Bedřich Smetana: String Quartet No.1 

“From My Life”


Due to his decline in health in 1874, Bedřich Smetana began to lose his hearing, with him becoming completely deaf by the end of the year. Smetana thus had to forfeit his job as the Principal Conductor of the Provisional Theater in Prague, and so he moved to the country to live with his daughter. Through poverty and ill-health, Smetana continued to compose, now turning more to chamber music to reflect his own feelings. Subtitled ‘From My Life’, his First String Quartet was a pioneering programmatic quartet. Composed in 1896, Smetana had this to say about the quartet:


“Concerning the style of my quartet, I shall gladly leave judgement on this to others and I will not be angry at all if they do not like it, for it is contrary to the conventional style of quartet music. I had no intention of composing a quartet according to a formula or according to the usual conception of the form. With me, the form of each composition is determined by the subject. Consequently, this quartet created its own form. I wanted to picture in tones the course of my life.”


The Music
Movement I – Allegro vivo appassionato

“The first movement depicts my youthful leanings towards art, a Romantic atmosphere, the inexpressible yearning for something I could neither express nor define, and also a kind of warning of my future misfortune. The long persistent note in the final owes its origin to this. It is the fateful ringing of the high-pitched tones in my ears, which, in 1874, announced the beginning of my deafness. I allow myself this small joke, though it was ultimately disastrous.”

The bold opening makes way for an intense viola solo which is rich in tone and timbre. The fluctuating accompaniment adds movement to the solo as the intricate solo soon weaves its way back into the ensemble. The intensity is high during this opening section, with the upper strings working together to create dramatic runs in unison, as well as building dynamics. Smetana’s intricate writing is tied together with the opening theme, which rears its head in a number of forms many times throughout this opening movement. The jumping theme is bold and offers that feeling of yearning for something you can’t quite reach. As the music begins to slow down, the music reflects the opening theme with the fluctuating accompaniment. The movement ends quietly. 


Movement II – Allegro moderato a la Polka

“The second movement, a quasi-polka, recalls the joyful days of my youth when I composed dance tunes and was widely known as a passionate lover of dancing.”

The joyous character of the second movement polka is captured from the first theme. The unison playing at the start makes a statement and harks back to popular Czech folk dances of the time. The bouncy nature of the themes presented in this movement are youthful and child-like in its presentation at time. A lyrical central section slows the tempo down. A classic dance bassline is created by the cello as the fluctuating upper strings play in unison on beats 2 and 4. The fiery dance theme returns to conclude this movement off in an exciting style.


Movement III – Largo sostenuto

“The third movement (the one which, in the opinion of the gentlemen who play this quartet, is unperformable), reminds me of the happiness of my first love, the girl who later became my first wife.”

The deeply emotional third movement is slow in tempo, but rich in harmony. The rich sonorites throughout create a completely new musical landscape for Smetana to work with. Intensely personal and introspective, the third movement is perhaps the most climactic emotionally of the four movements. Smetana uses solo sections and powerful unison segments to piece together his feelings on this matter. High in intensity throughout, even as the dynamics drop, the third movement concludes quietly and with much dignity.


Movement IV – Vivace

“The fourth movement describes my discovery that I could incorporate national elements in my music, and my joy in following this path until it was terminated by the onset of my deafness, the outlook into a sad future, the tiny rays of hope of recovery; but remembering the promise of my early career, a feeling of painful regret.”

Opening with a joyous unison figure, the upper strings soon rush off with a fast scalic theme. This movement paints many different pictures, which shows just how much Smetana loved his homeland. From fizzing excitement to bold unison and then a short lyrical section, the different feelings from Smetana certainly come through. The intense slow section represents the “painful regret” that the composer speaks about in his notes. Rich in dissonant harmony and heavy textures, the once youthful and optimistic Smetana ends surrounded by his “sad future.” 


Final Thoughts

This painfully personal string quartet was one of the first of its kind at the time of conception. Typically programmatic music was left to orchestras and larger ensembles, but this journey that Smetana took for his First String Quartet went against the grain and showcased Smetana’s personal style. A truly intriguing and wonderful work. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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