Skip to page content

Composed: 1874-75

Length: 35 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, and triangle), harp, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances: July 24, 1942, Frederick Zweig conducting (From Bohemia's Meadows and Forests); January 30, 1964, Rafael Kubelík conducting (Sárka); November 17, 1922, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting (The Moldau)

Iván Fischer has chosen to pair Dvorák's Moravian Duets with three works from Smetana's My Fatherland to conclude this program. As the conductor explains, "The six symphonic poems of Smetana's cycle My Fatherland describe the nation's history, legends, and the beauty of its nature. For these concerts I selected the movements related to nature and legend, leaving out the historical aspects. Dvorák and Smetana both composed music that is strongly rooted in folklore; this gave me the idea to combine Smetana's symphonic poems with the beautiful, rarely heard Moravian Duets by Dvorák, for which I arranged very simple orchestrations."

Smetana's My Fatherland was a product of the composer's deeply felt Czech patriotism. Between 1856-61, he had been in Sweden, trying to find work, but news of a new Czech theater in Prague lured him back to his homeland. In 1866, he was appointed its principal conductor. The sudden onset of deafness in the summer of 1874 made conducting impossible, and Smetana spent the last decade of his life focused on composition; he wrote the six parts of My Fatherland between 1874 and 1879.

Smetana outlined a detailed program for each part of the cycle. "From Bohemia's Meadows and Forests" opens with music meant to overwhelm the individual listener with nature's grandeur. After this opening, the sounds of the outdoors gradually emerge from silence - birdsong, flowing water, a rustic melody in the winds. A fugal passage depicts the wind; this alternates with a broadly phrased melody, first played by the horns, meant to capture the essence of nature. (The inclusion of learned counterpoint reveals another facet of Smetana's art, his strong belief that nationalist composers should not rely on folksongs, but should use up-to-date techniques of art music.) A vigorous polka precedes the coda, in which Smetana recalls the work's principal themes in telescoped form to bring things to a joyous conclusion.

"Sárka" derives its narrative from a Central European folk tale about a warrior-princess, who, spurned by her lover, joins up with a band of other warrior-women to punish men. The turbulent opening depicts Sárka, who has tied herself to a tree as part of a ruse to lure unsuspecting men to the warrior-women's fortress; a march signals the approach of the knight Ctirad and his men, who have resolved to untie and rescue her. A brief clarinet solo ushers in a passage of sustained lyricism as Ctirad falls in love with Sárka. He unties her, and she rewards him and his men with food and drink. Smetana captures the celebration with another polka. The dance winds down as the men, exhausted from the revelry, fall asleep. Sinister sounds from the bassoon usher in the warrior-women - a moment of regret from Sárka (the clarinet) notwithstanding - who slaughter the sleeping knights.

"The Moldau" is Smetana's most famous work, a depiction of the Vltava River (known as the Moldau in German-speaking countries) as it flows from its source in Austria through Prague and finally meets the Elbe River. The sweeping string tune that follows the murmurs of the opening portrays the river. Hunting horns sound their calls, and Smetana strikes up another polka, this one as part of a wedding celebration on the banks of the river. During a serene central section, with shimmering winds and muted strings, water nymphs glide through the water in the moonlight. The river theme returns, followed by increasingly vehement music as the water rushes through St. John's Rapids outside of Prague. A gleaming, major-key version of the river theme signals the arrival in Prague, as the Vltava flows past Vysehrad, the city's historic fortress (depicted in another movement of My Fatherland) and pushes on to the Elbe.

- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Program Designer/Annotator.