Smetana, Bedrich (1824 - 1884)

Czech composer, pianist, conductor and music teacher. During the years 1866–1871 Dvorak was conducted by Smetana in the Provisional Theatre Orchestra (e.g. in the premieres of Smetana’s operas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, The Bartered Bride and Dalibor) and at concerts organised by the artists’ association Umelecka beseda. Works by Dvorak which were premiered by Smetana in his role as conductor included the overture to the first version of the opera King and Collier, Symphony No. 3 in E flat major and the Scherzo from his Symphony No. 4 in D minor. In turn, Dvorak appeared as a violist in the first private performance of Smetana’s quartet From My Life. The alleged animosity between the two is simply a myth based on the artificially created “Smetana or Dvorak” dispute fuelled later on after the death of both composers by Communist ideologist Zdenek Nejedly. Smetana, who did not live to see the culmination of Dvorak’s world triumph, was full of praise for the work of his younger colleague and spoke of his music with admiration. Describing the Slavonic Dances, for example, he declared that Dvorak treated the themes “literally as Beethoven would have done”; and he considered the first version of the opera King and Collier to be “full of brilliant ideas”. When, in 1872, attempts were made to remove Smetana from his position as conductor at the Provisional Theatre, Dvorak signed an open declaration in his defence. 

In order to maintain a measure of objectivity, we should mention that written statements by both Smetana and Dvorak have survived to this day which point to the fact that, despite their mutual respect, there was a certain degree of artistic competitiveness between them which apparently led to a sense of injustice on both sides from time to time. In Smetana’s case, the reason was greater interest in Dvorak’s work abroad: “Dvorak receives large fees and the rascal introduces all kinds of effects in his instrumentation as his own inventions and innovations, such as 2 harps beginning a movement on their own, with the orchestra only launching in later on, and other such things, which Smetana, that is to say, I, had in my works previously. Since his pieces have been published abroad before mine, I will be the poor soul who is called a plagiarist!” In Dvorak’s case, frustration at his lack of success on the stage was the probable reason for the following statement: “I truly would now like to get to work, although prospects for the future, both here and elsewhere, prevent one from getting any enjoyment out of it. [...] If only our domestic music environment were regarded with a little more truthfulness and sincerity, but the way things have been up until now, it’s not right, nor is it pleasant or particularly patriotic. People like opera here, an opera might be extremely well received; but it might be performed once, perhaps twice, very rarely, and then it retreats into the background and people forget all about it! And then nothing remains of all this except that Bartered Bride – for evermore!”