Bedřich Smetana (1824−1884)


Bedřich Smetana was born on 2 March 1824 in the Bohemian village of Litomyšl and died on 12 May 1884 in Prague. From the autumn of 1856 to the spring of 1861, and with a visit in the spring of 1862, he lived and worked in Gothenburg, primarily as a piano teacher, but also as a concert pianist, choir and orchestra conductor, concert organizer and to some extent as a composer. Within all of these activities he had a great impact on the music scene in Gothenburg. When he returned to Prague and his homeland, he came to have great significance for Czech art music.

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)

Photo by unknown, 1878. 



Childhood and youth

Bedřich Smetana received his first musical education from his father, František Smetana (1777−1857), a beer brewer in Litomyšl. His mother was Barbora Smetanová (née Lynková) (1792−1864). Bedřich initially took violin lessons, but his interest in the piano soon took over. His ambition was to ‘be a Liszt in piano and a Mozart in composition.’ He received the majority of his training through private studies with Joseph Proksch at his music institute in Prague.

After his studies, and with his plans to be a touring pianist crushed, Smetana opened a music institute in Prague in August 1848. With the income from his music school and from private lessons – mainly within the aristocracy, Smetana was able to start a family. In 1849 he married Kateřina, formerly Kolářová (1827−1859), who was also a pianist and worked in the music institute. Kateřina (Käthe) gave birth to four daughters in the early 1850s but three of them died during the years 1854−56. She herself then contracted the tuberculosis that a few years later would take her life. Smetana took the death of his oldest, and very musically talented, daughter Bedřiška in 1855 very hard, and it was during his mourning for her that he wrote his Piano Trio in G minor that same year.

The Gothenburg era 1856−61

While deep in the disappointment over his lack of successes, some news reached Smetana from Alexander Dreyschock, also a pianist in Prague. Dreyschock had completed a concert tour in Sweden, including Gothenburg. There he had been asked by Mrs Eleonore Dickson, wife of the merchant James J. Dickson – a generous contributor to the music scene – if Dreyschock knew of a good piano teacher for the family’s young ladies. When this message reached Smetana, he decided to change course and move abroad. The day after his arrival on 16 October 1856 there was a notice in the newspaper, Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning (GHT) announcing that ‘a performer on the piano, Mr. F [Friedrich] Smetana,’ had, on the recommendation of Dreyschock, come to the city to give lessons.

The first concert took place a week later in Blom’s salon along with Smetana’s countryman Joseph Czapek and his orchestra; Czapek himself had arrived in the city a few years earlier and then settled there permanently. Besides two overtures, Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor with Smetana as a soloist was performed, and probably included his own handwritten solo cadences to the two outer movements. Other works that were played included piano pieces by Chopin, Mendelssohn, Handel, Liszt, and finally, Polka in F-sharp major op. 7:1, composed by Smetana himself. The critical acclaim was effusive and a second concert was given a few weeks later.

After an announcement in the GHT Smetana was soon able to open a music institute. Teaching was conducted in classes of six to eight students. The subjects were piano performance and music theory. Smetana became immensely popular and was soon unable to accept more students. It was exclusively young ladies and their mothers from the city’s richest families who took his classes. One student was singer Christina Nilsson, who as a child had been taken care of by Baroness Adelaide Leuhusen, herself a very good singer.

If Smetana taught the young bourgeoisie ladies by day, he taught and socialized with their parents during the evenings. This took place within the Harmoniska sällskapet (the Harmonic Society), which had been founded in Gothenburg in 1808. Smetana worked with that group on works for choir and orchestra, mainly by Mozart, Haydn and Mendelssohn. The concert performances took place in private settings.

Smetana was never happy in Gothenburg, but rather felt like a stranger in a distant land, with weather that he found unbearable, a cultural climate that was poor compared with that of his home country and socializing with people that he consistently described in his diary as superficial and boring. He wrote about this regularly in his diary, but also in, for example, a letter to Liszt.

During the second year in Gothenburg he was joined by his wife Käthe and their only remaining daughter Žofie. It seemed that Smetana was about to establish himself permanently in Gothenburg, but when his wife’s tuberculosis became worse during the early spring of 1859 the family decided to give up and return home. However, Käthe died in Dresden on their way home, and after a long summer break Smetana decided to return to Gothenburg. It would turn into another two years for him in Sweden with similar activities as in the past, namely lessons in the music institute, teaching works to the Harmoniska sällskapet followed by private performances, chamber concerts and larger orchestral concerts together with Joseph Czapek.

In April 1861 Smetana made a concert trip to Stockholm, stopping off in Norrköping to give another concert on his way home. At this point he had already decided to return to Prague.

Return to Prague

In the spring of 1861 a political change had occurred in his homeland, which primarily had to do with the weakening of Austria and the Habsburg Empire, which affected neighbouring countries positively. A composition competition on a Czech theme had been announced, and it was also determined that a provisional theatre would be built in Prague while waiting for the National Theatre to be completed.

Back in Prague however, not everything developed as Smetana had hoped. This was partly due to the fact that he was relatively unknown because he had lived abroad for five years, and partly because of internal conflicts between those who were the driving forces within the music scene. Therefore, in the spring of 1862 he was forced, once again to make a concert trip, which led him back to Gothenburg for a two-month visit.

The remaining part of Smetana’s life can be characterized as largely tragic: his difficulty in establishing himself in his home country after his studies, the mourning over the deaths of three of his four daughters and his wife Käthe, a not entirely harmonious new marriage, strife and intrigues at the theatres in Prague when Smetana returned as well as infighting within the music scene in general, where Smetana largely came to be set against Antonín Dvořák and was accused of ‘Germanism’. Other difficulties included his hearing problems – becoming totally deaf from 1874, financial difficulties despite public successes – primarily with the opera The Bartered Bride, increasing mental problems and finally languishing in a cell for the mentally ill. When news of Smetana’s death reached Franz Liszt he wrote this in reply: ‘I write to you in all haste that Smetana’s death has seized me greatly. He was, to be sure, a genius.’

Smetana’s artistic significance to the Gothenburg music scene

In Gothenburg there were positive forces for music on the individual level and within particular families who were part of musical life, but if you look at the music scene in general, and the music on offer in the city, it is understandable that Smetana felt isolated. Joseph Czapek certainly had given subscription orchestral concerts with whole symphonies for some time, but many of the concerts that were organized were of a light entertainment character. The concerts were of greater importance for the city’s social life than for the music’s own aesthetic values.

Smetana’s main activities in Gothenburg were:

  • piano teacher, singing teacher and music theory teacher at his music institute
  • leader of the Harmoniska sällskapet, teaching of large choral and orchestral works
  • concert arranger and pianist at his own concerts, and as a participant in the concerts of others – a total of 69 concerts during the period 1856−62
  • composer
  • music writer for GHT (twice)

As for Smetana’s contribution to the Gothenburg music scene, the first three points are the most significant. As a composer, besides minor piano pieces, he wrote three symphonic poems: Richard III, Wallensteins Lager and Hakon Jarl; none of these works were performed in Gothenburg during the composer’s stay there. Among the piano pieces, the most well known was Ball-Vision. It was dedicated to Mrs. Fröjda Benecke, with whom Smetana had a close and intimate relationship. Fröjda’s name in the form of tones F-E-D-A is incorporated in the work.

As a piano teacher and choir director Smetana could, however, affect the musical quality on an individual level, which of course was important for the people who benefited from his teaching. Among his students there were several at a more advanced level, including Charlotte Valentin, sister of Karl Valentin. The artistic influence Smetana was able to convey to the people he taught consisted of repertoire choices as well as a high level of interpretation, which he both possessed and could convey.

Above all, it was as a concert organizer and pianist in his own concerts as well as his participation in the concerts of others that he reached out to a wider audience. Even at these concerts the choice of repertoire made a partial impact, as did as the high artistic level. In particular, especially for that time, it was through his arrangement of a concert form that was new for the time that Smetana made his clearest mark. For several years, along with Czapek, he arranged chamber concerts, each of which contained about three works for duo, trio or quartet. The concerts were given in the Pelarsalen hall in the Freemason’s lodge and were by contemporary measures in Gothenburg very exclusive.

After returning to Prague, Smetana kept in contact with some of his Gothenburg friends over a number of years. It has sometimes been claimed that Smetana placed a greeting to Sweden in the formulation of the main theme of the symphonic poem Moldau (Vltava), which is part of the cycle My Fatherland (Má Vlast). The theme is very similar to the Swedish piece, ‘Ack Värmeland du sköna’, which Smetana possibly heard in Gothenburg. This information can be found in the Sohlmans music lexicon (2nd edition, entry ‘Moldau’). However, the model for the theme is actually a European hiking melody originating from the early 1600s in the Neapolitan villanelle ‘Fuggi, fuggi’. The melody can be found around Europe and is, in this context, especially important in the Czech children’s song ‘Kočka leze dírou pes oknem’, which is the model for Smetana’s selection of the theme.

Smetana as a composer, some characteristics

Franz Liszt was an initial influence on Smetana, and an early friendship became a lifetime relationship for both of them. The influence of Liszt’s work is also evident in much of Smetana’s music, including the piano trio and not least of all his orchestral music with the symphonic poems. Early on Smetana became involved in the national movement against Habsburg oppression, and especially after his Swedish period, he became one of the leaders in the creation of a national style, most prominently in his operas. Musically, this is evident in his use of folk dance rhythms more than the use of pure folk songs. Smetana’s greatest public success, the opera The Bartered Bride, is bursting with folk music elements. In particular, it is the polka rhythms that are often recognizable. A large part of his piano compositions are also salon polkas.

Smetana had also, not least through his friendship with Liszt, a great interest in the New German music, primarily of Liszt and Wagner, which is prominent in the opera Libuše. This led, among other things, to Smetana being unfairly accused of ‘Germanism’ and to his enemies instead highlighting Dvořák – this can be compared to the conflicts in Germany around Brahms and Richard Wagner. Today Smetana is regarded in the Czech Republic as one of the most important fathers of Czech art music, even if he is not internationally performed as often as Antonín Dvořák and Leoš Janáček, the two other fathers.

Anders Carlsson © 2016
Trans. Jill Ann Johnson


Bartoš, František: Smetana ve vzpomínkách a dopisech, Prague: Artia, 1939, 1954.
−−−: Smetana in Briefen und Erinnerungen, Prague: Artia, 1954.
−−−: Smetana. Letters and Reminiscences, Prague: Artia, 1955. [The original book was translated to German and English.]
Carlsson, Anders: ‘Handel och Bacchus eller Händel och Bach?’ Det borgerliga musiklivet och dess orkesterbildningar i köpmannastaden Göteborg under andra hälften av 1800-talet, diss. in musicology, University of Gothenburg, 1996.
Clapham, John: Smetana, London: Dent, 1972.
DeLong, Kenneth: ‘In the Master’s Footsteps: Programme and Musical Design in Smetana’s  Richard III’, in: Bedřich Smetana 1824–1884. Report of the international Musicological Conference Praha 24th-26th May 1994, Prague: Muzeum Bedřicha Smetany, 1995, pp. 102−117.
−−−: ‘Hearing his master’s voice: Smetana’s ‘Swedish’ symphonic poems and their Lisztian models. Liszt and his world’, Analecta Lisztiana, vol. 1, Franz Liszt studies, vol. 5, New York, 1998, pp. 295−334.
Gabrielová, Jarmila: ‘Oehlenschläger − Hartmann − Smetana: Hakon Jarl’, in: Musik & forskning, vol. 20, 1994, pp. 55−80.
−−−: ‘Tragödie − Ouvertüre − Symphonische Dichtung: Hakon Jarl von Oehlenschläger, Hartmann und Smetana’, in: Bedřich Smetana 1824–1884. Report of the international Musicological Conference Praha 24th-26th May 1994, Prague: Muzeum Bedřicha Smetany, 1995, pp. 118−137.
Grehn, Taimi: ‘Om Bedřich Smetana och episoden Göteborg’, Göteborg Förr och Nu, vol. 5, 1968, pp. 149−178.
Hemlin, Erik: Bedřich Smetana i Göteborg, Skrifter utgivna av Teaterhistoriska samfundet i Göteborg no. 10, Göteborg: Teaterhistoriska samfundet och Göteborgs och Bohusläns turisttrafikförbund, 1976.
Hnilička, Alois: ‘Smetanovy dopisy o jeho koncertní cestě po Švédsku r. 1861’ [Smetana’s letters about his concert tour in Sweden 1861], Dalibor, vol. 40, nos 15−16, 1924, pp. 128−131. [Later published as a chapter in Rozhledy po životě a významu Bedřicha Smetany, Prague: Mojmír Urbánek, 1924.]
−−−: ‘Bedřich Smetana ve Švédsku a jeho návrat do Čech’ [Bedřich Smetana in Sweden and his return to Bohemia], in: Zvon, vol. 9, nos 31−34, 1908/09, pp. 481−485, 503−506, 513−515, 529−531. [Later published as a chapter in Rozhledy po životě a významu Bedřicha Smetany, Prague: Mojmír Urbánek, 1924.]
Hodin, J.: ‘Bedřich Smetana i Göteborg’, Ord och Bild, vol. 50, 1941, pp. 537−547 [The article is also reprinted in Studiekamraten, vol. 72, nos 2−3, 1990, pp. 1−12.]
Honolka, Kurt: Bedřich Smetana in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten, Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1978.
−−−: Bedřich Smetana, Borås: Norma, 1986. [In Swedish.]
Holzknecht, Václav: Bedřich Smetana, diss., Prague: Panton, 1979, 1984.
Jacobsen, Hovgaard C. (ed.): Af Smetanas Breve og Dagbøger, Copenhagen: Hasselbalchs kulturbibliotek, 1956.
Järmann, Thomas: ‘Im Geiste Liszts und doch ganz anders: Bedřich Smetana komponiert seine ersten sinfonischen Dichtungen’, Die Tonkunst, vol. 8, no. 1, 2014, pp. 74−85.
Karlsson, Blanka: ‘Po stopách Bedřicha Smetany ve švédských archivech I’ [In the footsteps of Bedřich Smetana in Swedish archives I], in: Čas v roce 2005. Ročenka České archivní společnosti, Prague, 2006, pp. 79−109.
Kraus, Arnošt: Smetana v Göteborgu [Smetana in Gothenburg], Prague: J. Otto, 1925.
−−−: ‘Bedřich Smetana v Göteborgu’ [Bedřich Smetana in Gothenburg], Věstník České akademie císaře Františka Josefa pro vědy slovesnost a umění, vol. 15, nos 1−5, pp. 1−8, 81−87, 283−289, 356−364, 401−413, 1906. [Including letters from his Gothenburg period.]
Kuylenstierna, Jan: ‘Smetana, Grönsakstorget och ’Värmeland du sköna’’, Aftonposten, 13 Oct. 1951.
Large, Brian: Smetana, London: Duckworth, 1970.
Malý, Miloslav: Bedřich Smetana, Prague: Orbis, 1956. [In Swedish.]
Michl, Josef: ‘Vzpomínky Jana Rysa na Bedřicha Smetanu’ [Jan Rys’ memories of Bedřich Smetana], Hudební revue, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 13−15; no. 2, pp. 65−68; nos 3−4, pp. 171−175; nos 5−6, pp. 237−242, 1912. [Jan Rys was a young boy who lived with and helped Smetana his last year in Gothenburg.]
Mojžíšová, Olga (ed.): Bedřich Smetana. Time − Life − Work − Bedřich Smetana Museum, Prague: Muzeum Bedřicha Smetany, 1998. [Also published in Czech and German.]
−−−: ‘Smetanův Händel, Haydn a Mendelssohn v Göteborgu’ [Smetanas Händel, Haydn and Mendelssohn in Gothenburg], in: Miscellanea z výroční konference České společnosti pro hudební vědu 2009. Händel − Haydn − Mendelssohn a jejich „druhý život’ v českých zemích a na Slovensku v 18. a 19. století, Prague, 2012, pp. 130−139.
Mojžíšová, Olga & Pospíšil, Milan: Bedřich Smetana a jeho korespondence [Bedřich Smetana and his correspondence], Prague: Národní muzeum, 2011.
Norlind, Tobias: ‘Smetana och Sverige’, in: Ur nutidens musikliv, vol. 5, 1924, books 6−8, pp. 81−86.
Očadlík, Mirko: ‘Vad har Sverige givit Bedřich Smetana?’, Musikrevy, nos 7/8 1956, pp. 285−289. [The article was also published in Czech as ‘Co dalo Švédsko B. Smetanovi’, Miscellanea musicologica, vol. 3, 1957, pp. 55−94.
Oefner, Claus: ‘Fragen an Smetana: Wallensteins Lager nach Schiller. Schiller und die Musik’, in: Schriftenreihe der Hochschule für Musik Franz Liszt 4, Köln, 2007, pp. 267−271.
Séquardtová, Hana: Bedřich Smetana, Leipzig: Reclam, 1985. [In German.]
Smolka, Jaroslav: Smetanova symfonická tvorba [Smetana’s symphonic works], Prague: Supraphon, 1984. [Included in Dílo a život Bedřicha Smetany.]
Srb-Debrnov, Josef: Z denníků Bedřicha Smetany [from Bedřich Smetana’s diaries], Prague: Mojmír Urbánek, 1902. [Includes material from the Gothenburg period 1859−62.]
Sukennikow, M.: ‘Smetana i Göteborg’, Vår sång, vol. 12, no. 5, 1939, pp. 82f.
Thörnqvist, Clara: Smetana in Göteborg 1856−1862, Gothenburg: Göteborgs universitetsbibliotek, 1967. [In English.]
−−−: ‘Smetanas kamp för en orkester’, Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning, 7 June 1961.
Vretblad, Patrik: ‘Bedřich Smetana i Sverige’, Svensk-tjeckoslovakiska sällskapet, vol. 1, 1923/24.
Zich, Otakar: Symfonické básně Smetanovy [Smetanas symfoniska dikter], Prague: Hudební matice Umělecké besedy, 1924, 1949.


Göteborgs landsarkiv, Region- och stadsarkivet i Göteborg, the University of Gothenburg Library, Gothenburg's city museum, Smetana museum in Prague (Muzeum Bedřicha Smetany).

Summary list of works

9 operas (including 1 unfinished), orchestral works (symphony, symphonic poems, etc.), chamber music (piano trio, 2 string quartets, etc.), works for piano, works for organ, choral works, songs.
Works related to Sweden: 3 symphonic poems (Richard III, Wallensteins Lager, Hakon Jarl), chamber music (piano trio), piano works (Ball-Vision, Souvenir de Boheme, Am Seegestade, etc.).

Collected works

Works composed during the Gothenburg period:

Richard III, symphonic poem after W. Shakespeare op. 11, 1857−58.
Wallensteins Lager (Valdštýnův tábor), symphonic poem after F. von Schiller op. 14, 1858–9
Hakon Jarl, symphonic poem after A. Oehlenschläger op. 16, 1860−61.

Chamber music
Piano trio G minor op. 15, 1855, rev. 1857. [Composed in Bohemia, but revised in Sweden.]

Erinnerung an Weimar, A-flat major, 1857.
Cid campeador − Ximene, tone poem, sketches, fragments, 1857−58.
Transcriptions of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin op. 10, 1858 (1. Trockne Blumen, lost, 2. Der Neugierige)
Ballad (Balada) E minor, sketch, fragment, 1858.
Ball vision, Polka-Rhapsodie (Vidění na plese), A minor/C major, 1858.
Konzert-Etüde (Koncertní etuda) C major, 1858
Bettina Polka C major, 1859; vers. 2: 1883.
Macbeth (Skica ke scéně Macbeth a čarodějnice ze Shakespeara / Scene to Macbeth and the witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth), 1859.
Souvenir de Bohême en forme de polkas (Vzpomínky na Čechy ve formě polek), op. 12:1 A minor, op. 12:2 E minor, op. 13:1 E minor, op. 13:2 E-flat major, 1859–60.
Am Seegestade − eine Erinnerung (Na břehu mořském − Vzpomínka), konsertetyd, G-sharp minor, 1861. [Written as a souvenir of Sweden.]

Solo cadenzas
Mozarts pianokonsert no. 20 in D minor, K. 466, first and third movements, 1856.
Beethovens pianokonsert no. 3 in C minor op. 37, first movement, vers. 1, 1857−61; vers. 2, 1872.

Píseň česká (Czech song) ( J. z Hvězdy [J.J. Marek]) op. 17, TTBB [SATB], 1860. [Composed in Bohemia during summer holidays.]

Works by Bedřich Smetana

There are no works by the composer registered