Bedřich Smetana, 1824-1884
Bedřich Smetana emerges as the first truly nationalistic Czech composer. A generation older than Dvořák, Smetana participated in revolutionary protests against the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburgs, emigrated to Sweden for a time, and ultimately returned to Prague a prodigal son, celebrated for his numerous operas, orchestral and piano pieces reflecting Czech culture and identity. His personal life was very difficult. Smetana buried his first wife as well as three of his four daughters who died during infancy. In his mid-fifties, Smetana developed tinnitus, eventually became deaf and ultimately succumbed to madness most likely from syphilis. But to the chamber world in particular, he bequeathed two amazing works: a late string quartet and an earlier piano trio, both passionate epics of romantic expression deeply reflecting these personal tragedies.
Smetana wrote his only piano trio in1855 when he was just thirty-one. He dedicated the work to his oldest daughter Bedřiška who had just died at the age of four from scarlet fever, a young girl of great musical abilities with whom Smetana had an especially close relationship. He was devastated. Though he left no specific programmatic description of the trio, its grief-stricken and elegiac character is unmistakable. One of the most powerful works in the literature, it is equally historical. Influenced by Eastern-European folk music with its unbridled passion, spanning rhapsodic forms full of rich thematic variation and a piano style more Liszt than Chopin, Smetana’s lone piano trio is a milestone of romanticism. It predates and significantly presages music that would soon come from the likes of Brahms and Dvořák among others.
The first movement is a towering force of anguish and despair beginning with broad, devastating gestures that continue to tighten and accelerate until the final bars of near mania. The sonata principle contrasts this trajectory with something completely different: a lyrical, tender second theme rising gracefully between vicious onslaughts. Smetana described this as one of his daughter’s favorite melodies. Both the dark and light subjects significantly transform throughout the movement as the emotional tenor of the music rises to panic on one hand, shining triumph on the other. This alternation between dark and light – death and daughter – vividly continues throughout all three movements in a convincing expression of inconsolable grief illuminated “within” by nostalgia, the terror of tragedy juxtaposed with the gracious nobility of what it destroyed.
The middle movement is troubled rather than devastated. A worried scherzo unusually provides two different trios, each offsetting the surrounding gloom in its own way. The first offers a sighing, swaying melody of tender expression, the second, a march that is by turns luminous, then regal, then epic in an outpouring of bright light, again, the full heartbreaking majesty of what was but is no longer.
The finale is a swift, dashing rondo with at least three powerful evocations of Smetana’s apparent music program. The opening “gallop” undeniably evokes Schubert’s famous Erlking where a father and his son race on horseback, desperately fleeing death as it reaches for the child. Between episodes of frantic motion, there are soft lyrical interludes, the sigh of a child and the gentle nobility of Smetana’s daughter’s theme from the first movement. But the end is nigh, the contest fatal. The gallop halts, confronted by the stark, timeless dread of a funeral march, the unavoidable musical teleology of the entire trio. The music is not yet over. Smetana seems determined to end on a higher plane, the nature of which is difficult to describe: a flourish for purely musical reasons, or maybe a final affirmation of what survives, what death could not ultimately take away.