středa 4. listopadu


Co je nového v České republice:

  • Komentovaný přehled zpráv z ČR Odkazy:
  • Přehled nejzajímavějších článků z poslední doby Kořeny dneška v české společnosti:
  • Smetanův Dalibor: život a doba (JČ)
  • The Life and Times of Smetana's Dalibor (JČ)

    Ikona pro Vaši stránku...

    |- Ascii 7Bit -|- PC Latin 2 -|- ISO Latin 2 -|- CP 1250 -|- Mac -|- Kameničtí -|

  • The Life and Times of Smetana's Dalibor

    The Czechs had their Culloden at the Battle of the White Mountain near Prague on 8th November 1620, although, unlike in Scotland, in the Czech case, it was the Catholic side which won and the protestant side that was defeated.

    In the middle ages, the Czechs had their own independent kingdom, which at one time, during the rule of Emperor Charles IV., in the second half of the 14th century, was the centre of the Holy Roman Empire.

    At the beginning of the 15th century, a hundred years before Luther, the theologian Jan Hus and his followers introduced Protestantism into Europe. The Hussite revolution in the first decades of the 15th century defied the whole of the Catholic Europe successfully defended itself before military crusades from the West and created its own, alternative, civilisation.

    Eventually, the Hussite revolution ended in a compromise. In 1436 an agreement was reached between the Catholic Church Council at Basle and Hussite Bohemia. Henceforth, for almost two hundred years, Bohemia was a country of religious toleration where Protestants and Catholics lived side by side.

    The religious truce ended at the beginning of the 17th century. By this time, Bohemia was ruled by the powerful Catholic Habsburg dynasty and the pressure against non-Catholics was steadily increasing. Like Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland, the Czech Protestant Estates tried to stage a rebellion. In July 1619, the General Council of the Lands of the Czech Crown proclaimed that Bohemia would henceforth be a free elective confederation. The ruler, Ferdinand of Habsburg was deposed and the Estates elected a new Czech king, Friedrich of Palatine (1619 - 1620). Subsequently, the Czech Protestant Estates were defeated by Ferdinand at the Battle of the White Mountain near Prague, at the beginning of the Thirty Years War. Like in Scotland after 1746, terrible repercussions followed. The Czech Lands were subjected to intense recatholisation. Although 95 per cent of the Czech were protestant in 1600, they were all now supposed to conform to the Catholic religion. 27 leaders of the protestant rebellion, the most prominent of the Czech nobility were executed. All protestant nobility was forced to leave the country. Their property was confiscated by the state. Bohemia suffered considerable economic and social devastation.

    The almost two hundred years from 1620 until the end of the 18th century was generally regarded - and is still today regarded by many Czechs - as the Era of Darkness, in spite of the magnificent Baroque monuments that these times have produced in Bohemia.

    By the end of the 18th century, the situation of the Czech language in Bohemia is said to have been similar to that of Welsh in Wales earlier this century. Czech was primarily spoken in the countryside. German was predominant in towns and cities in Bohemia. It was considered impolite to accost a passer by in Prague in Czech in the 1790s. The Czech language had ceased to be a vehicle of intellectual and scholarly discourse.

    Owing to a number of influences, primarily to the reforms of Emperor Joseph II (1780-1790), which introduced the era of Enlightenment into the backward Austrian Empire, native Czechs gained easier access to higher education and started their Czech National Revival at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.

    While the early impulse of the Czech National Revival was rationalist, many subsequent Czech activists was of pre-Romanticist and Romanticist orientation. They enthused over what they saw as the "glorious Czech past", inpired themselves by the somewhat unrealistic idea of a brotherhood with other Slavonic nations and strove hard to resurrect the dormant Czech civilisation.

    In the atmosphere of strict absolutism and police opression, the activities of the Czech National Revival could be only literary and cultural. Even quite innocuous literary works were subject to strict censorship. It was impossible to set up public libraries which were regarded as centres of subversion. In the 1820s, one Czech poet wanted to publish a collection of Slavonic Folk songs, the censors bitterly objected to the world "Slavonic" in the title.

    But in spite of the police opression, in the 1840s, Czech journalism started to gain gentle political overtones, teaching readers to read between the lines and to construe hidden meanins. One journalist systematically used reports of the struggle of the Irish against English domination as a parable for the situation in Bohemia, instructing its readers in the basic principles of democracy.

    During the times of the revolution of 1848, strict government controls collapsed. Freedom of the press came into being and the Czech openly engaged in political activity. The temporary abolishment of censorship in 1848-1849 led to the sudden emergence of more than 30 newspapers. Two distinctive political movements appeared in Bohemia, the middle-of-the-road liberal democrats and the left-wing radicals. But the revolution was defeated and a period of ten more years of authoritarianism followed. During the period of renewed absolutism in 1850-1860, it was especially the radicals who bore the brunt of fierce police repression. They were interned, imprisoned and exiled abroad.

    This is the historical and cultural background to the work of Bedřich Smetana. The Czech National Revival came into being at the end of the 18th century, in the relatively liberal period of rationalist, Josephinian absolutism, but after the death of Emperor Joseph II. and with the brief exception of a few months of freedom in 1848 - 1849, the Czechs had to struggle with overwhelming odds of police and national oppression. This heightened their nationalism, and made them wary of the Austrians and Germans which whom they shared their state. The tolerant notion of Bohemia as a home to whoever lived on its territory, regardless of his or her languages, which had been mooted by the philosopher Bernard Bolzano (1781-1848) at the beginning of the 19th century, was lost. Smetana gave direct expression to Czech nationalism. He came to be regarded, through his operas such as the Bartered Bride and Libuše and through his cycle Má vlast as an archetypical Czech national composer.

    Austria did not adopt basic constitutional freedoms until the 1860s. After Austria was defeated by joint Sardinian-French forces at Magenta and Solferino in June 1859, Bach's absolutism fell and was discredited when it came out that some of its major figures had committed wholesale corruption. In October 1860, the Austrian Emperor published the "October Diploma", promising a constitution. The constitution was issued in February 1861, setting up several regional and one national assembly. The first election, which took place in March 1861, gave high voting preferences to the landed aristocracy and the moneyed classes. The majority Czech nation in Bohemia was at a disadvantage. General franchise was not introduced in Austria until 1907.

    The December 1867 constitution guaranteed basic civic rights in Austria. Within limits, given mostly by the unequal electoral law, the Czechs could enjoy fundamental democratic freedoms between 1867 - 1914.The Austrian absolutist press law from May 1852 was replaced in December 1862 by a more liberal law, which was modified in 1868 and 1894 was actually taken over after 1918 by the democratic Czechoslovak Republic. Nevertheless, in spite of the formal introduction of constitutional freedoms, petty harrasment and political persecution continued, on a smaller scale.

    Czech writer and journalist Jakub Arbes (1840-1914) listed in his work Pláč koruny české (The Tears of the Czech Crown, 1894) more than a thousand acts of petty political persecution perpetrated by the Austrian government against Czechs in 1868 - 1873, during the five year period of strong Czech nationalist political activity for autonomy within Austria. The Austrian authorities were trying to minimalise nationalist friction in the Empire by suppressing critical voices. The government also attempted to silence left wing writers and journalists and anyone whom they regarded as extremist, i.e. those with left-wing leanings.

    After the publication of the Constitution in Austria in February 1861, open Czech political activity could begin. On the 1st January 1861, the first issue of Národní listy, the National Newspaper, was published by František Ladislav Rieger. Within it, Rieger outlined the Czech political programme, which included the demands of national equality, civic rights and extensive self-government. Some of these demands were accepted by the ruling Austrian Imperial Council in the summer of 1861, but the demand for semi-independence of Bohemia within Austria was never accepted.

    Two main political movements established themselves in Bohemia: the conservative Old Czech Party, led by František Palacký and František Ladislav Rieger. The Old Czech Party was primarily the party of large landowners and the most traditional strata of Czech society. It respected the Austrian political status quo and mostly fought only for small greadual reforms.

    The Young Czech Party, led by Karel Sladkovský, was a party of radical democrats. Smetana sympathised with this political movement and was hated by the Old Czechs. However, the political ideology of both parties overlapped in certain areas and many of the conflicts between the Old Czechs and the New Czechs were of a personal, clannish nature.

    In 1866, Austria was defeated at Hradec Králové by Prussia. The brunt of the war was mostly born by Czech regiments of the Austrian army. The Prussians looted Bohemia and brought with them a large cholera epidemic. The Austrian government did not help the Czech population to deal with the considerable war damage nor did it acknowledge the behaviour of the extremely loyal Czech population during the Prussian war. As a result of the war, Austria's centralising structure was broken up and the dualist Austria-Hungary was created. The two loosely connected parts of the Empire were from now on joined only by the figure of the Emperor and by shared ministries of war, defence, finance and foreign affairs.

    The demands of the Czechs for self-government within a loose structure of the Austrian state were not fulfilled, causing much bitterness in Bohemia after 1866.

    In December 1867, a new, much more democratic constitution was promulgated. It guaranteed the citizen's equality before the law, guaranteed the sanctity of property, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and other freedoms. Independent judiciary was instituted. A liberal Education Act was passed, which introduced a compulsory eight-year school education and took away the right of the Catholic Church to supervise schools.

    The unjust voting system continued to favour German nationals in Bohemia, but the supremacy of the Germans was the result of their cultural and economic dominance and was not imbedded in the law. Nevertheless, Austria still retained elements of absolutism. The Emperor remained a "holy, untouchable ruler, unaccountable to anyone".

    Celebratory articles and poems of the time paid homage to the rule of Franz Josef I., praising his era as the golden age for the Czechs. With hindsight, this statement was not perhaps exaggerated. The fifty years up to the First World War was a period of stability an era of an economic, technological and cultural boom. Bohemia became the most industrialised part of the Austrian Empire, it was its industrial powerhouse.

    However, as I said, the Czechs were bitterly disappointed that the Austrian government passed them over during the Ausgleich between Austria and Hungary. The end of the 1860s was a period of heightened nationalistic tension in Bohemia, with many demonstrations and protest actions, where the Czech people voiced their demands.

    Another unsuccessful attempt for stronger self-government was rejected by the German population of Bohemia in 1871, and so, from October 1873, for five years, Czech politicians boycotted various Austrian constitutional assemblies.

    From 1878, Czech politicians started actively participating in Austrian parliamentary debates. This meant that Czechs could now enter the Austrian civil service without betraying their nation. Czech MPs however only achieved partial political concessions, mainly of a technical and economic nature.

    37 per cent of the population of Bohemia were German, 29 per cent of the inhabitants of Moravia was German. There was mistrust and hostility between the two nationalities in the last decades of the 19th century. Especially, there was constant competition, for instance in the sphere of education: both the Czech and the German schools were trying to attract pupils of the other nationality, using various special offers for them.

    Culturally, the German population ignored the Czechs and vice versa. Germans in Bohemia even ignored Czech music, which Vienna loved. The Old Czechs discredited themselves as a result of an attempt to reach a peaceful arrangement with the Germans in Bohemia, which the Germans celebrated as a great victory. In the election of 1891, the Old Czechs were absolutely defeated and the Young Czechs fully mastered the political arena.

    Trade union organisations started appearing and in 1878, Czechoslavonic Social Democratic Party was founded. It demanded universal suffrage and an eight-hour working day. Universal suffrage was introduced in two stages in 1897 and 1907.

    In the second half of the 19th century, Bohemia had one of the highest literacy rates in Europe. As a result of school reforms at the end of the 1860s, an education system of a very high quality came into being. Many secondary school teachers pursued original research in their disciplines.

    Writers and poets were always revered in Bohemia. The Máj Generation, centered around the poets Jan Neruda and Vítězslav Hálek, was the most important literary group around the 1860s. The "májovci" were soon superseded by two new groupings, the Ruch movement, whose writers took a more traditional, nationalistic line, demanding that the writer served the Czech nation by his work, and the group of writers centered around the journal Lumír, who displayed cosmopolitan tendencies and introduced international topics into Czech literature.

    In the 1890s, the more traditional forms of Czech literature were rejected by Czech modernists. Twentieth century Czech literature boasts a very impressive, strong tradition of highly sophisticated, modern poetry. The roots of this tradition go to 1895, the birth of modernism in Czech literature. In the last few decades before the first world war, Czech fine arts and sculpture gained prominence, especially due to connections with France and its capital, Paris. Alphonse Mucha became one of the most well known art-nouveau artists in this period. Antonín Slavíček is the most well known Czech impressionist painter, other Czech painters experimented with cubism and expressionism.

    Bedřich Smetana

    But let us go back from this general introduction to Bedřich Smetana. The musicologist Zdeněk Nejedlý traced the Smetana family all the way back to the 16th century. They were coopers, gardeners, blacksmiths, farmers, industrious, persistent and hardworking people. Bedřich Smetana's father, František Smetana (1777-1857) was a true self-made-man.

    František Smetana's father died when the boy was still small. His mother married again and the stepfather neglected the boy - František was left to his own devices, he supported himself by catching birds in the forests and by selling them. Later, he became a maltster and eventually, as a brewery manager, he amassed a considerable fortune. Thus Friedrich/Bedřich Smetana was born in 1824 into a pleasant, sunny and well-liked middle class environment.

    Although young Bedřich was highly intelligent, he had great difficulty attending school: his independent mind rebelled against the requirement of absolute subjugation and against mechanical learning by rote.

    What schools were like in the stifling, authoritarian Austria of the 1830s and 1840s, can be demonstrated by an excerpt from the rules of a secondary school in Německý Brod, which young Smetana temporarily attended: Punishment, including corporal punishment was applied at every opportunity. Corporal punishment was applied by the school janitor and the students had to pay for it. The school rule book expected reports from members of the public about the behaviour and the views of the students. Walking in the open was not allowed. Professors, important burghers and officials had to be greeted by students most deferentially at every opportunity. Students had to attend mass daily and to kiss the hands of their professors. At the beginning of the year, the principal of the school published a list of students from the better families in town and all the other students had to behave reverentially towards them.

    Bedřich Smetana made a number of abortive attempts to attend secondary school in various Czech towns and cities, ending up in Prague. Eventually, he gave up going to school and decided to devote himself fully to music. Smetana's father did not agree with this and refused to support him.

    19-year old Smetana was destitute in Prague in 1843, but with the help of his future wife's mother he eventually acquired a post of music teacher in the family of the Count Thun. At the same time, he attended classes in musical theory, given by the blind music teacher Josef Proksch. Smetana worked very hard: in his own words, he studied musical theory for twenty years, between 1844 and 1864.

    At the beginning of the 1848 revolution, in March 1848, Smetana wrote to Franz Liszt, sending him his first musical opus, Six morceaux characteristiques, asking him for a loan to set up a music school in Prague. Liszt did not provide any money, but arranged for the morceaux to be published. Smetana eventually did manage to set up a music school in the Old Town Square in Prague on 8th August 1848.

    From his teens, young Smetana was obsessed with girls and kept falling in love with a number of them. His most serious relationship was with Kateřina Kolářová, whom he married on 29th August 1849 when he was 26 and she was 22.

    Although Smetana's schooling was in German and his first language of communication was German, he made a conscious effort to cultivate his Czech and deliberately embraced the Czech national heritage. He was encouraged in this by many of his student friends, especially by the great democratic journalist-to-be Karel Havlíček, who had attended the same secondary school as Smetana in Německý Brod.

    After the defeat of the 1848 revolution, Austria reverted to a stifling period of political oppression, the so-called Bach absolutism, which lasted until 1859. Somewhat inexplicably, in 1855, on the occasion of the wedding of Emperor Franz Josef I., Smetana wrote a sycophantic piece, a Triumphal Symphony, which used as its main theme the Austrian national anthem, by Joseph Haydn. As a result, the symphony has become practically unplayable in Bohemia: the Haydn theme permeates all movements with the exception of the Scherzo, which is often performed on its own.

    In the mid 1850s, Smetana's music school in Prague was beginning to suffer pressure from competition. In 1856 he was offered the Directorship of the Philharmonic Society in Goteborg in Sweden. He travelled to Sweden and accepted the post.

    Probably in 1857, during one of Smetana's sojourns in Weimar in Liszt's company, Smetana had a verbal conflict with Johann von Herbeck, composer, conductor and later director of the Vienna Court Opera. Herbeck said scathingly that Czechs are good musical craftsmen, but they are not original artists, they are not original composers. Smetana was deeply offended and swore to himself to devote his whole life to the service of Czech national music.

    In Sweden, Smetana was well liked. In 1859 he decided to return to Bohemia because his wife Kateřina, who was suffering from tuberculosis, could not stand the cold Swedish climate. Kateřina died in Germany in April 1859, en route to Bohemia.

    Within a year, Smetana married again, a 19-year old Bettina Ferdinandi, but later in life, the marriage was not happy. Smetana continued to work in Sweden, with some interruptions until 1861.

    In that year, he returned to Prague because he had heard that a new Provisional Theatre was to be build there and wanted to compose operas and to become the new theatre's Kapellmeister. Unfortunately, nobody was overly impressed by Smetana's return to Prague. In fact, nobody was interested.

    Smetana did not help his case by clashing openly with the most important Czech politician, the main representative of the conservative Old Czech Party, František Ladislav Rieger. Rieger was quite arrogant. He expressed opinions even about subjects which he did not understand. During a party in Prague, Rieger started talking with Smetana about the task of writing a light opera, dealing with the life of Czech country people. Rieger expressed the opinion that such opera would have to be based on Czech folk song. Smetana was too direct to agree: he said that such an approach would produce an incoherent mess, not a unified work of art. Rieger was offended. This was the start of his hostile attitude towards Smetana, which Rieger and the Old Czechs assumed for the rest of Smetana's life.

    Czech society sorely needed their own national theatre. Journalist Karel Havlíček pointed to this matter in the short-lived period of freedom in 1849 in his democratic newspaper Národní noviny: "If we want to emerge from the current misery, we inevitably must have our own theatre in Prague, our own company, our own actors and singers, our own orchestra, our own directors and writers for the theatre. This is the only way of progress. The theatre is not in our times only a house of art, it is one of the main centres of national public life: without a proper theatre, our language will not return to the more noble homes from which to date it has been banished. Once we have our own decent theatre, we will gain strength and social validity not just in Prague, but in the whole country and eventually also abroad. If the Czech theatre in Prague is better than the German theatre, undoubtedly the Czech theatre will be full and the German will be empty, for the same reason for which these days, Czech theatres tend to be empty and German theatres full."

    Havlíček appealed to the nation: We have to give the government 30 million guilders in taxes annually. Could we not, over and above that, collect a mere one million guilder for our own cause, once and for all, to build a theatre without which we must be ashamed to count ourselves among educated nations?" This is how the idea of a national collection came into being.

    But the Austrian monarchy did not wish for the Czech theatre to be built. In the difficult 1850s, it meted out harsh oppression to the proponents of a new Czech theatre: Karel Havlíček was banished to Tyrol and he died prematurely in 1856 at the age of 36, another proponent of Czech theatre, Josef Kajetán Tyl, was deprived of alll means of subsistence after 1848 and died in destitution.

    In 1851, against overwhelming odds, a Society for the building of a National Theatre was set up. The idea could not be seriously taken up until the fall of Bach's absolutist regime in 1859.

    At that time, the Old Czech František Ladislav Rieger came up with a pragmatic idea: let us temporarily build a provisional theatre, which will be cheaper andwill give us time for solving the problem properly later. The problem was that there was a danger that the provisional theatre would become a permanent one - indeed, it turned out that that was what Rieger intended.

    Be it as it may, Smetana, on his return from Sweden, was hoping to be appointed Kapellmeister of the provisional theatre, which was due to be opened in 1862. However, Rieger, who disliked Smetana, and was influential in the theatre circles, had a mediocre practitioner, Jan Nepomuk Maýr appointed Conductor instead.

    Smetana was a typical Young Czech by persuasion and there was soon to be an unbreachable divide between the Old Czechs and the Young Czechs.

    Nevertheless, the Young Czechs asserted themselves elsewhere. In 1861, a new Czech male choir Hlahol was founded in Prague, in 1862, a physical training organisation Sokol was established by Jindřich Fuegner and Miroslav Tyrš and in 1863, the Artistic Association Umělecká beseda was created.

    The Provisional Theatre started functioning in November 1862 and was soon overshadowed by the activities of the three above-mentioned new cultural and social organisations.

    In 1862-63, Smetana wrote his first opera, the Brandeburgers in Bohemia. It was an anti-German piece, set in the 13th century, with nationalistic and implicitly socialist themes. He sent the opera into a competition for the best Czech opera, but the jury was silent for three years.

    Against overwhelming odds, and against wishes of the Conductor Maýr, the Brandenburgs in Bohemia were eventually premiered in the Provisional Theatre on 5th January 1866. The orchestra was conducted by Smetana, because Maýr refused to do so. The opera was a huge public success and so the jury, reluctantly, eventually gave Smetana the coveted competition prize.

    The great Czech poet Jan Neruda, who was also a Young Czech journalist and comentator, explained in a little poem, published in a Prague newspaper, why many Prague critics hated Smetana's work:

    "That music cannot and must not be of any value!
    Firstly: there is nothing to dance to
    Secondly: it is a music of progress
    Thirdly: Smetana is a democrat
    and from each and every aria of his
    democracy shows its ugly face to us!"

    The Prussian invasion in 1866 shook Smetana: he was seriously afraid that the Germans would shoot him for having written the Brandenburgers in Bohemia, and so he hid in the coutryside for a month.

    Eventually in September 1866 the Young Czechs managed to assert their influence and Smetana was appointed Conductor of the Provisional Theatre in Prague. By this time, he was working on his most popular opera, the Bartered Bride. It originated gradually, Smetana kept changing it in response to the reactions of his audiences. The final version dates from 1870.


    Dalibor was Smetana's third opera. Its libretto was written by a Prague German, Josef Wenzig (1807 - 1876), at that time Chairman of the Umělecká beseda, Artistic Association, a teacher, headmaster and a Regional Educational Councillor, a highly respected person. It was due to Wenzig's efforts that Czech language was made equal to German in schools in Bohemia.

    Paradoxicaly, Wenzig also wrote the German libretto for that most nationalistic of Czech operas, Smetana's Libuše. But of that later.

    The story of Dalibor is based on historical fact. Dalibor's predicament was recorded by the 16th century Czech writer and legal expert Viktorín Kornel ze Všehrd. His version is quoted by 19th Czech historian František Palacký in his monumental History of the Czech nation in Bohemia and Moravia, see the chapter dealing with the confused Jagiellonian interregnum.

    In the region of Litoměřice, opressed people mutinied at the Ploskovice fortress and forced their overlord, Adam of Drahonice, to give up his supremacy over them. The people asked another lord, Dalibor of Kozojedy, for protection and Dalibor did indeed offer them protection. This caused a fued between Dalibor and Adam and on 13th March 1498 the court of the land sentenced Dalibor to death for breaking the law.

    The historical Dalibor was esteemed by ordinary people and became a hero of folk tales. He is said to have been imprisoned in a round tower at the Prague Castle, where he played the violin in a moving manner. This musical legend may mean something else: in the prison jargon, the expression "he is playing the violin" referred to the wailing of prisoners who were being tortured.

    But Wenzig wrote his own story, which differs in several ways from the historical facts. Wenzig's Dalibor clashes with a rival from Litoměřice and a friend of his is murdered by the enemies in the clash. Dalibor revenges himself by attacking Ploškovice castle, damaging it and killing its master. Milada, the sister of the murdered man, asks the king of the land for assistance. Dalibor is arrested, and the king wants to hear both the accused and the accuser. Milada is suprised by the nobility of Dalibor and falls in love with him. Later, she unsuccessfully tries to free him from prison, but she is killed and Dalibor is executed.

    There are various unusual aspects of the story, which disturbed the Czech audiences and the critics. One was the existence of friendship of two men, Dalibor and young artist Zdeněk, who calms Dalibor by playing the violin to him. The other disturbing aspect was the sudden change of Milada's emotions towards Dalibor.

    Many critics also found similarities with Lohengrin and Fidelio. Smetana was not bothered by difficulties in the libretto: he fully overcame them by the power of his music.

    This is what Jan Neruda wrote about Dalibor on 8th September 1872:

    God knows what strange magic resides in Smetana's music! Tears appear in your eyes during the tender passages, at other times you get up from your seat not even knowing how. That happened to me during the finale of the second act of Dalibor at the last rehearsal. The finale is so powerful, it rises higher and higher like slender, noble columns and vaults of a gothic cathedral - now, now, the genius has stretched his wings fully, it chimes and sounds like incredibly powerful music of the spheres - and when it all suddenly ended, I was standing in the box, leaning forwards, gazing into infinity and each of my nerves was trembling with incredible pleasure..."

    But rational literary critics passed the music over because they were interested in the inconsistencies of the story.

    Dalibor was premiered in the New Town Theatre in Prague on 16th May 1868, on the day of huge festivities, during which the foundation stones had been laid for the construction of the national theatre. Several critics slammed it, criticised it for far to many allegedly Wagnerian influences.

    Thus the opera-going public gainted the impression from the reviews that Dalibor was a bad opera which was trying to introduce German modernism into Bohemia. Even though the Czech audiences knew very little about the true state of affairs, they were biased against anything German for chauvinistic reasons. There were four more performances of Dalibor. In 1869, Dalibor was not performed at all. From 1870, it was performed with various changes. During Smetana's lifetime, it had had fifteen performances.

    The provincial Prague could not understand the work. Some critics now wonder whether possibly the low quality of the performances may not have contributed to the initial failure of Dalibor.

    The writer Zikmund Winter recorded a comment by a professor of Charles University during one of his lectures in Prague at that time. Professor Ambrose was not a supporter of Smetana, but he was an educated man and understood music. He remarked: "Yesterday, the opera Dalibor failed in the Czech theatre here." A moment later he added: "And yet, every tone of this opera is a pearl." In the end he said: "This Smetana is truly a whale in the local fishpond."

    The laying of the foundation stone to the National Theatre

    When the Czechs were disappointed in 1866 by not being included in the Austrian-Hungarian Ausgleich, they put up a lot of protest. Many public events took place to further the national cause. The laying of the foundation stones for the Czech national theatre on 16th May 1868, on the day that Dalibor was premiered elsewhere in Prague, was one such spectacular event.

    Some 150 000 people gathered outside Prague on the sunny and summery morning of 16th May in Karlín. Music bands and men in horseback with flags and in traditional folk costumes from all parts of the country met there, members of old guilds, craftsmen, businessmen with banners, flagbearers in historical costumes, students in medieaval or fantastic clothes, associations, choirs, musicians, huge crowds. Houses were decorated with flags, with carpets, with wreaths made of flowers and pine twigs. People followed the procession from windows, attics, balconies. There was overall jubilation.

    The large crowds rolled through many quarters of Prague to the centre. Huge coats of arms the Czech Lion and the Moravian Eagle were carried. At around eleven o'clock the crowds reached the building site. Stones from many sacred places throughout Bohemia had been transported here and deposited in a tent decorated with a Czech crown. All the sides of the tent were lifted.

    The event started with the signing of a memorial document which was then placed in a metal box which was inserted into one of the stones. Speeches were made, cantatas were sung. Smetana, when knocking on the stones with a hammer, made the famous statement: "The life of the Czechs is music." At the end the anthems Where is my Home and Moravia, Moravia, were sung.

    On the previous evening, a regatta took place on the river Vltava and there were fireworks. An image of the Czech Lion was illuminated the front of the Provisional Theatre. In the afternoon, there was a large banquet, in the evening the premiere of Smetana's Dalibor. On the following day, 17th May, a singing academy took place. More than 2000 members of joined choirs took part in it. In the afternoon, there was entertainment at the Letná plain, which was attended by some 100 000 people. And so on.

    The building of the National Theatre went slowly due to financial difficulties. Finally, in 1881, the Theatre was completed. It was to be opened by a new opera by Smetana, Libuše.

    It is somewhat paradoxical that the libretto for this most nationalistic opera by Smetana was again written by a German, Josef Wenzig. He was inspired by the story of Libuše as it was recorded in a famous mediaeval Latin Chronica Boemorum, written by the Dean of the Prague Chapter Cosmas (1045 - 1125) Libuše was a "unique, wise, assertive, chaste and noble ruler of Bohemia", according to the Chronicle.

    But much more inspiration came from a literary fraud the pre-Romantic Chattertonian Manuscripts of Králův Dvůr and Zelená Hora, allegedly discovered in 1817, at the time when Czechs yearned for important and ancient literary works, written in the Czech language. The impact of the Manuscripts was enormous throughout the 19th century in Bohemia. They served as an inspiration for many works of art, fitting in well into the feverish nationalist atmosphere. It was not until the end of the century that positivist scientists proved beyond doubt by scientific analysis that the manuscripts were not genuine.

    One critic has written: The fraudulent manuscripts deserve attention as a literary work which greatly influenced the thinking of many people for many decades and inspired major works in the fine arts and in music. Similarly, Smetana's Libuše became a beautiful myth, which idealised the distant Czech past. The historical themes of the work were not authentic, but the heightened nationalism of the day demanded Libuše's prophetic visions. Still, until recently, the audiences in the Prague National Theatre tended to stand up during the final, exalted scenes of this opera by Smetana. The theatre was opened with Libuše on 11th June 1881, on the slightly stilted occasion of the visit of the Austrian Archduke Rudolph and his wife, still before it was fully finished. In August 1881, the theatre burned down.

    A new national collection immediately took place and the theatre was quickly re-built, this time in two years. It was again, this time properly, opened with Smetana's Libuše.

    Smetana as the Head of the Czech Opera and thereafter

    Smetana directed Czech Opera for eight years, between 1866 and 1874. He also did much for the cultivation of symphonic music: created, against intrigue, a tradition of symphonic concerts. He did not scheme and did not manipulate people, behaved openly, directly and in a friendly manner. Yet for the whole time he had to grapple with discontent and with vociferous critics.

    The conflicts that arouse around Smetana, were, in the view of one commentator, due to the fact that a larger than life personality tried to operate in a very petty, provincial environment. We have noted that the most influential representative of the Old Czech Party, František Ladislav Rieger, disliked Smetana. Smetana irritated him by his opennes and also by his artistic orientation, which was regarded as extremely modern at the time. The traditionalists in Prague did not want to hear about the music in the tradition of Liszt and Wagner. Prague had become musically backward in the first half of the 19th century. It lived in a cultural backwater, slowly processing remnants of classicism. The spirit of Beethoven and of Romanticism passed Prague by, because it would have disrupted its comforts and its loyalty to the regime. The revolution was not desirable for many people, and when it came in 1848, it was quickly stifled. With Smetana, undesirable modernism arrived in Prague and philistines found it provokative. The result was a conflict.

    In 1864 - 1865 Smetana wrote musical criticism for the newspaper Národní listy. These critical articles were very direct. Smetana openly criticised the lack of professionalism in Prague concerts and in the Prague opera. Soon thereafter, a gallery of hostile voices started attacked Smetana.

    In December 1871, Jan Neruda wrote in Národní listy about what he saw as the self-destructiveness of the Czech nature: "Even if you break your head, you will not be able to understand us Czechs. Such an engine has not yet been invented which would be able to carry along all that nonsensical baggage that we have created for ourselves. If we have good works of literature, hardly anyone knows them. If we have someone truly outstanding in the arts, either we will ignore him or we will destroy him or we will make it impossible for him to become great. If we have an honest man in politics, we immediately spoil his reputation. If we are entrusted to run an institution, we immediately neglect it. Indeed, if we could fully decide about our own national and political future, we would probably go and hang ourselves. We are always tempted to deal ourselves a blow, at least to scratch our faces with our own nails. It is true, we can sometimes be warm and passionate, but usually, our hearts are sickly and like with every sick person, our hearts and incredibly inconstant."

    In 1934, the writer Karel Čapek wrote about the Czech nature: "On the one hand, the Czechs haave a kind of defensive instinct to enclose themselves within their own familiar circle. Eventually, this desire turns into cultural and political provincionalism. On the other hand, the Czechs are spiritually lively, they are talented, they are constantly trying to compete with the outside world. This duality exists in many people still: the atavism of the small-town provincial Czech mentality stifles everything."

    In 1874, at the age of 50, Smetana went deaf and was forced to give up his post as the Head of the Prague opera. In 1876 retired to the country to a gamekeepers lodge near the village of Jabkenice, to the house of his daughter and her husband. Paradoxically, as one commentator has put it, he "got rid of the hubbub of the world and discovered the paradise of the heart". He could still compose and still produced several operas, including The Kiss, which was a huge success in 1876, the cycle of symphonic poems Má vlast and the opera The Devil's Wall, which was not a success.

    Nevertheless, towards the end of his life, Smetana could feel satisfied about his accomplishments. He lived to see the premiere of his major opera Libuše in the most representative Czech theatre, the rebuilt National Theatre. On 5th May, 1882, Smetana experienced a fantastic celebration, which took place on the occasion of the 100th performance of the Bartered Bride.

    His health however continued to deteriorate. He had syphilis, which was then an incurable disease. In December 1882, Smetana temporarily lost his speech, he suffered hallucinations and eventually, in April 1884, was consigned to a lunatic asylum. He died on 12th May 1884.

    Jan Čulík

    |- Ascii 7Bit -|- PC Latin 2 -|- ISO Latin 2 -|- CP 1250 -|- Mac -|- Kameničtí -|