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As all the campaign talk about the true meaning of patriotism fades, the eternal bond of art and country remains unimpaired. Consider music — all people respond to their national anthem with an involuntary lump in the throat, a quickening of the pulse, a watering of the eyes, or a supportive symbolic gesture, effects so reflexive as to seem innate. Among countless patriotic works, ranging from the outright descriptive to the subtly evocative, none packs so strong an impact with its intended audience as Bedrich Smetana’s “Má Vlast.” Smetana came to his masterwork only through a circuitous route and a devastating crisis. Like his idol Franz Liszt, he first struggled to establish and sustain careers as a traveling piano virtuoso and revered teacher. But although born and raised in Bohemia, he felt unappreciated in his native Prague. In his early 30s, he left to teach and perform in Göteborg, Sweden. Yet during his five years there, he became transformed and inspired by intense feelings toward the country he had left behind. He sublimated his acute homesickness by learning to write in Czech (having been taught in German, as was customary among the educated classes) and became an ardent proselytizer for his country’s culture. Feeling stifled by the provincialism of Göteborg, and gripped by the tide of nationalism that was sweeping Europe, Smetana returned home and plunged himself into the cultural revival of Bohemia. He founded a school and a musicians’ union and soon became known as his nation’s foremost critic, pianist, conductor, and, above all, composer. But his glory was not to last. In 1874, fate (actually, syphilis) struck the cruelest blow of all for a musician. As he later recalled, he returned home one night from the opera, improvised for an hour at the piano, went to bed, and awoke the next morning entirely deaf. Never again would he hear a single real sound. Worse, his affliction tortured him with a constant roaring (“like a mighty waterfall”) and horrible dissonance (“wild cacophony,” “shrieking demons in a furious rage”). The remaining eight years of Smetana’s life were indeed distraught and conflicted. While he was constantly feted as a national hero, he became increasingly paranoid and was wounded by detractors, who seized upon his disability to question whether a deaf composer was any more worthy than a blind painter. Although given a state pension, he protested the amount as consigning him to poverty. When his doctors ordered him to rest, he felt barred from all that made life beautiful. Yet he persisted as well as he could — he gave piano recitals, attended concerts (where, having studied the scores, he was able to infer the music from closely observing the performers), and, inspired by a sense of service to the Czech people, continued to write, including three complete operas and sketches for a fourth. Eventually, Smetana behaved erratically, hallucinated conversations with imaginary visitors, and was consigned to a lunatic asylum. But before succumbing, he surmounted and transmuted his pain into a work of such scope and power that perhaps it could only have emerged from an unfettered imagination set adrift from the bounds of sonic reality. Musicologist Louis Biancolli deemed it not only Smetana’s artistic manifesto but also a vivid tapestry in which compatriots would treasure their glorious history and envision a still nobler future, while outsiders would understand his land and come to love it, too. Smetana called it, simply, “Má Vlast” (“My Country”). Most composers disdain narrative as demeaning the power of their art. Despite its universality, and while much of the writing is so vivid as to speak for itself, Smetana wanted to be sure his specific intentions were understood, and so in 1879 he sent his publisher detailed descriptions to be included in the score. The first two of its six movements were written in a matter of weeks at the very onset of his deafness. “Vysehrad” is a rocky bluff overlooking Prague, where the Bohemian royal court had flourished in the eighth century under Queen Libuse, a seer whose prophecies of glory for her people Smetana also celebrated in a ceremonial opera. “Má Vlast” opens with the unadorned harp of the bard Lumir, intoning a stately four-note motif that conjures past glory, even while tinged with regret at the present ruin. As the music rises, its splendor evokes a bygone bustle of activity, gleaming armor, war cries, and celebrations of victory. The most popular of the six movements, often heard on its own, comes next — “Vlavta” (“The Moldau”), a vivid portrait of Bohemia’s mighty river from source to end. Smetana conceived the opening during an 1867 picnic at the conjunction of its two mountain brooks, which he depicts with flutes and clarinets, each gurgling in constant motion, pizzicato strings highlighting glints of sunlight as their rippling surfaces trickle over the rocks. The brooks coalesce into a swift stream whose lovely melody may sound familiar, as it’s derived from the same folk source as “Hatikva,” the Zionist, and now Israeli, national anthem. As the river swells and courses through the countryside, we hear hunting horns, a wedding dance, nocturnal nymphs, foaming rapids, and a majestic flow past Prague before disappearing from sight as it joins the sea. Having depicted history and the land, Smetana next turned to legend. “Sàrka” is the bloody tale of an Amazon maiden who massacres the men who betrayed her. It begins in blind rage, mellows as she seduces her unfaithful lover and lulls his soldiers to sleep, and then snarls with fierce pride as she calls her troops to avenge her shame. “From Bohemia’s Meadows and Fields” is a pastoral interlude, a celebration of the splendor of nature amid the scents and breezes of a summer day. Inspired by the infectious mood, the composer gets a bit giddy, tossing in a fugue and false starts in different keys, the only touches of humor in the otherwise purposeful and thickly orchestrated score. After a break of four years, Smetana returned to complete “Má Vlast” with a pair of related pieces. “Tábor” is a character portrait of Hussite warriors, 14th century dissident religious zealots who founded a stronghold and defended it to their death. “Blaník” is the mountain where the warriors sleep until the day when they might again be summoned to rally and defend their people in time of need. Just as the land itself is now used as pasture, their defiant warrior theme is figuratively covered by a shepherd’s idyll. But clouds of tension spread and in response to the people’s suffering the knights emerge with a joyous, triumphant hymn to restore peace. An apotheosis, guaranteed to bring any Czech audience (and most others) to its feet, begins with the Hussite themes blazing in confident vigor, caped by the opening harp motif, as if Lumir, gripped by Smetana’s review of the history, character, land, pride, and aspirations of the entire Czech people, beams with resounding approval. The work concludes with a brief, vibrant march, pointing the Czech nation toward the glorious future Queen Libuse had foretold at the dawn of its history. Following completion, each piece was enthusiastically welcomed at individual premieres. The complete “Má Vlast” debuted Nov. 5, 1882, before an ecstatic audience — and its composer, who couldn’t hear a single note. Given its symbolic importance in the annals of Czech nationalism, the full cycle, although rarely performed abroad, is an imperative for Czech conductors and ensembles, who have recorded it dozens of times. Indeed, while others have produced patient and detailed readings, they lack the special stamp of authenticity of Czech musicians, for whom “Má Vlast” is not just an appealing suite of music but also an event of vast soul-stirring import. There are many fine recordings of “The Moldau,” but the full cycle exerts a far more potent spell. The earliest to appear was a 1929 set of ten 78s led by Vaclav Talich (now on Koch CD 7032) that unfold with reverential respect, as though it would have been blasphemy to desecrate the composer’s venerable text with personal thoughts. Whether Talich established or reflected a cultural norm, nearly all the Czech conductors who followed him into the studio reflect a similar style, including Karel Ancerl, Jiri Belohlávek, Zdenek Kosler, Vaclav Neumann, Libor Pesek, and Vaclav Smetácek, all leading the Czech Philharmonic. And for those to whom “Bohemian” summons the colloquial meaning of endearing eccentricity, Czech husband and wife Igor and Renata Ardasev bring Smetana’s own four-hand piano arrangement to life on Supraphon 3712, gaining in intimacy for the loss of full orchestral texture (and, as the liner notes remind us, this may be how Smetana, a consummate pianist, “heard” and conceived his work in the first place). The two most inspiring readings are by Rafael Kubelík. Son of a famed violinist, successor to Talich as head of the Czech Philharmonic, and a rampart of integrity for Czech artistic life during Nazi occupation, Kubelík’s musical and patriotic credentials were secure. But, deeply principled, he could not abide Communism and left Czechoslovakia after the 1948 coup to spend the remainder of his career in exile. As he put it, “A caged bird cannot sing. I left my country but I did not leave my nation. My nation was in my heart all the time.” Reveling in a freedom denied his homeland, he fervently advocated Czech music throughout the world by infusing orchestras with Slavic spirit. In 1952, he joined many fellow compatriot refugees in the Chicago Symphony to deliver the most fervent of all recorded “Má Vlasts,” bursting with ecstatic passion and vitality and captured in striking detail (but heavy overload distortion) by Mercury’s “Living Presence” single microphone technique (now on Mercury 434 379). At long last, once the “Velvet Revolution” ended Communist rule, Kubelík emerged from years of illness and retirement to return home and open the 1990 Prague Festival with, of course, “Má Vlast” (Supraphon 1208). It’s a striking performance, glowing with symbolism — reunited for the first time in 42 years, the Czech Philharmonic plays for its former leader with breathtaking focus, transcendent eloquence, and a palpable aura of deep, abiding love that channels and conveys the intense emotions Smetana himself must have felt in transforming his maddening aural prison into a torrent of fervent passion for his country and his people. Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and can be reached at [email protected]. Music articles by the author are posted on his Web site at www.classicalnotes.net.

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