Smetana: Vltava (The Moldau)

The Vltava river runs 430 kilometers through the Czech Republic. It drains over half of Bohemia, is today home to nine hyroelectric dams, and is crossed by 18 bridges.

In 1848, 24-year-old Bedřich Smetana stood upon one of those bridges– The Charles Bridge, which crosses over the Vltava in Prague– and prepared to lay down his life for his country. Or at least, lay down his life for what he hoped would be his country: Smetana’s nascent Czech nationalism, in the “Springtime of the Peoples” of 1848, was part of the larger pattern of revolutions against the Austrian Empire where radicals, serfs and the middle class briefly joined together to demand an end to the monarchy and the creation of independent, democratic nation-states.

In Prague, a citizens’ army was formed to man the barricades on the Charles Bridge against the Austrian forces. The Austrians were led by Alfred Prince of Windisch-Grätz, whose wife had just been killed in the uprising. After that, the gloves came off: “They do not want to hear about the Grace of God? They will hear the grace of the cannon,” the Prince declared. He declared martial law across Bohemia, and the uprising was quickly crushed. Smetana escaped the encounter with his life, and being at that point a figure of no importance whatsoever in the movement for Czech nationalism, also escaped the imprisonment or exile imposed on the more important revolutionaries.

Prince Alfred could of course not have known that of all the combatants in the citizens’ army, it was the destitute young piano teacher Smetana who would become the single most significant exporter of Czech nationalistic culture. Not only that, but Smetana’s most celebrated work is a description of the very river whose bridge he had defended.

Vltava is the second movement of Smetana’s Má vlast (My Fatherland) suite. Given the themes of the piece and Smetana’s life’s work of Czech resistance to the Austrians, he would probably have objected to the fact that the work is now often known by its German name, The Moldau; but in either language, the music is seemingly worlds away from the chaos of the doomed barricade where Smetana fought as a young man. Má vlast was written nearly thirty years later, much of which Smetana had spent in Sweden. After the defeat of the Austrian army by the French at Solferino, however, he considered that the power of the Empire was waning and it was high time to return home and take advantage of the more liberal political atmosphere to work on creating a distinctly Czech musical tradition.

Vltava is a depiction of the river not as it was, but as it ought to be: gently intertwining threads of melody, growing gradually in power but always retaining their essentially peaceful quality. Not just the river, but the Czech people are presented in their idealized form, as the river flows past a farmer’s wedding in the countryside: joyful, pastoral and free from Austrian oppression.