Bedřich Smetana

I used to spell this composer without the ˇ on the ‘r’ (technically known as a ‘caron’), and pronounced him as “Bedrik”. However, the New Grove is clear that the caron is required, and a better pronunciation would be something like ‘Bed-uh-zhichk” -that’s ‘zhi’ as in the ending of ‘bridge‘ and ‘chk’ as in the ending of ‘loch’. Additionally, no-one mentions his other first name of ‘Friedrich’ (it’s bracketed in the New Grove).

However spelled or pronounced, he was born in “Bohemia”, which these days makes him a Czech composer, in 1824. He died 60 years later, in 1884, in Prague. In between, he pioneered Czech nationalism in music. He primarily wrote Czech-language opera and symphonic tone poems (most famous of which is probably ‘Ma Vlast’, My Country, which is a cycle of six tone poems, written over a period of five or so years, each independent of the other -but capable of being performed as a single six-movement work).

It isn’t often realised, I think, that just like Beethoven, Smetana went totally deaf around 10 years before he died -and, also like Beethoven, this deafness didn’t stop him composing, though he found it increasingly difficult to do. The New Grove suggests his deafness and subsequent mental deterioration were as a result of syphilis. Sadly, he began to lose his memory and power of speech around 1882 and, a month before he died, he was committed to the Prague lunatic assylum. Syphilis will do that to you in the absence of antibiotics (which, of course, didn’t exist at the time), I’m afraid!


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