Logically, a foreigner who did not see those days at first hand would probably imagine that at a time when an egg cost as much... as the price of a luxury car in the past... women would be rushing through the streets tearing their hair, shops would be empty because no one could afford to buy anything, and the theaters and other places of entertainment would have no audiences at all. Astonishingly, however, it was just the opposite. The will for life to go on proved stronger than the instability of the currency. In the midst of financial chaos, daily life continued almost unchanged. Individuals, of course, felt a great deal of change--the rich were impoverished when their money in banks and government securities melted away, spectators grew rich. But regardless of individual fates, the flywheel of the mechanism kept on turning in the same old rhythm. Nothing stood still. The baker made bread, the cobbler made boots, the writer wrote books, the farmer cultivated the land, trains ran regularly, the newspaper ly outside your door every morning at the usual time, and the places of entertainment in particular, the bars and theaters, were full to overflowing. For with the daily loss in value of money, once the most stable aspect of life, people came to appreciate true values such as work, love, friendship, art and nature all the more, and in the midst of disaster the nation as a whole lived more intensely than ever before, strung to a higher pitch. Young men and girls went walking in the mountains and came home tanned brown by the sun, music played in the dance halls until late at night, new factories and businesses were founded everywhere. I myself do not think I ever lived and worked with more intensity and concentration than I did in those years. What had been important to us before mattered even more now. Art was never more popular in Austria than at the time of chaos. Money had let us down; we sensed that what was eternal in us was all that would last.
I will never forget what operatic performances were like in those days of our greatest need. You groped your way through dimly lit streets, for street lighting was feeling the effects of the fuel shortage, you paid for your seat in the gallery with a bundle of banknotes that would once have allowed you to hire a luxurious box for a year. You sat in your overcoat, because the auditorium was unheated, and pressed close to your neighbors for warmth--and the theater itself, once brilliant with uniforms and expensive gowns, was so dismal and grey! No one knew whether it would still be possible for the opera to keep going next week if money went on falling in value and there were no coal deliveries. Everything seemed doubly desperate in this scene of former luxury and imperial extravagance. The musicians of the Philharmonic sat in the pit, also grey shadows of themselves, emaciated and exhausted by deprivation, and we in the audience looked like ghosts in this now ghostly theatre. But then the conductor raised his baton, the curtains parted, and it was more wonderful than ever before. The singers and musicians gave of their best, for they all felt that this might be the last time they performed in the theatre they loved. And we listened with bated breath, more receptvie than ever, knowing that for us, too, this might be the last time. Thousands of us, hundreds of thousands, lived like this. We all strained ourselves to the limit in these weeks and months and years on the brink of downfall. I never felt the will to live in a nation and in myself as strongly as I did then, when the end of everything, life and survival itself, was at stake.The quote is describing Vienna, not Prague, and I've taken its references to any German speaking territory out, because the conditions could describe anywhere in Europe during the wars. It's from The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, his memoir of what it meant to be an exile from a fragile kingdom of culture that ceased to exist with Hitler because Hitler wanted to make a version of it permanent. Like so many rich German Jews, Zweig found himself a bit chased by Hitler, first to London, but when the Blitz came to England, Zweig wrongly sensed that a free England's days were numbered, so he crossed the Atlantic Ocean to New York, where he found something arguably worse than Nazis - vulgarity, and left for Brazil. Zweig, a Jew and lifelong socialist and pacifist, thought himself as much a citizen of the world as an Austrian, but whatever world to which he belonged had revoked his citizenship. He was, in his own words: “miles and miles away from all that was formerly my life, books, concerts, friends and conversation.” And in the Brazillian town of Petropolis, he and his wife took an overdose of barbituates; when they were found, they were holding hands.
This concert on the fifth of June, 1939. The Germans, double crossing Hitler's promise to Neville Chamberlain, captured Czechoslovakia on March 15th of that same year. Every movement of Ma Vlast's six was followed by a thunderous ovation that can be heard over the radio aircheck. What we cannot hear is the spontaneous eruption of the Czech national anthem which followed the performance - a real life equivalent to the Marseillaise scene in Casablanca. This was music making so powerful that the Nazis banned the piece from performance in occupied Czechoslovakia until the Czech Philharmonic, with their nearly-forgotten founding music director, Vaclav Talich, forced the issue by playing the work in Berlin and creating a sensation there. Afterwards, Smetana's Ma Vlast was allowed to be performed again in the occupied Czechoslovakia, but just the next year, the Nazis dismissed Vaclav Talich from his post and closed most of Prague's important cultural institutions.
In orchestral music, as in every kind of music, there are some concerts that go into legend. Many of these concerts have been recorded, and legend is sometimes more important than the performance itself. At this point in history, the most legendary conductor is of all is probably Wilhelm Furtwangler. His most famous performance is Beethoven's 9th in 1942. Some music lovers, not me, think it's an unparalleled event in musical performance and a large part of the aura around that recording is a disproven rumor that Hitler was in the audience. His performance of the same piece in 1951 is similarly legendary for a lot of people because it commemorated the postwar resurrection of the Bayreuth Festival which Wagner founded to promote his own music - and Hitler used for all manner of propaganda, when Bayreuth came back, it was as though German culture itself came back. Furtwangler's Beethoven 9 from 1954 is legendary because he apparently decided during that performance that he no longer wanted to live, and died three months later. A certain kind of classical music lover will always say that they hear Furtwangler's agony in the '42 performance, or a kind of awed solemnity in '51, or his serenity in the '54 performance. Classical music obsessives were always a strange breed of people, but given how against the current you have to swim to love this music in 2018, you have to be still weirder to love this music now.
A few perhaps will say the same about Bernstein's excruciatingly slow Beethoven's 9th in 89' Berlin after the fall of the Wall, or his Shostakovich 5 from '59 - the height of the Cold War when he took the New York Philharmonic to play it in Moscow, where Shostakovich loved the performance so much that he hugged Bernstein onstage. Such legends have grown around Bruno Walter's performance of Beethoven's Fidelio at the Metropolitan Opera after braving the u-boats to come to America in 1941 and his Mahler 9 in '38 - two weeks before the Anchluß, or Willem Mengelberg's performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in the year before the Nazi invasion of Holland, or Carl Schuricht conducting Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde in '39 Amsterdam when, at a quiet moment some lady shouts out 'Deutschland über Alles, Herr Schuricht", or Furtwangler's Bruckner 5 in 1942 Berlin when you can supposedly hear bombs going off in the distance - that recording is one of my favorite recordings of anything, but I've never heard even a dull thud. Whether or not these performances are worthy of their reputations, there's an aura that seems to have grown around them because at crucial moments of life and death, music simply seems to mean more, and whether the performances are objectively better, many of them certainly are riskier - more extreme tempos, rawer sounds - or at least that's what it seems like through the compressed sonics. Whether or not these performances deserve their reputations, they're larger than life statements of music making from an era when life was so large because it was suffused with death. Except for Beethoven 9, Smetana's Ma Vlast is almost unique in that it has at least three such legendary performances, and they're all fully worthy of their reputation, and we'll talk a lot more about that third, more famous performance, later.
So now, a few minutes on Wagner from a very perceptive though eccentric music writer: David P. Goldman. (whole thing)
Siegfried, the opera from which this excerpt comes, premiered in in 1876. Ma Vlast was begun in 1874. The score was finished five years earlier, so it's conceivable albeit doubtful that Smetana had played through the score on his own time. But unless Smetana had the score, and more informed musicologists than I would know better, it stands as an uncanny coincidence that both Wagner and Smetana were creating their own forms of musical nationalism at the exact same historical moment, using almost completely reciprocal musical chord progressions from each other.
Entrance to Heil dir, Sonne (up to 1:14)
And here, now, is Smetana's motif, very nearly the same chords, but in backwards order. (up to 1:15:10)
Wagner chords free-float in a river of chromaticism without any solid ground upon which to stand. There's plenty of harmonic chromaticism and dissonance in Ma Vlast, but Smetana's chords fundamentally stand firmly on the solid ground of tonal harmony. But Wagner was the great influence upon every composer of his time, either in imitation or in rebellion. Smetana, like so many composers of his generation, owed Wagner everything. Here is Wagner's evocation of Germany's Rhine river in full flow Das Rheingold, which King Ludwig of Bavaria forced Wagner to premiere in advance of the entire Ring Cycle's completion and which he music world must have known intimately in piano reduction afterward. (Bohm/Bayreuth '66 up to 3:33) And now, here is Smetana's evocation of Czechoslovakia's Vltava River in full flow in the middle of The Moldau. (up to 19:24)
Personally, I think Smetana must have seen the score to Siegfried, however difficult it might have been to come by. Here are the two violin sections, alone at the top of their register, at the end of Brunhilde's awakening becomes complete and she hails the sun (Kraus/Bayreuth) up to the end of the clip). And now, the moment in The Moldau when The Vltava river goes so far beyond our line of vision that it disappears (Kubelik/Czech Phil up to 27:16). But if Smetana didn't see the score, then the parallels are that much more uncanny - one of those cosmic coincidences history sometimes presents us with in which two creators climb their way through opposite sides of the same mountain and meet at the summit.
It's fruitless to imagine a difference between these two nationalisms by the way their composers use harmony. But there's clearly a difference in the use of their musical materials and their musical aims. Wagner's harmonic use was expansive, trying to create something extra-musical in the midst of the richest musical tradition of his time, and perhaps of all-time - a world populated by gods and dwarves and soulstates and transfigurations. Whether or not Wagner meant it that way, it was music that quickly became catnip to intellectuals in a country who wanted to show the world that they were not only a great nation, but a better nation than others. Smetana merely wanted his music merely to get the Czechs a small space at the table of great music. One time, Smetana heard the great Austrian conductor Johann Herbeck, the first great champion of Bruckner, complain that for all the world's great Czech musicians, there were no great composers.
To show that Smetana's music, and Czech music itself, was ready to be thought as great as any other, Smetana deliberately channeled not only Wagner, but the giant of giants, Beethoven himself. Here is the beginning of the famous theme from Beethoven's 9th (up to 47:36). And here it is in completely disguised form as a polka-like dance in the first movement of Ma Vlast. (up to 0:15)
By the late-19th century Beethoven's music probably became seen as a lot more pompous than Beethoven meant it to be. But it's as though Smetana is presenting a conception of music, a Czech conception of music, completely foreign to Wagner-era Germany. More earthy and physical, more rooted in dance, more deliberately raucous, and far less concerned with the state of the soul. A music for direct application and instant communication, a music by which can not only be loved by the educated connoisseur but elevate peasants to the connoisseur's level. And a music that, at least in that sense, takes up Beethoven's mantle far more than Wagner ever wished to.
And it was Beethoven who provided Smetana with the most important way forward of all in the great crisis of Smetana's life - the crisis that would kill him ten years later. Nobody quite knows why Beethoven went deaf, the cause is sometimes attributed to an auto-immune disorder like Lupus, or perhaps to typhus, some quacks even think it was Beethoven's habit of dousing his head in cold water to wake himself up. But in Smetana's case, he woke up at the age of fifty to find himself deaf in one ear, and woke up three weeks later to find himself deaf in the other. The cause was simple and as nineteenth century as causes come: syphilis. Within eight years, Smetana would experience hallucinations and sometimes lose his power of speech, and within nine, he would be a violent threat to those around him. In 1884, one of the greatest and most eminent artists in the world would die in Prague's Katerinky Asylum for Lunatics. The crowd for his funeral was in the thousands, all lined up to pay tribute to the artist who gave them voice.
Harp solo in Vysehrad (up to 0:58)
Beginning a 75 minute orchestral work with a harp solo. Right away, we know that this is a different, kind of orchestra than was ever used before - not even Wagner or Berlioz begin an orchestral work with a harp solo. The harp is supposed to represent the legendary bard of Czech mythology, Lumir - so already by referencing mythology, we see the same nostalgia about which David Goldman talks. Perhaps Lumir strumming on a medieval lute. So what tale exactly is Lumir telling us?
Well, Vysehrad is the ancestral seat of Czech memory and its earliest glory, which, like so many small European nations, goes back far into the first millenium. It's the primal longing and nostalgia of the Czech historical narrative. The title of this movement is Vysehrad. Vysehrad is the site of the long since destroyed castle of the earliest Bohemian kings, two of whom also became Holy Roman Emperors. To this day, small churches exist on the site that were built between the eighth and eleventh centuries by the Premyslid Dynasty. Vysehrad was the original settlement of Prague, and to this day, it's customary for many Czechs to celebrate the New Year by going to the site.
But Smetana is also telling us a tale. The first two treble notes of the work are Bb and Eb, or in German notation, B, Es. The initials of Bedrich Smetana. It's an official declaration, a defiance, Smetana will go on.
It was only at fifty years old, when Smetana went deaf, that he began to compose full time. Until he was fifty, he was head of the Prague Provisional Opera and wrote a steady diet of music journalism. It was only when Smetana went deaf, neither able to conduct or to review performing musicians, forced by the manager of his opera company to sell the royalties to the company in exchange for an extremely meagre annual stipend, that he was forced into composition full time.
Within three months of his deafness, he'd written both Vysehrad and the most famous of all his works, The Moldau. It was a Beethovenian feat, and he'd fully earned the right to appropriate Beethoven's music for his own purposes.
But like so many composers, Beethoven was the giant from whose shadow he could no more free himself than the average Czech could from the Austrian Empire. There were two Bohemian Holy Roman Emperors, and afterwards, the Bohemian claim to the throne was supplanted by the Hapsburgs of Austria, and thereafter the Bohemains and the Moravians, whom together make the Czechs, became subject to Austrian domination for five-hundred years. The moment after Smetana quotes Beethoven's 9th, with its message of universal brotherhood, there is a long and noisy chromatic descent into the low notes of the orchestra that's supposed to symbolize the fall of Vysehrad Castle. For Czechs, universal brotherhood was a nice idea until it made them tyrannized for an endless series of generations.
Beethoven's 9th quote/Fall of Vysehrad - Ancerl (up to 9:25)
Both nationalism and internationalism are based on questions of identity and social justice. Polar opposites, because they're polar opposites and therefore based upon determining answers to the same questions, have more in common than any concept which might seem similar to them. Nationalism may seem like a poisonous disaster to us, but it seemed as much the answer to questions of how to redress social injustice in the 19th century to tens or hundreds of millions as internationalism or transnationalism or intersectionality seem in our day. They are all based on the idea that people should be free to live freely and proudly within their identities. There's no denying the truth of that statement, but will internationalism, in any of its various forms, do any better than nationalism when people come to the realization that they may have to take up the cause of redressing injustice by force? And more importantly, does it matter?
Humans will always dream of better days and better things, it's what keeps us alive from day to day. And their hopes and dreams of a better world are what enable them to build better worlds. Just as the dreams of greater equality through diversity inspire us today, dreams of greater equality through monoculture inspired people a hundred fifty years ago. In either case, is the hope that sustains us and allows us to, ever so slowly, move forward step by halting step into a world where problems can be solved.
When you go to Vysehrad, as I did fifteen years ago, you see the peaceful landscape, and you immediately see how and why it means so much to so many - no less than the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty might to an American, and you feel some small measure of peace knowing that millions of people have come here to feel hope, and that is the sentiment on which Smetana seems to end Vysehrad. (Talich - to the end of the clip)
And so we come to The Moldau. One of the most beloved pieces of music ever written, in the Czech Republic and everywhere else in the world. A perfect piece of music in which not a note should ever be changed. And therefore, we are going to go through it note by note and talk about this miracle of composition. Interpolating the program note the composer used with my own description - forgive the purple prose, but The Moldau seems to invite it.
In the beginning was nature, and before there was even water, there was vapor, and the vapor on the rock of mountains turned to ice. The ice melts, and from there forms our bodies of water. (up to 1:04) Stream by stream, thread by thread, drip by drip, Smetana creates a musical river. It begins with the two streams that form the Vltava river, or Moldau in German, the cold Vltava and the warm Vltava, until they make a warm, wet river bed in which both streams unify into a single current. (up to 2:49)
Those of you who know the Israeli national anthem now hear exactly where it comes from. I'm sure you hear the occasional ominous rush of the current which threatens to go from a river that invites people in to a river that dashes those who dare cross it upon the rocks. But then we hear the the thousand year procession of hunters in the woods and meadows Bohemian forest, noblemen and peasants alike, using their hunting horns to signify where they are so the other hunters don't shoot them, communing with the earth in an era before industrial farming when a hunter could still imagine himself part of nature's great chain of being. (up to 3:42)
And then, a wedding dance, a dance like so many Central-to-East European composers. The first and only people whose faces we will see on the course of this river tale. A wedding is life, and this piece is the continuity of life is what this piece is about. (up to 5:18)
After the wedding comes the wedding night. But perhaps, this being the 19th century, Smetana can't speak something so graphic out loud, so he calls it the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine. Mermaids have a great romantic pedigree in music: Wagner's Rhine Maidens, Dvorak's Rusalka, Mendelssohn's Fair Melusine, Zemlinsky's Seejungfrau. You hear not only the river flowing onward in the high winds with crossrhythms in the clarinet creating a sheen that sounds like moonliht, but the song of the mermaids in muted violins that in itself creates an aural sheen so luminous that could be moonlight in itself. (up to 7:43)
The sun rises, and The Moldau, as ever, is there for a new day. But rivers, like all nature, is as terribly dangerous as inviting. And we pass the now extinct St. John's Rapids, we see just how lethal this wonder of nature can be. Nature destroys people, families, cities, whole nation states. But a phenomenon that is not large enough to kill is also not large enough to give life. After St. John's Rapids, the Moldau reaches its widest point, wide enough to give birth to Prague and the entire story of this ancient and gorgeous city. And then it flows broadly onward, into the distance, in which bodies of water seem to move more slowly until they disappear from view, the mystery of nature, as ever, intact. (up to the end)