Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast guides its listener on an aural tour of the landscapes and legends that make up the country now known as the Czech Republic – and in doing so, this landmark work serves as a foundational text in the creation of its national identity. Composed separately between 1874 and 1879, at a time when the concept of independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire was rapidly gaining steam, the omnibus title for these six symphonic poems translates expressively to “My Fatherland”. Both patriotic and personal, each chapter alternately describes the beauty of the natural world, the pride embedded in a nation’s history and mythology and the hope of moving into a new century as unified people.

The composer, who died in 1884, could not have known what awaited his homeland throughout much of the 20th century. Still, the music he left behind sustained the artistic community – and the population at large – through Nazi occupation, communist oppression and the freedom promised by the Velvet Revolution. The grandeur of Vyšehrad (“The High Castle”), with its ethereal doubled harps and assertive brass marches, charts the revolutionary progress from imperialism to democracy. Organic beauty is represented by Z českých luhů a hájů (“From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields”), while Šárka and Blaník draw on folk tales in a manner familiar throughout Eastern European music. Although the movements contain no actual text, Smetana’s decision to use Czech titles – a language he himself only learned later in life – represents a shift from the prevailing Germanic influence of the time.

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Semyon Bychkov
© Marco Borggreve
Pinpoint any significant moment in the modern history of the Czech Philharmonic, too, and you’re likely to find it punctuated by a performance of Má vlast. The Philharmonic’s first complete performance of the cycle occurred in the somewhat inauspicious setting of a brewery in 1901, under the direction of founding Chief Conductor Ludvik Vitĕslav Čelanský. Since then, it has served as the orchestra’s calling card around the world and as a reminder of the resilience of the country it celebrates. In 1929, it became the first work recorded by the Philharmonic for His Master’s Voice; a decade later, a radio broadcast in the early months of Czechoslovakia’s occupations by the Nazis was broadcast to Western Europe.

Both of those performances took place under the leadership of Václav Talich, who ran afoul of both the Nazi Regime and the Communist leadership. Banned from conducting in Prague for several years in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, he chose Má vlast for his return to the Philharmonic’s podium in 1954. Similarly, Rafael Kubelík programmed it for his final concert before defecting to the West in 1948, and the work marked his return to the country 42 years later. His legendary 1991 performance of the work in Prague’s Old-Town Square, on the occasion of the country’s first free and fair elections, combined musicians from the Czech, Slovak and Brno Philharmonics.

“It’s a kind of symbol, a symbolic work for us,” says Petr Kadlec, the musicologist who serves as the Czech Philharmonic’s Head of Education. “For the Czech Philharmonic, it’s one of our most played compositions as well. It has become a part of the history of the orchestra, and what is interesting and important for the piece is that it’s connected with Czech history and identity in general. If you choose any historic event that is important for the Czech people, you will find Má vlast being played by the Czech Phil. With the help of this music, people tried to be strong or felt the celebration of liberation.”

The cultural significance continues today. In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Philharmonic scuttled its usual commemoration of the Velvet Revolution while finding a way to still celebrate the historic events. Current Chief Conductor and Music Director Semyon Bychkov led a performance of Má vlast that was broadcast live into over 200,000 homes by the ČT art channel – a record that brought the music to every corner of the country. A social media livestream allowed viewers across the globe to also participate in the historic event.

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Petr Kadlec
© Petr Chodura
“It was interesting that during the time of Covid lockdown, the performance attracted special attention,” Kadlec says. “With Má vlast, there can be a feeling that we know it, we’ve heard it many times, we’ve played it many times. For musicians, each time you play it requires that you find a new enthusiasm for it. This was a special context, where we were all imprisoned, and the music speaks in a different way than it does usually.”

As the classical community continues to reopen amid relaxing restrictions on gatherings and international travel, Má vlast will once again act as the Czech Philharmonic’s passport to the West. In March, Bychkov will conduct complete performances of the cycle in Vienna, Berlin, Hamburg and Essen, culminating in a performance at London’s Barbican Hall on 15th March.

Bychkov first performed the work as the Czech Philharmonic’s Music Director in 2019, following a long tradition of predecessors in making his own mark. Although not Czech by nationality, he similarly feels the pull of the music and what it represents in its strong connection to an identity that transcends national borders.

“It is the dream of Rodina, Russia where I was born,” Bychkov said in a statement. “My Homeland, which is the United States, where I emigrated and was born for the second time. Ma Patrie and France, my home now for nearly half of my life. Each has its own identity, and each must find a way to live peacefully with itself and with the others. It is as natural to be proud of one’s heritage as it is painful to recognize and atone for the stains on one’s history. Yet both are needed equally if humanity is to survive and prosper. Smetana’s vision shows us the way, which is what makes Má vlast so universal and so contemporary.”

The political and cultural themes found in Smetana’s music continue to develop in newly resonant ways. Since 1949, Má vlast has opened the Prague Spring International Music Festival every year on 12th May. The 2022 performance will be led by Daniel Barenboim and his multicultural West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, which includes also Israeli and Palestinian musicians. “I’m very curious about how this will be,” says Kadlec. “I know that in performance, I feel a strong idea of my country, and many people from different countries feel the same way. In this case, these countries are not very friendly toward one another, but they play Má vlast as a symbol of some values that are common and shared. I think it will work and will have some kind of political context.”

This article was sponsored by the Czech Philharmonic.