Bedřich Smetana: Triumphal Symphony


Composed in 1853-54, Bedřich Smetana’s only formal symphony, also known as the ‘Triumphal’ or ‘Festive’, is an interesting work. It was written ironically for an event that never actually happened. The hope of Emperor Franz Josef becoming the King of Bohemia following his royal marriage was rife during this period, which is reflected in Smetana’s celebratory symphony.


The Music

Set in a traditional four-movement structure, the basis key for the symphony is a bright E major tonality. 


Movement I

Opening with the famous Imperial Anthem, the patriotic start to the symphony is one of the key reasons why the work lost popularity over the years. The grandiose opening is shadowed by the bright strings, pompous timpani and bold brass. Smetana’s orchestrations are resonant of the era, however they are effective at portraying the main theme and showing its development over the movement. 


Movement II

The second movement also uses the Imperial Theme throughout as the basis of the music, although this time it is presented in a different way. The broad opening subsides and makes room for a quiet theme played by the strings and woodwind. Big orchestral swells keep the interest high in the symphony, with Smetana’s catchy melodies singing above the denser textures. 


Movement III

Perhaps the best-known of the four movements, the third movement Scherzo is the only movement to not feature the Imperial Theme. When using the theme became controversial, Smetana would extract this movement and use it as a standalone concert piece, therefore this movement has, over time, been heard the most out of the four. Spritely rhythms and sparkling percussion breathe a new life into the symphony. 


Movement IV 

The finale movement opens with a bold string theme played in unison. There is a feeling of jubilant celebration throughout the finale, and once again Smetana brings back the Imperial Theme. Big sweeping lyrical lines flood the atmosphere as the final celebrations get underway. Living up to its nickname, the triumphant final few minutes show some early signs of greatness for the then young composer. The symphony ends boldly, with fanfare trumpets and big percussion rolls. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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