A Note on Smetana's Macbeth

The orchestral version of “Macbeth and the Witches’ is, according to Brian Large, made by somebody named Otakar Jeremias. David’s research is correct, unsurprisingly! The orchestration is brilliant in the extreme. Nevertheless, the novelty of the piece is not primarily due to the orchestration. The quirky form of the piece and the exceedingly daring harmonic and textural idiom is attested to in Large’s book, and his musical illustrations are illuminating in this regard. Oddly, Liszt’s First Mephisto Waltz comes from 1859 as well, although Smetana almost certainly didn’t know it! The original title is simply “Macbeth”.

Is it patronizing of me to be surprised as the ferocity of this piece when Liszt had already done things even more experimental and daring well prior to Smetana’s effort? I don’t believe so, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the era of Liszt’s (and Berlioz’s and Chopin’s) heyday was marked by extraordinary radicalism, a radicalism that was essentially foreign to the age of Brahms, on the whole. Also, the status of Czech music itself in Smetana’s time was only just being established, and I know of no Czech predessessors doing anything like it. And Smetana was a conscious Nationalist, whose music frequently reflects a certain national pride occasionally bordering on jingoism. Smetana himself supposedly argued with a friend who tried to assert the international character of music, disagreeing vehemently.

Smetana set this poem, as “The Song of Freedom” in 1848:

“War! War! does the flag fly?

Rise up ye Czechs, for God is with us!

Stand firmly for your rights.

Guard your country and the glory of the Czechs!

The clamour that fills the air is

The sound of Zizka and of Tabor!

Whosoever is Czech must wield a sword!

Let there be blood and slaughter.

Let there be anger and terror.

Let there be cruel Hussite deeds!

Awake, take up your weapons you Czech lions!

God commands you to the Holy War!”

Given the conflicts of today’s world, this makes uncomfortable reading…