Bedřich Smetana, world-class composer

Bedřich Smetana, world-class composer

The Vltava River roars and the harp sounds like from another world. Smetana is celebrating a jubilee

Bedřich Smetana, world-class composer
A crater on the planet Mercury has been named after him, and snippets of his operas were featured in famous movies such as Spider-Man or Man on the Moon. Through his music, Bedřich Smetana described the beauty of Czechia like no other composer before or since. This year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth and 140 years since his death. We present the story of a man whose worldwide fame rivals that of Mozart and other great symphonic masters.

Smetana also composed music when he was deaf

Bedřich Smetana is one of the greatest figures in the world of music, not only because his Bartered Bride has been performed more than any other opera at the National Theatre in Prague and the fanfares of his opera Libuše are played to mark the arrival of the Czech president during festive occasions. Yet, just like Ludwig van Beethoven, this phenomenal composer wrote his masterpieces when he was deaf or very hard of hearing.
No Czech music describes the beauty of the Czech landscape as perfectly as My Fatherland, a set of six symphonic poems by Bedřich Smetana. The second, and arguably the most famous, poem Vltava takes listeners on a voyage down the queen of Czech rivers, from where it rises in Šumava, through Prague and as far as the confluence with the Elbe.

Bronze statue of Bedřich Smetana in Prague.

Following in Smetana's footsteps in Prague

This year, we are commemorating two anniversaries of Bedřich Smetana here in Czechia. On the 2nd of March it will be the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth, while 12th May will mark 140 years since his death. There are lots of cultural events to look forward to as part of the special nationwide Year of Czech Music programme and the Smetana 200 project, featuring leading philharmonics, orchestras, star singers, conductors, theatre shows and festivals.

The famous Prague SMETANA choir has prepared a jubilee gala concert to symbolically mark the day of Smetana's birth (2 March) in the Smetana Hall of the Municipal House. Smetana’s My Fatherland is performed every year on 12 May, the anniversary of Smetana's death, as the first composition opening the acclaimed Prague Spring festival. This year’s performance will be particularly special, as My Fatherland will be performed by the world-class Berlin Philharmonic, which will be visiting Prague for the first time in ten years.

Bedřich Smetana: Song, Op.2/2
While in Prague, it’s also worth visiting the Bedřich Smetana Museum, located in the former Old Town Waterworks in a gorgeous spot by the Vltava River with views of Prague Castle. There, you can also see copies of Smetana’s letters and handwritten sheet music. It goes without saying that you can listen to audio snippets of his works.

Smetana Museum in Prague.
It’s worth noting that you can enjoy them in several romantic places around Prague. The first concert featuring all six symphonic poems that make up My Fatherland was performed in the Neo-Renaissance Žofín Palace on Slovanský ostrov, an island on the Vltava River now very popular with tourists.

His composition Vyšehrad celebrates the foundation of the Czech state and, as the former residence of the Czech kings, Vyšehrad is another place you really shouldn’t miss while on a walk around Prague. By the way, if you visit Vyšehrad you can actually see a sculptural version of the mythical singer Lumír and his symbolic Song.

On the trail of Smetana to his home town of Litomyšl

If you take a trip to the East Bohemian town of Litomyšl with its unique genius loci and its castle, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, you’re sure to make your way to the former castle brewery, where this famous composer was born in a ground-floor apartment in 1824. The premises have recently been renovated and house an exhibition that offers a thrilling insight into Smetana's childhood and the life of his family, who encouraged the young Bedřich in his love of music from an early age.

While in Litomyšl, be sure to check out the Bedřich Smetana Memorial on the central historical square, with its ancient Marian column, historical houses and the town hall with its astronomical clock. For decades now, Smetana’s birthplace has hosted the Smetana’s Litomyšl open-air festival. This year, the locals will mark his birthday by rolling out kegs of beer. Just as František Smetana, the brewmaster at the local brewery, did 200 years ago when he celebrated his son's birth along with the brewery staff. After all, “Bedříšek”, as the family used to call him, was the first son he had longed for after fathering many daughters.

Bronze memorial in Litomyšl.
A visit to Smetana’s Litomyšl, the second oldest music festival in Czechia and the largest classical music festival outside of Prague, which this year will be longer than ever before, from 13 June to 3 July, will be an extraordinary experience, and not just for its spectacular dramaturgy and amazing performances. One of the main attractions will be a gala concert by British-Italian tenor Freddie De Tommaso, acclaimed by experts as the successor of Luciano Pavarotti.

Smetana Days in Plzeň and My Fatherland in Český Krumlov

Homage will also be paid to Bedřich Smetana in the West Bohemian city of Plzeň, which will host the Smetana Days festival from 7 March to 11 April. In Plzeň, where the young composer spent part of his student life and creative years, the local theatre will be showing performances of all his operas.
Another event well worth a visit will be held on 12 July with the concert to launch the 33rd annual International Music Festival in Český Krumlov. That will feature My Fatherland right on the bank of the Vltava River, at a charming concert venue in this beautiful town in South Bohemia. The summer event, to be held amidst the gorgeous South Bohemian countryside, will last until 3 August.

Buried at Vyšehrad in Prague

Bedřich Smetana was distinctive for his shoulder-length hair and full beard. His glasses added a further touch of character to his appearance. The musical genius lived a life of misery towards the end, apparently as the result of an injury he sustained as a ten-year-old boy when he and his pals were playing with a bottle of gunpowder. Smetana also suffered a series of tragedies in his life. Of his six daughters, three died soon after birth.
An old postage stamp featuring a portrait of Bedřich Smetana.

In his fifties, he experienced auditory hallucinations. He first went deaf in his right ear, and then lost the hearing in his left soon afterwards. These ailments troubled him greatly. In 1879 he wrote: “I am deaf as a post.” Despite his handicap, he still managed to compose some brilliant works.
To this day, we do not know exactly what the famous composer died of. That’s because the end of his life, which he spent with his family in Jabkenice in the Mladá Boleslav region, is shrouded in mystery. Eventually, as his state of mind deteriorated, he was committed to the Mental Hospital in Prague. He died there at the age of 60.

Grave at Vyšehrad in Prague.
After his death he was laid to rest amongst other great Czechs at Vyšehrad Cemetery, in the monumental Slavín tomb. He shares his final resting place with figures such as the world-famous composer Antonín Dvořák, opera singer Emma Destinnová and Czechia’s most celebrated poet, Karel Hynek Mácha.
Smetana's descendants are still alive. Some of them reside in Spain and Japan.