On Smetana, Bartok and Tchaikovsky

Folklore, Village Life and Nationalism in the Modern World

As anybody who has taken a vacation in eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin wall will tell you, a lot has changed in the past 20 years. Having been a resident of Budapest for one year, my travels often took me to the legendary cities that lay behind the Iron Curtain. What struck me all too often was that the ‘March of Progress’ had in many cases led to the commercialization of a particular culture to the point of it becoming a distorted caricature of itself. This is perhaps no better felt than in Prague – where the swimming hordes of tourists seem to engulf and eclipse the beauty and majesty of the architecture which still provides the bones of that wonderful city. National feeling and pride still run high – especially during the football world cup – but try to look for the ‘real’ Czech spirit and it is often very hard to find behind the stock souvenirs being hawked in the squares and on the streets.

During the last century, Smetana – the grandfather of Czech music – set himself a task: To produce an iconic national music that would be a reflection of the people. One of the crowning achievements of this nationalistic music was the symphonic cycle My Country, made up of six pieces, three of which you will hear on the program of March 15 2009. By dressing up folklore and legends in the garb of the romantic symphony orchestra, it seems as if Smetana was even perhaps ‘commercializing’ the Czech culture and preparing it for export to Western Europe! However, when you hear the first few chords of Šárka, or the trickling beginning of the Moldau, one can’t imagine this music being written in order to sell or to popularize – instead it gives a deeply felt impression of a culture so close to the composer. This is an idealistic and sincere record of the composer’s love for his homeland, giving us a window into the Czech identity that is hard to find anywhere else.

Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches portray various short and often comical scenes that might occur in a small village, often through graphic representations (the dancing bear, the town drunk etc.). Written in the 1930s, the Sketches tend toward a slight caricature of village life in rural Hungary. If the Czech movement towards a national music in the late 19th century was based on idealism, Bartók’s approach was perhaps twofold: to create a modern musical language for Hungary that was intellectually the equal of what was happening in Vienna and Berlin, but also to record and adopt the rich folk music that even in his day was beginning to die out in the Hungarian towns and villages. Bartók’s pieces in the folk idiom are often slight caricatures or exaggerations of a ‘true’ Hungarian folk culture, but never cross the line into poor taste or over-simplification. The Hungarian Sketches are each small gems full of humor and wit, illuminating a village life that probably does not exist anywhere anymore.

The Tchaikovsky violin concerto also carries with it a strong flavor of Russian nationalism, but nothing as overt as what we find in the Smetana or the Bartók. In the last movement there is a simple folk-like theme which returns in many shapes and forms in the solo violin – both sung and even ‘whistled’ in a long passage of harmonics. This concerto has often served as a cultural ambassador in the hands of Russian violinists – most notably David Oistrach. As a soloist allowed to performoutside of the Soviet Union, his performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto was seen as autobiographical and deeply personal – but also allowed western audiences a glimpse of what was happening inside.

This program hopefully carries the listener into the folk traditions of eastern europe, with Bartók’s wry and humorous accounts of village life, Tchaikovsky’s poetic and powerful concerto and ending with Smetana’s sincere and moving account of the deepest Czech legends and folklore.

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