Bedřich Smetana: Z českých luhů a hájů
Composed as part of Má vlast (My Homeland), Z českých luhů a hájů is the fourth 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. Translated into ‘From Bohemian Woods and Fields’, this movement is perhaps the least programmatic of all six.
Smetana finished composing Z českých luhů a hájů in October 1875, with the premiere of the work being in December of the same year. Unlike the other works in Má vlast, Z českých luhů a hájů tells less of a story and more of the beauty that can be seen in the Bohemian woods and fields.
The first part of Z českých luhů a hájů is “dedicated to the grandeur of the forest.” With swirling strings and intrusive brass, the dramatic opening sets a tumultuous scene. The fugue is set out by the strings, and the interruptions become softer from the horns and winds. The soft woodland melody from the winds brings the intensity down and splashes the music with some nostalgic memories of the Bohemian woodland.
Smetana’s wind and horn writing is particularly pertinent in the first part of Z českých luhů a hájů. With soft tones, swirling melodies and countermelodies and a delicate approach to orchestration, it makes the music really shine. Smetana’s use of fugal writing is also really effective, with instruments intertwining and communicating in interesting ways.
The second part of this movement sees a village festival in full swing. With a swell in dynamics, a broad melody is brought out by the strings and winds. Once again the brass are in opposition and continue to interrupt this new melody. The two parts begin to merge together just in time before the music quickly stops dead in its tracks.
A solemn melody is heard from the strings before an explosion of celebration is played by the entire orchestra, this again dies away before to another solemn melody from the strings. The to and fro of this section adds to the tension of the music. The orchestra then heroically unite to play this new melody. The festival is full of dancing and merriment, with the music highlighting this through the bouncy melody and exciting atmosphere.
After more dialogue between the different sections of the orchestra, Z českých luhů a hájů ends after a thrilling coda section. With bold brass and tremoloing strings, the main theme is proclaimed one last time before the movement ends in full glory with two big stabs from the orchestra.
Originally intended to be the final piece in Má vlast, Z českých luhů a hájů is a thrilling work that is inspired by nature and celebration. From the incredible brass and wind writing, to the bold and stable string melodies, Z českých luhů a hájů is one of the most dynamic works in the set.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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