Lisztomania: Czech it Out

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Except in extraneous cases about which I am most certainly not qualified to discuss, something cannot arise from nothing. What makes music so amazing is its ability to defy this fundamental law. This week, I will be focusing on the Czech nationalist movement of music, and how, within the span of just a few decades, nothing turned into something that would endure for years.

Up until the 19th century, England, Italy, France and Germany were the main producers of music in Europe. With globalization during this century, however, aspiring composers and musicians from musically underdeveloped countries were able to achieve international recognition. The Romantic era of composition lasted roughly from 1810 until around the first World War. This era was characterized by emotional and densely orchestrated works, including major symphonies, concertos, tone poems and operas. At this time, waves of nationalism passing through Europe led to ‘national schools’ of music, where aspiring musicians and composers came to learn in a country’s signature style which was often influenced by folk songs, natural landscape and history.

One of the most amazing success stories of a national school of composition is that of the Czechs’. Czech nationalist composers, namely Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák and Leoš Janáček, were integral in the development of the Czech style of composition. Smetana pioneered the use of the Czech natural landscape as a source of inspiration for his compositions, and wrote a series of tone poems — an orchestral work telling a story — entitled “Mà Vlast,” or “My Country.” The most notable movement of this work, “Vltava,” depicts the movement of the Moldau River from its beginnings as a small spring and its transformation into one of the largest rivers in Europe. Around 20 years after Smetana achieved international recognition, Dvořák set out to do the same, and, in 1892, famously traveled to the United States to aid in the establishment of an American school of composition. Just as he had done in Bohemia to help advance the Czech nationalist style, Dvořák wove folk melodies of Native Americans and African Americans into his compositions to show conservative American composers how they could use the unique aspects of their country to establish an equally unique musical style. Dvořák wrote several pieces about his experiences in America, including one of his most famous works, his ninth symphony, nicknamed the “New World Symphony,” which employs American folk melodies. Soon after Dvořák and Smetana had established themselves and the Czech nationalist style of composition, other composers, such as Leoš Janáček, followed in their footsteps and used Czech and other Eastern-European folklore to spark inspiration. Once the Czechs had a style of composition that they could call their own, along with several internationally recognized composers, the entire country saw a wave of patriotism coming into the 20th century.  

Suggested Listening:

Bedřich Smetana: “Mà Vlast,” Overture to the Bartered Bride

Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” String Quintet No. 3 in E-Flat Major

Leoš Janáček: “Idyll for Strings”


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