The Joy of Romantic Music II: Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau”

Last Friday I wrote of the beauty and power—the sheer joy—of Romantic music, a topic I’ve covered once before on this blog.  In writing last week’s post, I noted briefly that Romantic music is nationalistic, which was certainly true in a number of cases.

Europe following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars was a hotbed of political activity and nationalist sentiment.  The Congress of Vienna (1815) redrew the map of Central Europe, reducing the hundreds of German principalities, bishoprics, duchies, baronies, and the rest into about a dozen political units, hoping these larger Germanic kingdoms would serve as a bulwark against future French aggression.  They did, and more—under the steady Realpolitik of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Prussia gradually grew to unite these new lands into the Second Reich—a unified Germany.

Meanwhile, smaller nations chafed under Austrian or French influence.  Bohemia—now part of the Czech Republic—fought against Austrian political rule and the German language that came with it.  Bohemians championed the revival of their native Czech language, and began revisiting Czech folklore and music as the resting place of the national spirit.

This process was not unique to Bohemia or the Czechs, but today’s featured piece, Czech composer Bedřich Smetana‘s The Moldau, is a prime of example of how nationalist musical ideas can capture beautifully a sense of a place, while also transcending national identity and borders.

The piece, a programmatic tone poem from Smetana’s cycle Má Vlast (My Country, or My Homeland), depicts a river cruise down The Moldau, Bohemia’s main river.  The symphonic cruise takes the listener through the fields and forests of Bohemia, depicting a forest hunt, a peasant wedding dance, water nymphs dancing by moonlight, the river’s rapids, the wide point of the river, and an ancient castle (Vyšehrad).

I’ve never been to Prague or the Czech Republic, but listening to The Moldau gives me a powerful sense of the place, at least as it appeared to Smetana in 1874.  The main melody is distinctly Bohemian, yet universal in its appeal (picture is from Roger Kamien’s Music: An Appreciation, Brief 8th Edition, 2015, page 244):

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I am a big sucker for program music—music that depicts a place or a story, especially those that depict nature.  In addition to appreciating the nationalistic nature of this piece, I also love its naturalistic characteristics:  the shimmery moonlight on the water, the hunters in the forest, the crumbling ruins of the old riverside castle.  The entire piece feels far shorter than its actual length, because it weaves these musical vignettes together so seamlessly.

In his program notes, Smetana described the music thusly (transcribed, again, from the Kamien, page 243):

The composition depicts the course of the river, beginning from its two small sources, one cold the other warm, the joining of both streams into one, then the flow of the Moldau through forests and across meadows, through the countryside where merry feasts are celebrated; water nymphs dance in the moonlight; on nearby rocks can be seen the outline of ruined castles, proudly soaring into the sky.  The Moldau swirls through the St. John Rapids and flows in a broad stream toward Prague.  It passes Vyšehrad, and finally the river disappears in the distance as it flows majestically into the Elbe.

As you listen to the clip above, keep that description in mind.  Program music is a wonderful introduction to Romantic and classical music, as it does some of the interpretative heavy-lifting for you.  Listen closely and you’ll hear these different scenes depicted musically.

Now, I suppose I should compose my own flowing programmatic piece about a local river.  Somehow, the muddy waters of the Greater Pee Dee don’t seem quite as inspiring as the nymph-filled waters of the moonlit Moldau.

Fortunately, I already have a cycle of programmatic pieces of my own.

Happy Listening!

—TPP

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