I was very much impressed by the clarity of expression and romantic beauty of Jean Sibelius' 1893 The Swan of Tuonela as performed by the Gothenburg Symphony under Neeme Järvi and as featured on France Musique's Venez quand vous voulez the other day (it starts approx. 90' into the podcast).

Presenter Denisa Kerschova described it as something "between Wagner and Smetana" (if my French serves well enough). I can certainly hear a kinship to Wagner: the whole atmosphere, the dynamism of the orchestra, etc. (The piece reminds me even stronger of Gottfried Huppertz score for Fritz Lang's 1924 Die Nibelungen, so there you have another link to Wagner.)

But then I am not familiar enough with Smetana to judge on that side. Is it likely that Kerschova just wanted to point out that both Sibelius and (her Czech compatriot) Smetana were important catalysts for national movements in their two home countries in the 19th century, or is there a deeper links in terms of art and music? And if so, where would I have to start with Smetana's work to find something of similar quality?


The two best-known and oft-performed works by Smetana:

  1. My Country (cz: Má Vlast): it is really a suite of tone poems which can themselves be performed independently. Of these, the most well-known is The Moldau, which is a pictorial description of the Moldau river (cz: Vltava) that runs through Prague. The only other of them with which I have familiarity is Tábor, because it contains the ancient Hussite hymn: "Ye Who Are Warriors of God". This is also a hymn used by 20th c. composer Karel Husa in the final movement of his Music for Prague 1968. If a loose confederation of symphonic poems sounds strange, think of Holst, The Planets, which similarly can have individual "planets" broken out into standalone works.

  2. His opera, The Bartered Bride: it only occasionally sees performance in the US as a fully staged opera, but frequently has some purely orchestral movements performed in lighter, pops-esque performances. Dover actually sells a volume that gets most of this music into one package.

After listening to these works, I'd be interested to hear what connections you make. I find it a bit of a stretch to say that a 19th-20th c. Finnish composer "the last true Romantic composer" as Sir Thomas Beecham called him, straddles in any way the mid-19th c. German arch-progressive Wagner and 19th c. arch-Czech-nationalist Smetana. To my ear, they inhabit three severely different sound worlds. Their approach to orchestration, harmony, and melody? Sure, there are smaller connections, but one of Smetana's goals was to avoid sounding like a poor man's imitation of German music, to create something that is authentically Czech. Likewise with Sibelius and Finland, although perhaps not to that degree. I might call him the last of the nationalists or perhaps a post-nationalist, in the sense in which it is discussed in the context of its origins in the 19th century.

I understand and greatly appreciate radio broadcasts that try to help make basic connections for listeners, but this seems like more than just a little bit of a stretch, but again, I'm interested to see what connections you make.

  • Thanks for your reply. I will try to get hold of these works (am somewhat familiar with The Moldau, but will relisten), and try to report back here. BTW, I should explain that I registered a kinship between The Swan of Tounela and Wagner's instrumental work, i.e. his operas minus the heavy voices. Perhaps that's no way to do him real justice, but I'm very fond of his music (and think of him as an truly path-breaking genius) but never enjoy listening to his heros' voices, which I find quite straining.
    – Drux
    Jan 8 '13 at 20:56
  • I've now listened to Smetana's The Moldau again. I think he does use a similar overall approach to Sibelius' in the The Swan of Tuonela: with rapidly oscillating strings (reminding us of nordic winds and the Moldau's waves respectively, I suppose, and to my ear and across another century also a bit similar to Philip Glass' abstract minimalistic style) on top of which main themes are deployed. In terms of atmosphere the pieces seem different, and I personally far prefer the Sibelius (e.g. don't like how Smetana adds folksy tunes as e.g. also Mahler did in his time).
    – Drux
    Jan 11 '13 at 20:49

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