“Vltava” (The Moldau), No. 2 from Má Vlast (My Homeland)

by Max Derrickson

Bedřich Smetana
(Born in Litomyšl, near Prague, in1824; died in Prague (Czech Republic) in 1884)

“Vltava” (The Moldau), No. 2 from Má Vlast (My Homeland)

Smetana is renowned as the Father of Nationalist Czech music – or, Bohemian, as it was called in his day.  He determinedly dedicated his life to creating such music, beginning with operas whose themes were conspicuously nationalistic, and branching out into purely instrumental works with Bohemian roots.  Yet, in a life filled with disappointments, sorrows and tragedies – several of his children died in infancy, his first wife died of tuberculosis, his career was constantly harangued and judged – probably the cruelest blow of Smetana’s life came in the summer of 1874 when he began to lose his hearing due to syphilis, being completely deaf by 1875.  Despite all of these hardships, he began in 1874 the series of six symphonic tone paintings of his Má Vlast, which[…]. 

Má Vlast transformed the tone poem idea made famous by Liszt, one of Smetana’s musical heroes.  If a tone poem is a work linked by one ever-changing theme, Smetana morphed Liszt’s idea by creating a whole network of movements linked by a set of themes, large and small, playing larger and lesser roles to unify the whole.  In Smetana’s hands, Má Vlast became multiple symphonic poems within a symphonic poem.  This Symphonic Suite, as Smetana called it, is a gathering of six musical vignettes of all things Bohemian, geographically, iconically and folk-music centered.  The movements were written to be played either separately, in groupings, or all together in one concert.  Since its premiere in 1879, the most treasured of the six has been without question his second tone poem, Vltava, better known in its German translation as the Moldau.

Smetana provided general notes for each movement telling the tone poem’s “story.”   For the Moldau he wrote:

“Two springs pour forth in the shade of the Bohemian forest, one warm and gushing, the other cold and peaceful. Coming through Bohemia’s valleys, they grow into a mighty stream. Through the thick woods it flows as the merry sounds of a hunt and the notes of the hunter’s horn are heard ever closer. It flows through grass-grown pastures and lowlands where a wedding feast is being celebrated with song and dance. At night, wood and water nymphs revel in its sparkling waves. Reflected […] beyond the poet’s gaze.”

With marvelous tone painting, Smetana depicts the two springs at the opening by two crystalline flutes, growing in tandem, then adding orchestral forces until we hear what is undoubtedly the loveliest theme Smetana ever penned: the sweeping (mighty stream) Moldau theme played by full strings.  The horns call for the hunt, […] capital city of Prague with brass and majesty.  A reprise of the key four-note […] castle Vysherad, is heard in a stately fanfare while the twirling flutes from the poem’s beginning soon ebb serenely away.  A hearty good night by way of two forceful chords ends the Moldau’s musical journey.