Bedřich Smetana: Vltava
Composed as part of Má vlast (My Homeland), Vltava is the second 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 the second poem, Vlatva, being the most performed out of the set.
Vltava, also known as The Moldau in English, was composed between November and December 1874. Its premiere was in April 1875, just one month after the first movement Vyšehrad. As the most-performed poem of the sextet, Vltava describes the sounds of one of Bohemia’s great rivers. Smetana wrote this about Vltava:
“The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night’s moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe.”
Vltava contains Smetana’s most famous melody. The rich folk tune shines through in the strings and returns throughout the work. The melody is actually an adaptation of another melody, Giuseppe Cenci’s La Mantovana. The theme flows just like the water of the Vltava, which adds to Smetana’s vivid imagery.
From swirling winds and strings to bold brass, Vltava takes you on quite the journey. The two flutes at the beginning represent the two small springs. Intertwining and interacting with one another, the water begins to merge. The unification of the two waters is made apparent when the famous string theme begins. The upper strings take the melody, whilst the lower strings play a swirling figure underneath.
The sparkle from percussion adds to the magic of the sights the Vltava is going past. From timpani and triangle rolls to crash cymbal, each accent is placed purposefully for a vivid effect. The Vltava reaches the farmer’s celebrations as the music begins to change character. A more playful and bouncy theme emerges in the strings and the celebrations get well under way.
As a mysterious section begins to unfold, the strings reach their upper range to play a shimmering theme. Glistening in the moonlight, the Vltava passes the magical moondance performed by the mermaids on the rocks. Passing by the ruins of Vyšehrad, the horns play a fanfare-like theme, highlighting the royalty that once sat there.
As the winds and strings begin to swirl into the St John Rapids, the music returns to the iconic theme. As the orchestra build again the brass accentuate the mild peril in the rough rapids. Shrill strings and wind add to the drama here before the music culminates into a developed version of the main theme.
Swells from the brass add to the new bouncy melody in the strings and winds. The orchestra begin to slow as the Vltava begins to majestically disappear into the distance. A rousing trumpet fanfare paired with bold strings, wind and percussion shows the importance of the river’s character. After the orchestra come to a quiet dynamic the music wraps up for the final time until loud dominant-tonic proclamation is heard from the whole orchestra to end the piece in style.
Vltava is one of Smetana’s most-loved orchestral works. From the iconic theme to the whirling and swirling motifs of water, Vltava is a vivid journey of this river. From Smetana’s use of compound time, vivid orchestrations and memorable tunes, it culminates to make Vltava one to remember.
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