Bedrich Smetana was born in Litomysl, in what is now the Czech Republic, on March 2nd 1824. Taking music lessons from his father, he showed prodigious talent, playing in a string quartet when he was five, and making his piano debut a year later. He studied hard, and just about managed to earn a living as a teacher, but failed in his efforts to start a career as a concert pianist.
Smetana married in 1849, but life was still hard: in the years that followed, his financial problems continued, three of his four children died, and political uncertainty strengthened his patriotic feelings. In 1856 he accepted a position as a piano teacher in Sweden, and his prospects improved. He was in demand as a pianist and composer, and inspired by Liszt he wrote his first symphonic poems. He lost his wife to tuberculosis, and in 1861 returned to Prague with his second wife, wanting to be involved in the reawakening of Czech culture after its release from political tension.
It wasn't until 1866 that Smetana began to have much success with his compositions. The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, his first opera, was very well received, and was followed by The Bartered Bride. Between 1866 and 1874 Smetana was principal conductor of the Prague National Theatre, and in that time he wrote a further six operas, including Dalibor and Libuse (1881), his two most nationalistic works. He also worked on a huge cycle of orchestral poems called Ma Vlast (My Fatherland).
Syphilis caused the deterioration of Smetana's hearing, and while working on Ma Vlast he was driven to distraction by the constant high pitched whistling of tinnitus, a sound which appears in the String Quartet From My Life (1876). Although he managed to carry on working on operas and another string quartet, he became totally deaf in 1874, and by 1884 his mental balance was so disturbed that he was taken to an asylum, where he died that year on 12th May.
His work has never been very well known outside of his homeland, mainly because political pressures of the time prevented wider exposure. But with his fresh and bright expression of national identity he was perhaps the founder of Czech music, a forerunner of Dvorak, Janacek and Martinu.
- MIDI FILE - "Skocna" (5'58'')