Bedřich Smetana

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)

Nationality: Bohemian | Czech
Born: March 2, 1824, Litomyšl Died: May 12, 1884, Prague (age 60)

String Quartet No. 1 in e minor, From My Life

(for 2 violins, viola and cello)
7:31 I. Allegro vivo appassionato
5:31 II. Allegro moderato alla polka
8:35 III. Largo sostenuto
6:03 IV. Vivace
Duration: 29 minutes (approximately)
Composed: 1876 (age 51-52)
Premiere: March 29, 1879. Prague. Ferdinand Lachner, Jan Pelikán (violins), Josef Krehan (viola), Alois Neruda (cello)
Published: 1880, Prague: Fr. Urbánek (age 55-56)
8 recordings, 20 videos
autoopen autoplay
7:52
Moyzes Quartet
I. Allegro vivo appassionato
5:31
Moyzes Quartet
II. Allegro moderato alla polka
8:43
Moyzes Quartet
III. Largo sostenuto
6:09
Moyzes Quartet
IV. Vivace
7:44
Pavel Haas Quartet
I. Allegro vivo appassionato
5:44
Pavel Haas Quartet
II. Allegro moderato alla polka
9:06
Pavel Haas Quartet
III. Largo sostenuto
6:11
Pavel Haas Quartet
IV. Vivace
31:14
Zemlinsky Quartet
7:29
Talich Quartet
I. Allegro vivo appassionato
5:33
Talich Quartet
II. Allegro moderato alla polka
8:11
Talich Quartet
III. Largo sostenuto
6:00
Talich Quartet
IV. Vivace
30:19
Stamitz Quartet
28:36
Smetana Quartet
28:10
Cleveland Quartet
7:32
Chamber Library
I. Allegro vivo appassionato
5:06
Chamber Library
II. Allegro moderato alla polka
7:24
Chamber Library
III. Largo sostenuto
6:08
Chamber Library
IV. Vivace
From Kai Christiansen

Bedrich Smetana, 1824-1884

String Quartet No. 1 in e minor, "From My Life", 1876

Bedrich Smetana now enjoys the honor of being known as "the Father of Czech (Classical) Music". Technically from Bohemia, he lived during a time of restless rebellion against the ruling Austro-Hungarian Empire followed by the gradual establishment of a nationalist identity championing the language, music and folk culture of the Czech people. Smetana was the first great composer to associate with this national heritage, particularly through his own musical expression of Bohemian pride and personality richly represented by his operatic masterpiece, The Bartered Bride (Prodaná nevěsta), and a suite of symphonic poems titled My Country (Má vlast).

In 1874, at the age of fifty, Smetana begin to notice a variety of hearing problems including high-pitched notes, rushing sounds, and the noise of "breaking sticks", collectively known as the disorder tinnitus. His hearing quickly deteriorated leaving him completely and permanently deaf by the end of the year. On one hand, this devastated Smetana, forcing him to resign all duties as conductor and performer, to completely withdraw from the public arena of music making. On the other hand, like other great and similarly afflicted composers before and since, Smetana continued to apply his highly developed and apparently fully internalized ability to compose music in spite of his inability to "hear" it in the traditional sense. His musical output continued unabated in quantity and quality for over ten years until his death in 1884.

Best known for opera and orchestral music, Smetana nonetheless wrote some outstanding and highly distinctive chamber music including a piano trio and two string quartets. Rare for chamber music, all three works have explicit programmatic associations. Written in 1876, the first quartet reflects the most elaborate narrative as suggested by his title, From My Life (Z mého života), and fully revealed by Smetana himself in a detailed letter:

"My intention was to paint a tone picture of my life. The first movement depicts my youthful leanings toward art, the 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 insistent note in the finale owes its origin to this. It is the fateful ringing in my ears of the high-pitched tones which in 1874 announced the beginning of my deafness. I permitted myself this little joke, because it was so disastrous to me. The second movement, a quasi- polka, brings to mind the joyful days of youth when I composed dance tunes and was known everywhere as a passionate lover of dancing. The third movement . . . reminds me of the happiness of my first love, the girl who later became my wife. The fourth movement describes the discovery that I could treat national elements in music and my joy in following this path until it was checked by the catastrophe of the onset of my deafness, the outlook into the sad future, the tiny rays of hope of recovery, but remembering all the promise of my early career, a feeling of painful regret."

True to his words, the quartet spans a wide range of distinctive music featuring Bohemian dance in the polka of the second movement and a tender love song to his departed first wife in the third movement. But the two outer movements vividly express in music what Smetana could only hint at in his literary explanation. The quartet opens with some of the most dramatic and unforgettable music found throughout the chamber literature: a devastating theme of tragic fate that dominates the first movement, goes dormant, and reappears in the coda of the finale. After the dance, the love song, and the initial robust brightness of the fourth movement sonata, this autobiographical quartet catches up to the reality of Smetana's contemporaneous life. Introduced by a pregnant silence, then a disturbing high-pitched harmonic in the first violin, the dark and inevitable theme of catastrophic fate returns to finish the narrative, not with a grand, conclusive cadence, but with a fadeout, the sound gradually disappearing from our ears just as it must have for Smetana himself.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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