Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)
Czech nationalism was a sentiment borne more on hope than experience in the 19th century. The country then known as Bohemia was a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it would not emerge with any autonomy until the creation of Czechoslovakia in the wake of the First World War: true independence had to wait until the Czech republic disconnected itself from Slovakia in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the last century.
So music was one of the few areas that offered any palpable outlet for patriotic expression, and Smetana, as the leading Czech composer of his day, found himself at the head of a movement, and his music emulated as the basis for a Czech school of composition. The cycle of six tone poems called Má Vlast [My Homeland] that he composed between 1872 and 1879 represent a self-conscious attempt to encapsulate the essence of Bohemia in music.
The original title of the cycle was the more demonstrative Vlast; the later addition of the pronoun perhaps suggests an unease with the idea of being a spokesman for the nationalist cause at a time when he was the subject of increasing hostility from critics. The project must also have taken on a great personal significance as the composition of the first part, Vyšehrad, coincided with the sudden loss of Smetana's hearing. For a composer this was serious enough, but the deafness itself was a symptom of undiagnosed syphilis, which would eventually kill him. Má Vlast therefore represents a remarkable fusion of the political and the personal.
Vltava is the second part of the cycle. It depicts the flow of the eponymous river from its source in the Šumava Mountains to Prague and beyond. On the way it passes a hunting party and a village wedding, and sprites dance on its moonlit waters before the current builds as the river reaches the St. John rapids, then flows broadly through Prague, past Vyšehrad Castle and disappears into the distance where it will flow into the Elba.
Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950)
Symphony No.21 in F sharp minor, op.51
Posterity is a harsh mistress, as is seen in the case of Myaskovksy, a classmate of Prokofiev and pupil in Rimsky-Korsakov's composition class, who built himself a reputation as the finest symphonist in the Soviet Union before a young upstart called Shostakovich came along and stole his thunder. His 27 symphonies constitute one of the most extensive sequences since the classical era of Haydn and Mozart, and together form the backbone of his career.
After a time in the armed forces, he took a post at the Moscow Conservatory and became a leading light in the promotion of contemporary music in the 1920s, and later became a member of the Organising Committee of the Composers' Union. An introvert by nature, he showed little interest in politica and an overwhelming absorbtion in his work, but this was not enough to keep him from criticism, and he was periodically attacked for what the authorities saw as the excessive individualism and pessimism of his music, and in 1948, along with Shostakovich and Prokofiev, found himself one of the main targets of the infamous Zhdanov decree attacking "formalist" music. His style is, however, less abrasive than either of those two composers, and is more obviously in the Russian romantic tradition of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.
His 21st symphony was composed in 1940 concurrently with his 20th, and dedicated to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and their principal conductor Frederick Stock, who had asked Myaskovsky to compose something for them in 1938. Their performance of it on December 26 1940 was billed as a world première, but in fact the first performance had been given on 16 November by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under Aleksandr Gauk.
The symphony is cast in a single movement, and although there are passages of livelier temprament, the predominant mood is withdrawn, epitomised by the clarinet solo which opens it, and the quiet string chords which bring it to a close. It is a testament to the inconsistencies of Soviet Arts policy that this introverted and melancholic symphony by a composer who had been condemned for these qualities was awarded a Stalin Prize in 1941.
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Symphony No.6 in D major, op.60
1. Allegro non tanto
3. Scherzo: Furiant: Presto
4. Finale: Allegro con spirito
If Smetana effectively created the Czech musical character, it was Dvořák who took it to the world. By the end of the 1870s he was, thanks to the patronage of Brahms, establishing himself internationally as a composer, and in 1879 he achieved the distinction of having his third Slavonic Rhapsody performed by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Hans Richter. The performance was a great success, and as a result Dvořák found himself in the position of promising his next symphony to the orchestra. So in 1880 he set to work, completing the new work by October for a projected performance in December.
The orchestra, however, had other ideas: rumbles of discontent were heard at the prospect of playing new Czech music two years in a row; to present overtly Czech music in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, of which Bohemia was a subject, was potentially an unwise political act. In the end the first performance of the symphony was given in March 1881 by the Prague Philharmonic under Adolf Čech. Richter himself finally conducted the symphony of which he was the dedicatee in London the following year.
Ironically, the work that the Viennese musicians had objected to on the grounds of its ethnicity has a distinctly Germanic tang to it; Dvořák went out of his way to write something that related to the traditions of musical Vienna. Not least of these is a clear indebtedness to his mentor Brahms, and in particular his second symphony (also in D major), which was then still a recent work. Dvořák also peppers the score with reference to Beethoven's symphonies, which were highly regarded in Vienna (not necessarily the case when that composer was alive), in what seems a ploy to present himself as an heir to those traditions.
That notwithstanding, this symphony, the first of his to be published (which is why for many years it was known as his first), sees Dvořák's style fully formed, the thick scoring of his earlier symphonies now replaced by the colourful, translucent sound that characterises his mature output. The first movement's allusions to the musical world of Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert only serve to highlight the confidence Dvořák has in his own voice, which is never swamped by his illustrious forbears.
The second movement takes for its principal theme a tune from an early string quartet that dates back to 1862, around the same time as the youthful Dvořák composed his first symphony, The Bells of Zlonice. As is his way, the movement proceeds less through contrasts than ruminations on and tangents to the main theme in a thoroughly relaxed and generous manner which finds time to make reference to the slow movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
Having doffed his cap to Vienna, the third movement is entirely and unashamedly Czech in character, taking the form of a furiant, a dance notable for its forceful cross-rhythms, that takes the folk ideas he had thoroughly explored in such works as the Slavonic Dances and propels them into an entirely new plane of thought. The opening of the finale that follows evokes the equivalent movement of Brahms' second, before launching off on its own expansive course, finally culminating in an outrageously lively dash for the finish.