848, Smetana wrote to Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, asking him to accept the dedication of his new piano piece ‘Six, Characteristic Pieces’ and recommend it for publishing. Liszt not only found a publisher for his work, but also began mentoring him.
In August 1848, with encouragement from Liszt, Smetana opened a piano school in Prague. Initially, there were only 12 students, but very soon it began to flourish, becoming popular among the followers of Czech nationalism.
By 1849, the institute began to attract renowned visitors like Ferdinand I of Austria and Franz Liszt. Around this time, Smetana also began to perform regularly at concerts, which greatly improved his financial condition.
In 1850, he accepted the post of court pianist in Prague Castle, the residence of Ferdinand I of Austria. Concurrently, he was teaching at his school and composing mainly piano pieces. However, his works failed to attract popular attention. This was also a period of severe personal losses for him as he lost many of his daughters, while his wife was also diagnosed with tuberculosis.
On 11 October 1856, Smetana left for Gothenburg in Sweden, where he gave his first recital only a few weeks after his arrival and was praised immensely. He also opened a school and became the conductor of the Gothenburg Society for Classical Choral Music. In the same year, he also wrote one of his first symphonic poems.
Return to Prague
From 1856 to 1861, Bedřich Smetana traveled between Gothenburg and Prague; teaching, composing and performing at concerts at both places. Meanwhile in 1859, the Habsburg Empire was losing its power, which in turn ushered a more enlightened environment in Prague, leading to the search for genuine Czech voice in art and culture.
In 1861, Smetana returned to Prague where he was appointed the Chorus Master of the nationalistic Hlahol Choral Society. Although he had hoped to be appointed as the conductor of the newly built Prozatímní divadlo (Provincial Theatre), his candidature was refused because his style was considered too modernistic.
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The fact that he knew very little Czech posed a major problem for him during the period of national awakening. Therefore, he started learning the Czech language, studying its grammar and using it in his day-to-day conversations and writings. As his hold over the language improved, he began to compose choruses.
In early 1863, his patriotic choruses ‘The Three Riders’ and ‘The Renegade’ were performed. In the same year, he started writing music for his first opera ‘Braniboři v Čechách’ (The Brandenburgers in Bohemia) and second opera ‘Prodaná nevěsta’ (The Bartered Bride).
By 1864, Smetana learned enough Czech to be appointed as the music critic at Národní listy, a major Czech newspaper. Concurrently, he continued to write music and conduct concerts, tasting his first major success in 1866 when his first opera ‘Braniboři v Čechách’ became quite popular.
‘Braniboři v Čechách’ was first performed at the Provisional Theatre under Smetana’s direction on 5 January 1866. In spite of opposition from Jan Nepomuk Maýr, the conductor at the theatre, it received great critical appreciation and was repeatedly performed under the composer’s direction. Each time, the tickets were sold out.
After the success of ‘Braniboři v Čechách’, Smetana found it easy to have his second opera ‘Prodaná nevěsta’ premiered at the Provisional Theatre on May 30, 1866. Unfortunately, due to a number of reasons, ranging from hot weather to political instability, the first performance failed to attract the audience to theatre.
After the failed first performance, Smetana continued to rewrite ‘Prodaná nevěsta’, which eventually established his reputation as a distinctive Czech composer. Meanwhile in September 1866, he was appointed the conductor at the Provincial Theatre at an annual salary of 1,200 gulden, fulfilling his cherished dream.
He now devoted himself to raise the theatre’s standards and reform its administration. While his predecessor Jan Nepomuk Maýr was biased towards Italian operas, Smetana preferred a more balanced repertoire, mixing Italian, German and French works with Slavonic and Czech music. In doing so, he created many enemies.
Although he introduced works by Czech composers Lepold Eugen Měchura and Josef Rozkošný, his enemies started accusing him of neglecting the local talent and using his position to further his own career. They also criticized his 1868 opera ‘Dalibor’ as being the example of "Wagnerism".
In spite of his criticism, Smetana continued to work for the improvement of the Provisional Theatre, establishing an independent school attached to the theatre and becoming its director and professor of theory. Gradually, he introduced more operas by emergent Czech composers. However, he could do very little personal work because of the ongoing campaign against him.
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By 1872, Smetana completed his fourth opera ‘Libuše’, but withheld its premiere, wishing to hold its first performance at the impending National Theatre, whose foundation stone had already been laid on 16 May 1868. In the same year, the campaign against him reached its peak.
In 1872, František Rieger, the Chairman of the Provisional Theatre, led a campaign, aiming to remove Smetana from the post of conductor and reappoint Maýr in his place. In December, a petition, calling for Smetana's resignation was submitted. It was signed by 86 subscribers of the Provincial Theatre.
While he had many enemies, Smetana also had his fair share of friends. Among those, who stood behind him, were prominent musicians like Antonín Dvořák and Vice-Chairman Antonín Čísek. In January 1873, Smetana was reappointed as the conductor and the artistic director of the Provincial Theatre at an enhanced salary.
After his reappointment, Smetana concentrated on composing, writing his fifth opera ‘Dvĕ vdovy’ (The Two Widows) between June 1873 and January 1874. Its first performance, held on 27 March 1874, was not successful. He then rewrote some part of the opera, and the second premiere, which was held on October 20, was highly appreciated.
In 1874, Bedřich Smetana began losing his hearing ability and became totally deaf in his left ear by the month of October. Subsequently, he retired from the Provincial Theater, with a pension of 1,200 gulden and the right to perform his operas there.
In spite of his illness, he continued to work, writing 'Má vlast' (My Fatherland), a set of six symphonic poems, between 1874 and 1879. ‘Z mého života’ (From My Life) in E Minor String Quartet, composed in 1876, is considered one of his major works of this period.
During his later years, Smetana also wrote three operas 'Hubička' (The Kiss, 1876), 'Tajemství" (The Secret, 1878) and 'Čertova stěna' (The Devil's Wall, 1881-1882), in addition to several choral pieces and a number of Czech dance pieces for piano. Soon, he began to be hailed as the pioneer of Czech national music.
Family & Personal Life
On 27 August 1849, Bedřich Smetana married his childhood flame Kateřina Kolářová. The couple had four daughters, Bedřiška, Gabriela, Žofie, and Kateřina. Among them, only Žofie survived childhood, while others died from different ailments between 1854 and 1856. His wife Kateřina also died from tuberculosis on 19 April 1859.
On 10 July 1860, Smetana married Barbora (Bettina) Ferdinandiová, 16 years his junior. They had two daughters together: Zdeňka Heydušková and Božena Smetana.
By 1874, Smetana began losing his hearing ability. Slowly, his condition began to worsen and between 1882 and 1883, he began to suffer from depression, insomnia, and hallucinations. He also experienced dizziness, cramps and temporary loss of speech.
By February 1884, he began to lose his mental balance and was sent to the Kateřinky Lunatic Asylum in Prague on April 23. He died there on 12 May 1884. Although the hospital registered his case as senile dementia, it is believed that syphilis was the root cause of his ailments.
His grave at the Vyšehrad Cemetery in Prague has now become a place of pilgrimage for music lovers.
Bedřich Smetana Museum, a permanent memorial to Smetana’s life and work, stands on the bank of River Vltava in Prague. Founded in 1926, it is now a part of Czech Museum of Music.