Like the Czech nation had to be created in the 19th century, its national music had to be created as well. This role fell to Bedřich Smetana (1824–1884), who was allegedly more Czech and less Slavonic than Dvořák or Janáček. Smetana rose to the challenge, and in 1882 completed his amazing work, Má vlast, a cycle of six symphonic poems — Vyšehrad, Vltava, Šárka, Z českých luhů a hájů, Tábor and Blaník — which sing the praises of the historic milestones and picturesque landscapes in which the Czech nation had suffered and flourished. Though it may seem surprising, Smetana’s Má vlast continues to characterize the Czech nation in our cosmopolitan age. His fascinating cycle of symphonic poems is still an undisputed icon of the nation. Over time, it became a monument to anything and everything: Hitler and Stalin, Gottwald and Havel – they all listened to it. It is heard at celebrations and funerals, after defeats and victories, in advertisements, at funfairs and firework displays, everywhere, without anyone actually listening to it. Smetana’s music has disappeared under an accretion of ideas, ideologies, politics, and economic machinations.
Led by Pavel Šnajdr, the Brno Contemporary Orchestra has offered music as it is since 2011, without embellishment or cliché. With full confidence, it offers only what is in the actual score. With that as its mission, the orchestra selected composers to create their own versions of the symphonic poems in Smetana’s cycle, to recompose them as they hear them today. The brief was simple. We don’t want to provoke, we don’t want to parody, we don’t want to glorify; we are only interested in what Smetana’s Má vlast means to you today. Six autonomous works were written, offering six views of Smetana’s musical legacy.
Petr Kofroň takes one of the secondary motifs from Vyšehrad, only a fragment of an idea, a little joke, repeating it vigorously, unfolding it throughout his composition. Against the background of Smetana’s Vltava, Marek Piaček presents a post-modern, eclectic digression reaching to the music’s possible sources, from Monteverdi to an upright piano in a smoky cabaret. Miloš Štědroň’s Šárka is much more lascivious and seductive than Smetana’s; he transforms the drama of the Maidens’ War into a red-hot tango erotico. Pavel Zemek Novák respectfully wanders off in search of the age-old path in Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields) in order to arrive, exploiting fragments of Smetana’s music, at his distinctive style in unison with sustained notes. Miroslav Tóth’s reworking of Smetana’s Tábor largely dispenses with the bellicose roar of God’s warriors, though it is still heard in the background, only to be almost revealed in the conclusion. Under the fabled Blaník Mountain, a horde of valiant Hussite warriors are sleeping, waiting to aid the Czech nation on its journey to a fabulous future; yet so far they haven’t shown up, and in his piece, Daniel Forró provides a hyperbolic and ironic comment on this fact. Only when — in the distant future — the aliens attack us, will the fighters finally be roused from their sleep, and as the mountain creaks open, they ride out to charge the invaders and fight for the Czech nation, albeit as somewhat sleepy marionettes.
“I do not plagiarise any famous composer, I only admire their greatness, and from them I accept for myself all that I acknowledge as good, beautiful and, especially, true, in art.”
–Bedřich Smetana in a letter to Adolf Čech, 4 December 1882
First presented in a gala premiere at Prague’s Žofín on November 5th, 1882 under the baton of Adolf Čech, Bedřich Smetana’s imposing series of six symphonic poems, Má vlast, is described at every opportunity as the most amazing work in our history. So truthfully does it rouse, praise, and encourage the Czech people, whether we find ourselves subjected or victorious. It hardly needs to be listened to in order to be described in these terms. It has been venerated by the Czech nation, the Czechoslovak, and the Czech state by Masaryk, Hitler, and Stalin. It was performed at Prague Castle to mark the founding of Czechoslovakia, in Berlin and Dresden for NSDAP members, in arms factories to celebrate the construction of socialism, and in Prague’s Old Town Square when communism was toppled. It is played to promote Pilsner beer and Olomouc cheese, and to enhance state visits, school concerts, and festive fireworks. In short, anyone and anything can parasitise the cult of Má vlast.
Lest it be forgotten, we have decided to return to the most important aspect, the music itself. We have attempted to cleanse it of all its cultural, social, national, ideological, political, and economic baggage, and to examine in detail how Smetana’s celebrated Má vlast might sound in the 21st century.
The cycle of recomposed symphonic poems was commissioned in 2018 for a gala concert for the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the independent Czechoslovakia. Initially, we approached three Czech and three Slovak composers, but circumstances dictated that it ended up like the Pittsburgh Agreement and left us with four Czechs and two Slovaks. It was supposed to be varied, with diverse personalities and different compositional approaches; it was supposed to be free – distinctive composers unencumbered by notions about the right way to tackle it; it was supposed to be timeless – various generations and various experiences; and most important, it was supposed to be candid. And this is how it emerged: Petr Kofroň (Vyšehrad), Marek Piaček (Vltava), Miloš Štědroň (Šárka), Pavel Zemek Novák (Z českých luhů a hájů), Miroslav Tóth (Tábor) and Daniel Forró (Blaník).