Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) - Pathography

By Breitenfeld, Tomislav; Thaller, Vladko et al. | Alcoholism and Psychiatry Research, May 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) - Pathography

Breitenfeld, Tomislav, Thaller, Vladko, Breitenfeld, Darko, Demarin, Vida, Vodanovic, Marijo, Alcoholism and Psychiatry Research


Bedfich Smetana, great Czech composer, is considered one of the leading musicians and composers of his time. His life represents the archetypal tragic struggle for acceptance and new ideas, to which he gave his full exertions as a composer, critic and conductor.1

He was born in 1824 in Litomysl, Bohemia. At that time it was the territory of the Austro- Hungarian Empire. He was the eleventh child of eighteen. His father was a brewer and a music lover who gave him the musical training. Smetana was a child prodigy - he played in a string quartet at the age of five and debuted as a pianist a year after. He was able to play many other instruments as well. He gave his first performance to public when he was seven. He wrote his first composition at the age of eight.2

After having heard Liszt playing in Prague when he was sixteen, he definitely decided to become a professional musician. His parents could never forgive him that decision, trying to convince him that he would finish up as a poor and travelling musician. They did not live long enough to witness his success and glory. While studying in the Bohemian capital he taught rich and aristocratic families (Count Leopold Thun) the piano. His education was entirely carried out in German - Smetana did not learn Czech until he was an adult. Later on F. Liszt recognized his musical and composing talent and gave him significant financial support. In 1848 he founded a music institute in Prague, but the school was not successful.3

He took part in fighting at barricades during the abortive 1 848 nationalist uprising, and that year inspired him with national consciousness. In 1849 he married Katerina Kolarova, whom he had known since his Plzen Gymnasium days. Three of his four daughters died between 1 854 and 1 856. Then, after years of desperate subsistence in Prague, he moved to Gotheborg, Sweden. There he became highly appreciated as a teacher, pianist and conductor. His wife died in 1859.4 Two years later he married Bettina Ferdinandova. Smetana's most serious effort as a composer, however, began after his return to Prague in 1 86 1 , by which time he had become a wholehearted Czech nationalist. In 1866 he wrote »The Branderburgers in Bohemia«, his first opera and first work based on national themes. His second opera »The Batered Bride« became very popular and was probably his most performed piece on the stage. His health started to deteriorate and his hearing capability declined so he worked rarely. He died in May 1884.

Bedfich Smetana was the first major nationalist composer of Bohemia, a real founder of Czech music, a direct musical forerunner of Dvorak, Suk, Janacek etc. His works reflect the character of his homeland and are harmonically and structurally influenced by the music of Liszt and Berlioz. His operas and symphonic poems are full of his country's legends, characters, scenery, ideas and history, and they contain great music. Unfortunately they are not so known outside his homeland.5


Bedfich Smetana was rather short sighted which was the probable reason for his natural shyness. Besides episodes of depressive mood caused by the early deaths of his first wife and three daughters he lived a rather healthy life without significant medical problems. In 1874, according to his diary, he suffered from purulent genital ulcer and got a long lasting throat inflammation and eczema over his whole body. He also had vertigo and balance disturbances. He noticed that on the right ear he could hear tones which were one octave higher than on the left ear considered healthy at the time. He also complained about hearing the sound of a waterfall. Dr Zoufal cured him with inhalations, air baths, aetheric injections and catheterizing Eustachius' tube. This cure was followed by deterioration, and following the doctor's advice he stopped all the activities and rested all the time. Soon he became practically deaf (worse than Beethoven, who could hear some fiddle instruments with his left ear, which directed him to chamber music). …

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