Bedřich Smetana

Bedřich Smetana ca. 1880

Even during his lifetime, Bedřich Smetana (2.3.1824 Litomyšl – 12.5.1884 Prague) achieved recognition as an unparalleled advocate for Czech music and national culture in general. He was an artist of European rank, wide interests and at the same time, a true patriot. With his artistic works and his other varied activities – he was a pianist, conductor, educationalist, music critic and organiser of musical life – he tirelessly and consistently laid the foundations of modern Czech music and the musical life of his native country.

Ema Destinnová as Mařenka in “The Bartered Bride” (ca. 1908/09), photo: J. F. Langhans, eSbírky, Národní muzeum – České muzeum hudby, CC BY 4.0

His works

In his works Smetana drew inspiration from the latest trends in Romantic music, which he combined with his own classical musical thinking. His compositions are based on concentrated motivic work and a thought-out formal structure, evaluating classical musical forms which he developed further and renewed in an original way.

His compositional legacy is not very extensive. Of his eight completed operas, “Prodaná nevěsta” (The Bartered Bride) in particular enjoys worldwide popularity; the opera “Libuše” (Libussa), the gala premiere of which opened the National Theatre in Prague on 11 June 1881, is a very unusual work. His orchestral, chamber and piano compositions have an established place in the international repertoire.

The history of editions

Most of Smetana’s compositions were published during his lifetime by various different publishers in Prague. The vocal score of Prodana nevěsta (The Bartered Bride) was the first work to be published by the newly-founded music publisher Hudební matice, and was the very first Czech opera of all to appear in print (1872). One publishing project which was unusual for its time was “Má vlast” (My Fatherland) published by F. A. Urbánek (version for piano four hands, score and parts).

At the end of the 1930s, a critical edition, the “Studienausgabe der Werke Bedřich Smetanas” was begun, and during World War II a complete edition of the piano works was started (the first two volumes from 1944 were issued in a second edition the same year). Both of these ambitious publishing projects (Supraphon/Bedřich-Smetana-Museum) continued uninterrupted over the following decades.

Almost all of Smetana’s works are published in the critical edition. Only a fraction of them remained unpublished after the death of the main editors František Bartoš (d. 1973) and Hana Séquardtová (d. 1983).

„Tábor“ from “My Fatherland” for piano four-handed, first edition with illustration by Antonín König (Fr. A. Urbánek, 1880), eSbírky, Národní muzeum – České muzeum hudby, CC BY 4.0

Bärenreiter Urtext from Prague

Bärenreiter Praha publishers took over the baton from its Prague predecessors and continues to promote Smetana’s works in new and up-to-date Urtext editions; examples are the virtuoso piano work “Macbeth”, the first critical edition of the piano pieces “Rêves” (Dreams) and the “Czech dances”.

To date, the most important contribution to Smetana’s works by the Prague-based publisher is the new Urtext edition of the cycle of six symphonic poems “Má vlast” (My Fatherland). Published after more than 50 years, it is quite simply the iconic work of the Czech orchestral repertoire. At the turn of the century, the time was ripe for a new edition which would re-evaluate the sources, evaluate new philological approaches, and thereby enable optimal performances of the works. Over recent years, “Má vlast” has become an outstanding success in this form with orchestras and leading conductors worldwide, who are now performing the work from the new edition by Hugh Macdonald.