Greatest Tone Poem? Don't Forget to Consider Smetana's "From Bohemia's Woods and Valleys"

Smetana’s Ma Vlast (Read Wikipedia | Play recording) constitutes the greatest orchestral score between Berlioz and Brahms. I don’t raise an eyebrow if you would like to correct that to “between Beethoven and Mahler”. And the jewel in the crown is “From Bohemia’s Woods and Valleys”. (Czech: Z českých luhů a hájů)

Ma Vlast as a whole has more coherence than most symphonies; not only that, “The Moldau”, “Sarka”, and “From Bohemia’s Woods and Valleys” constitute miniature symphonies of their own; “The Moldau” is a four movement symphony, where the scherzo is the peasant wedding and the slow movement the wood nymphs…although I prefer to think of that exquisite A-flat major passage as amorous lovers floating by, probably because A-flat was Beethoven’s “amorous” key, and because Beethoven generally represents the standard against which other composers are measured…his conceptions have assumed a sort of central position. Consider for instance Mozart’s great c minor piano fantasy.  How often have you heard it described as “Beethovenian”, for instance? Anyway, leaving Beethoven aside, “Sarka” is a miniature five movement program symphony (ever notice how often program symphonies have five movements? “Pastoral”, “Fantastique”, etc.).

“From Bohemia’s Woods and Valleys” is a symphony as well, but not as obvious a construction as “Moldau” and “Sarka”, although it is in fact more deeply motivically integrated. The awsome wall of sound representing mighty nature that engulfs the listener at the very beginning generates most of the material for the rest of the composition. Unlike “Moldau”, the movements in “Woods and Valleys” are not easily separable; Nature is constantly re-inventing itself, from terrible majesty to warm beauty to proliferative, burgeoning life to a great epiphany when nature collides with humankind. The shepherd girl’s pastoral piping echoes nature’s sounds; she is a sort of emanation of nature herself. As such, she doesn’t provide dramatic conflict. The institution of social, communal life of the people is necessary to provide dynamic contrast, the people being represently by a strangely fierce polka in nature’s key of g minor. And g minor is Smetana’s “intense” key, consider for instance his great requiem trio for his daughter Bedriska.  

The structure of the piece is essentially 1. Mighty nature 2. Nature in its benignant aspect, the Shepherdess. 3. Nature as a continual process of renewal; proliferative nature, represented as a fugue, which is both fitting and ironic. Fitting, because no musical strategy is as much about growth, variation, replication, and proliferativeness as the fugue, ironic becasue fugue is the most intellectual and learned musical device. Nature is many things, but it is not intellectual! Apropos this irony, I’d like to quote Arnold Schoenberg:  “The most beautiful birdsong is never music, but the simplest modulation, accomplished correctly, is already music.” 4. The intrusion of human institutions, represented by a polka, the musical symbol of the Czech people. 5. Humans and nature transcend their inherent limitations and spiritually unite in a oneness. Does my description sound “artsy-fartsy”? I assure you, the music is not.

The piece is sublime in both the scarifying real meaning of the word, and also in the casual meaning which loosely means transcendant. By the way, Ma Vlast isn’t so much six loosely connected masterpieces as it is one masterpiece in six necessary and dependant parts. Play the whole thing, in order, please.  

Listening Choices

Smetana: Má Vlast

Smetana: Má Vlast


Rafael Kubelik’s triumphant return to the 1990 Prague Spring festival. This performance is briefly featured at the end of the Oscar-winning Czech film Kolya as the film’s protagonist resumes his rightful place in the cello section of the Czech phil.

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