Bedřich Smetana: Vyšehrad
Composed as part of Má vlast (My Homeland), Vyšehrad is the first 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 the second poem, Vlatva, being the most performed out of the set.
Vyšehrad was the first poem to be conceived, with Smetana starting to composed it between September and November 1874. It was premiered in March 1875. The music is representative of the Vyšehrad castle in Prague, which was the seat of the earliest Czech kings. During the summer of 1874, Smetana began to lose his hearing and by late October the same year he was profoundly deaf in both ears. This makes Vyšehrad the only movement to be conceived when Smetana had partial hearing.
Opening with a lone harp of the mythical singer Lumír, the magical atmosphere is set right from the start. The music then crosses over into the tones of the castle’s arsenal. The main motif is comprised of four notes: Bb-Eb-D-Bb. The winds and brass pass the theme around before the orchestra begin to join in.
Smetana uses a solo trumpet to play simple fanfare segments above the whimsical winds to add the theme of military to this calm and peaceful opening. The orchestra grow together to reach the first climax of the piece. The next section sees Smetana recall the story of the castle through a faster tempo and a march style.
The use of changes in tempo, time signature and style keeps the story of Vyšehrad alive. Smetana’s romantic string writing is embellished by fluttering winds and bold brass that add to the drama of the music. Another climax ensues but it cut short after a descending scalic passage that rumbles through the orchestra. This represents the collapse of the castle. The music falls very quiet until the opening harp motif is heard once more.
The beauty of the castle is reminded here, despite it collapsing. Vyšehrad ends very quietly, depicting the River Vlatava flowing below the castle ruins. This picturesque ending adds to the charm of Vyšehrad, and Smetana’s intricate writing.
Vyšehrad is a descriptive work that takes the listener on a journey through the history of the castle. The music is exciting, emotional and vivid thanks to Smetana’s lavish orchestrations. A fantastic way to open the Má vlast set of symphonic poems.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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