Bedřich Smetana: Šárka
Composed as part of Má vlast (My Homeland), Šárka is the third work of a set of six symphonic poems by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. The poems were composed between 1874-1879. Although now often performed as a single work in six movements, Smetana conceived them all as individual pieces. Each work had their own premieres between 1875-1880 and the first premiere of the whole set took place in 1882.
Each poem depicts an aspect of Smetana’s homeland, the countryside, the sights and legends of Bohemia. Every poem combines nationalistic ideas, such as folk tunes, and the symphonic form, which was pioneered by Franz Liszt not too long before. Má vlast is Smetana’s most popular set of works, with Šárka being based on Czech legends.
Completed in February 1875, the third movement of Má vlast is named after the female warrior Šárka. Šárkais a leading figure in the ancient Czech legends of The Maidens’ War. Smetana writes about the legend:
“Šárka ties herself to a tree as bait and waits to be saved by the princely knight Ctirad, deceiving him into believing that she is an unwilling captive of the rebelling women. Once released by Ctirad, who has quickly fallen in love with her, Šárka serves him and his comrades with drugged mead and once they have fallen asleep she sounds a hunting horn: an agreed signal to the other women. The poem ends with the warrior maidens falling upon and murdering the sleeping men.”
Starting with high-intensity suspensions from across the orchestra, the opening of Šárka is bold and full of energy. Smetana utilises the whole orchestra to convey the various lines of the story. From the musical dialogue between the strings, wind and brass to represent Šárka deceiving Ctirad, to the quick changes in character, Smetana has been able to include the listener within an exciting story.
The love theme represents the love from Ctirad, although this doesn’t last too long before Šárka begins to implement the women’s plan. A solo clarinet shows how the drugs work on the men as they drink the toxic mead. A hunting horn is heard which summons the women to Šárka. The dichotomy between heroism, drama, love, death and revenge, Šárka is full of intensity and musical imagery.
This versatile third movement of Má vlast ends with a flourish of fast movement from the strings, accentuated by sharp fanfares from the trumpets. The horns adds to the gravitas of this section as the women, led by Šárka, begin to kill the sleeping men. The orchestra is tight and full of tension right up until the last not which resolves the epic battle.
Premiered in December 1876, Šárka is a dynamic and highly vivid piece of music that aptly represents this Czech legend. Although seldom performed outside the set of Má vlast, the drama and integrity in Šárka makes it one of the standouts in the set.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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