Bedřich Smetana (1824 – 1884) was a Czech composer who has been regarded in his homeland as the father of Czech music.
Vltava, also known by its English title The Moldau was composed in 1874 during the Romantic period. It is about 13 minutes long, and is in the key of E minor.
In this piece, Smetana uses tone painting to portray the sounds of one of Bohemia’s great rivers, The Vltava. Tone painting is the musical technique of composing music that reflects the literal meaning of a song’s music/lyrics. For example, ascending (rising) scales would accompany music/lyrics about going up; slow, dark music would accompany music/lyrics about death.
In his own words:
The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night’s moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe (or Elbe, in German).
In today’s extract, you will hear Smetana’s most famous tune. Listen out at the start of the extract for the main melody (below) moving in steps: