Bedřich Smetana: String Quartet no. 1 in E minor, ‘Z mého života’

‘From my life’, performed by the Pavel Haas Quartet, or below by the Stamitz Quartet

(cover image by Roman Kraft)

Bedřich Smetana was born on 2 March, 1824 in Litomyšl, near the border between Bohemia and Moravia, at the time both provinces of the Habsburg Empire. He was the third child, and first son, of his father’s third wife. Smetana the father had 8 children from two previous marriages, five daughters surviving infancy, and ten more children with his third wife, the composer’s mother, seven of whom reached adulthood.

The elder Smetana was a brewer, talented in music, and played in a string quartet. His son Bedřich obviously inherited this musical talent: he made his first public performance at the age of six. In 1831, the family moved to where Mahler would later grow up, and this was where the young Bedřich encountered the music of people like Mozart and Beethoven, and where he himself began composing.

Despite being considered the father of Czech music, Smetana spoke German until later in his life. In 1839, he decided he needed to go to study in Prague, but his studies there were marred by the ill treatment he received from his fellow classmates for being a country boy. He began missing classes, instead attending concerts and enjoying the musical scene in the city, ultimately making the young man determined to become a composer. His father found out about his poor attendance, however, and brought him home. He continued as much as he could with his musical pursuits while he finished his schooling, making appearances as pianist and had a busy social life as a result.

Anyway, he made it back to Prague in 1844, began studying under one Josef Proksch, former student of Leopold Koželuch, took him on as a pupil, and he also landed a job teaching piano to the children of one Count Thun, at whose home he was able to meet the Schumanns, who did not care for his G minor sonata.

Obviously he went on to do much greater things, spent some successful time in Sweden, but you’ll have to go read the Wikipedia article for the full biography. I won’t reproduce it here. He moved to Gothenburg in in 1856, disillusioned with Prague, but it was also in that decade that tragedy struck again and again.

In 1854, his second daughter died. The year after that, 1855, his oldest daughter died. In 1856, his fourth daughter passed away, followed by his father in 1857 and his dear wife in 1859. After his career as a father, composer, pianist, educator, throughout Europe, it was in the last decade of his life that he wrote the work that became one of his most famous, and ostensibly the first piece of program chamber music, his first quartet, ‘From my life’.

It’s unlike me to pick a work that’s so late in a composer’s career, much less one that attempts to sum up all its experiences, but there’s a reason I won’t quite completely explain now. There’s something extremely exciting coming up next week, and I’d originally thought about featuring another chamber work from Dvorak, perhaps even one of his late ‘American’ pieces, but decided that Smetana, as ‘the father of Czech music’, should take precedence, and he himself is a strong figure in the nationalist composer category. We’re not doing the Czech symphony yet, but it is tentatively scheduled for like, the spring of next year. For now, though, Smetana.

What I didn’t mention above is that Smetana by this time was apparently completely deaf. He’d yet again moved away from Prague, to a town called Jabkenice, the Wikipedia article for which states only that Smetana lived there. It seems nothing else ever happened in Jabkenice. He began work on it there in the fall of 1876, and was completed just before the end of the year. Its first performance was a private one, in 1878 in Prague, with his fellow countryman Dvorak as violist, and the public premiere took place a year later.

Wikipedia states the obvious:

The work is semi-autobiographical and consists of sketches of periods from Smetana’s life, as is suggested by its subtitle Z mého života (“From My Life”).

But it may not be as obvious as you think. But it probably is. The Wiki article gives a statement about each of the individual movements and what it describes, but just by listening to the four movements, and knowing something about the composer’s life, they probably aren’t too hard to appreciate.

Wikipedia gives us one-sentence summaries of what each of the movements is meant to express, but John Palmer at AllMusic gives us information that should arguably be in the Wiki article, telling us that these statements come from a letter from the composer to his friend Joseph Srb-Debrnov.

The famous viola solo that opens the work gives us the theme of the first movement. It’s turbulent, passionate, quintessentially Romantic. The AllMusic article gives us the following snippet of Smetana’s letter:

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 second subject is more touching, romantic in the sense of love, but the movement overall is dominated by the atmosphere of the dramatic opening solo. In fact, one can sort of imagine, after reading a more comprehensive biography than the summary I provided, how this may clearly represent the composer’s youth. It may be a prelude, an introduction to his “leaning toward art”, but unmistakably also is the “warning” or foreshadowing of what was to come much later. And looking back, how can those experiences not inform and alter our view of the past? The movement is in sonata form, but Smetana departs from the way one would expect the material to be recapitulated.

The second movement is worlds away from the emotional palette of the first. It’s carefree and full of joy and expression, sunny and convivial. The folk-like dance themes remind me of what we’d later hear from Dvorak in his American quartet, that sound so ‘down to earth’ pentatonic. In contrast with something cyclical like from Debussy (later on), we’re getting vivid snapshots of the music, with its composer as the main character, the unstated but unmistakable focus. It gives us a very quaint trio, with even a little bit of humor.

While one might expect the slow movement in a work like this to be full of sorrow, regrets, or pain, it isn’t. It’s a set of variations, of which Smetana said:

[it] reminds me of the happiness of my first love, the girl who later became my faithful wife.

These are fond memories, and we can hear it in the music, but maybe not at first. It begins with a cello solo, but as soon as the rest of the quartet enters, it is indeed tender and amorous, much more like the second subject of the first movement, but here given room to shine, some space to breathe. Wiki describes it as “a paean to love, which transcends the adversities of fate and finds harmony in life.” In contrast with a slow movement based on love in ternary form, where we get only two glimpses of the emotion, the variations here in the longest movement of the work give us plentiful material to savor. It’s incredibly touching.

The finale is also in sonata form and is surprisingly jubilant for what we know of Smetana’s life. What’s being celebrated? Palmer tells us it is “expressing Smetana’s joy at “treat[ing] national elements in music.”” After all, he is the ‘father of Czech music’. It seems then, that we’ve moved away from the composer as individual, zoomed out to see what he accomplishes in the larger scope of his career. Or have we?

Throughout both of the subjects of the finale, the movement is relatively buoyant, but that atmosphere comes to a literally screeching halt with the rather long coda. Wait for the first of the extremely high-pitched notes from violin and the reappearance of material from the first movement. While it seems the work was not in a cyclical structure, we have indeed come full-circle, with the piercing high notes Smetana describes:

The long, insistent note in the finale…is the fateful ringing in my ears of the high-pitched tones which, in 1874, announced the beginning of my deafness.

What a truly epic string quartet this is. four vivid, incredibly well-crafted movements that do eventually come together to form one mature, cohesive big picture. It might be a bit backwards to present such a final, comprehensive statement of the composer’s life as the first work of his to appear on the blog, but it’s a wonderful piece, and an excellent argument for hearing more of his work, of which I am greatly ignorant.

In any case, that’s all for now, but do stay tuned for a brand new series starting in the next few days. It’ll be big. Thank you for reading.

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