Everyone, perhaps, knows Vltava, the second and most often heard separately of the six nationalistic symphonic poems that make up Smetana’s Má vlast – My homeland, but what about the one that follows it, Šárka?
Sounds a bit scary, you say. She was!
A female warrior in Bohemian legend, she first appears in 12th century Czech literature in connection with The Maidens’ War which was ignited by the actions of Přemysl, the husband of Libuše after her death.
Libuše, the successor of one, Krok, who had ruled over most of Bohemia, was the fabled foundress of Prague – she was also the subject of a superb grand Festive Opera by Smetana!
However, one of her chambermaids, Vlasta, took exception to Přemysl’s decrees and led a revolt of women against him, which is where Smetana’s scenario takes up the story.
Šárka, a close confidant of Vlasta, had herself tied to a tree to trap a band of armed men led by Ctirad. She claims that rebel maidens tied her to the tree when they find her and placed a jug of mead and a horn out of reach to taunt her.
Ctirad instantly falls in love with her and she pours the mead as a thank-you to the men who drink it unaware that it is drugged. When they are out to the world, Šárka blows the horn and the maidens come out of hiding to join her in killing the men.
Smetana, the founding father of Czech nationalism in music, not Dvořák as some say, wrote the symphonic poems between 1874 (Šárka in 1875) and 1879 against a growing background of nationalist awareness and desire to rid Bohemia of its pervasive German dominance.
They succeeded, only to be invaded by the same country in 1938 and Prague occupied by Nazis from March 1939 – cue the astonishing patriotic resonance of Má vlast!
On the 5th of June that year, the legendary Václav Talich conducted the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in a live broadcast performance from the Prague National Theatre of Smetana’s cycle.
The audience greeted each tone poem with a rapturous, shouting ovation and then burst into singing the Czech National anthem at the end!
Another great Czech conductor, Rafael Kubelik left Prague and the country for good in 1948 when the Soviet Union moved in.
An ailing, semi-retired Kubelik returned 42 years later following the ‘Velvet Revolution’ to open the 1990 Prague Festival on the 12th of May with the Czech Philharmonic.
Do you need telling what it was he conducted!?
Smetana’s Šárka from Má vlast is performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra at the City Hall this coming Thursday.