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

In “The Worst of 2021” post, there was a much-neglected gem amid all the filler:  this January 2021 post about Czech composer Bedřich Smetana‘s The Moldau.  My good friend and former colleague H. L. Liptak—herself a noted writer and a recent subscriber, *hint, hint*—praised it in her a comment on “The Worst.”

That got me thinking about this post, and that it deserved a comeback.  Thus, here is January 2022’s “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):

img_20210120_115509585

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

26 thoughts on “TBT: The Joy of Romantic Music II: Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau”

  1. I’m hopeless, Port. That Moldau is as annoying to me as Suite No. 1. I just went online to get the name of the piece and listened to Yo Yo Ma play it … and it just sets my teeth on edge. It’s like listening to someone repeat themselves over and over and over again. Shudder. I know … I know, I just can’t help it. Alys, I’m sure will be charmed … I just can’t hack it, lol! Consider it a character flaw.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the music lesson, Port.

    I am also a great fan of music that depicts nature. Much of BOC (Boards of Canada not Blue Oyster Cult) does this which is why I love their music so much. I find that listening to it while I’m writing is a great boon. Next time you’re jotting an article, put on Satellite Anthem Icarus by BOC. It’ll relax every sinew including the organ that matters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I surely will, Ponty! Thanks for the recommendation. My Middle School students and I listened to _The Moldau_ this morning in class (we are virtual this week, so it made for a good, engaging lesson). They loved it! It generated some good discussion, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m glad about that. Discuss to your hearts content because if online learning kicks in, good discussion will be gone.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Boy, you’re telling me. I can already feel the ill effects of prolonged online learning—and we’re only on the fourth day of it! It seems there is talk of extending it into next week, too, but I am hoping we are back.

        Don’t get me wrong: I love being at home with Murphy, and teaching at a more leisurely pace. But it’s not good for the students, long-term, and even I, e’er the hermit, begin to miss the social interaction and the intellectual stimulus of face-to-face teaching.

        On the plus side, I’m driving to two students’ homes this afternoon for piano lessons, and that should be fun. The first house has two excited Boston Terriers, which will make it even more fun.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. ‘Gotta add that flick to my list.’

    No, you don’t, you really don’t! I’m pretty sure that when I first came here, I linked in my review for that and its horrible follow up. No one else need see those films.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Here’s a question.

        There’s a gorgeous piece of classical music in the Sigourney Weaver film Copycat which plays while she’s looking through files at her home. It’s not on the soundtrack and I haven’t been able to find a clip of it online to ascertain what that piece is. It doesn’t even feature on the credits at the end of the film.

        If you get the chance to watch Copycat (a good serial killer movie), let me know what that piece is, if you can. Thanks in advance. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • If I can locate the film, I’ll do my best. Surprisingly, I’m a bit of a n00b when it comes to classical music. I used to have season tickets to our philharmonic orchestra down in the State capital, and I learned a great deal from those concerts and their program notes. But it wasn’t until I started teaching this Pre-AP Music class last year that I _really_ started to understand and appreciate classical music at a deeper level.

        That said, I am getting better at identifying a piece of classical or Romantic music by upon hearing it, but my knowledge is far from encyclopedic (whereas I can tell you the artist and song of pretty much any standard track from classic rock radio within seconds—sometimes faster!—of hearing it).

        Liked by 1 person

  4. You’re lucky. One of my biggest faults when I was teaching was that I hated the students. I despised the staff even more but kids between the ages of 16-18 can be a handful.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Healthy discussion in the classroom, certainly when you’re teaching at A-level, is a lot more fun when the topic is challenging but the sort of stuff my head of department was teaching, and what she was encouraging us to teach, was pants. We also had EMA at that time too (a government initiative paying students to go to college in order to massage the job figures) and that made engagement tricky.

        It’s a shame I didn’t stick to my original plan and teach in Japan. Damn true love! 🙂 🙂 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • I wouldn’t mind finding true love in Japan. Konnichiwa!

        Yeah, it’s hard when you have an overbearing department head. I’ve never had to deal with that myself (although my administration at higher levels can micromanage at times), but I know people who have. When I was the Social Studies Department Head, I was SUPER hands-off. We had good teachers, and I let them do what they did best. I wasn’t looking to rebuild the curriculum or anything like that—just keep refining your classes and teach them well!

        I’ve been spoiled teaching at a private school. I complain about it, but compared to public schools, I get off easy.

        Like

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