Trip through time: 'Ma vlast' brings pride to the Czechs

Trip through time: 'Ma vlast' brings pride to the Czechs

LITOMYSL, Czech Republic - Bedrich Smetana, the composer known for his symphonic poem "Ma vlast" (My homeland), expressed the Czech spirit through music and is referred to as the father of Czech music.

Music by the composer, who was born in Litomysl, stirs up patriotism, and has encouraged its people at every turning point in the modern history of the Czech Republic, from independence to democratization.

During a tour of the Renaissance castle in Litomysl, with its gorgeous chandeliers, 34-year-old guide Zdenka Kalova said: "The young Smetana played the piano in this castle and impressed adults.

The count who owned the castle had an appreciation for art, and the atmosphere of the castle probably brought benefits to development later."

Smetana was born in a brewery on the premises of the castle. His father, a brewer, made Smetana take violin and piano lessons, and he quickly progressed.

Smetana continued to study music in Prague after he and his family moved away from Litomysl when he was 7 years old.

He expressed determination in his diary at 18 that his piano techniques would be comparable to Liszt and his composition talent comparable to Mozart.

It was in the 1860s when Smetana moved back to Prague from Sweden, where he worked to make a living, that he started actively composing ethnic pieces.

A nationalistic movement to gain independence from Austria was on the rise among Czechs. And there was growing demand among the citizens for a place to stage their own opera in their own language rather than German.

The first theatre for performing Czech operas was built in Prague, and Smetana became its music director. He worked on one opera after another, including "The Bartered Bride" and "Libuse."

"Smetana's music is nothing like a cliched rehash of folk songs. It expresses Czech history, culture, nature and climate with a unique sensitivity, reflecting the influence of mainstream European music at the same time. It has been accepted by the Czech people as their music, and has also received recognition in the world," comments Olga Mojzisova, 58, head of the Bedrich Smetana Museum in Prague.

Composing after hearing loss

Smetana suffered hardship, losing his hearing at the height of his career at the age of 50. But even then, he strenuously continued to compose music.

Mojzisova said, "The music he wrote with a strong will encouraged the fighters of the nationalist movement, and led to independence at the beginning of the 20th century."

Vojtech Stritesky, 53, artistic director of the Smetana's Litomysl International Opera Festival held in the town every summer, looks back on the Velvet Revolution 25 years ago that brought down the communist regime.

"I was a teacher at a music school back then. When the students asked me what was going to happen, I let them listen to 'Ma vlast' and told them that they were going to regain freedom," Stritesky said.

"He made them feel proud to be Czechs, as well as citizens of Litomysl," Michal Kortys, the 52-year-old mayor of Litomysl, said describing the great composer whose hometown he shares.

Ishiguro is a correspondent in Geneva.

Smetana left the Czech Republic in his early 30s for Sweden, where he worked as a conductor and pianist for five years in Gothenburg. After moving back to Prague in 1861, he worked as a conductor and composer. "Ma vlast," is made up of symphonic poems including his masterpiece, " Vltava," which vividly portrays the course of the Vltava River, and was completed after he lost his hearing in 1874. He died at the age of 60.

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