Smetana, The Moldau
I am trying to understand why Smetana's birthday today made me want to hear his music again, after weeks of not being able to endure any music. I find myself in what I call the Season of Sorrows, a time when the birthdays and the death days of so many I loved pass by one after another. They continue until Memorial Day. I am in the middle of all that, but, even so, today I listened to The Moldau.
The Moldau makes me remember a little bit of who I was when I was a young man. I was hungry to learn, and eager about life. I was certain it was going to be wonderful—and it was for me in many ways. But when I first heard The Moldau in a Humanities of the Western World course I took nearly 40 years ago, life was still ahead of me. That expectation of good things to come colors The Moldau, for me.
And that is, perhaps, what made me want to hear it again today.
The Moldau is a tone poem, written in 1864. It is the second movement of a six-movement piece called Má Vlast, or, My Country. Bedrich Smetana (1824 - 84) was a nationalist composer, and he wrote music meant to commemorate the country he loved: in his case, Bohemia, or what has become the Czech Republic (I keep wondering if that country won't adopt its older, venerable name of Bohemia). Each of the six movements of Má Vlast stand as separate and complete tone poems. The Moldau commemorates the river that runs through the country and past Prague, the capital. It begins with high stings in the high mountains, where two streams, one hot and one cold, join to form the river, symbolized by a recurring and beautiful theme. The river wends past a hunting party, and a wedding, and you hear the horns of the hunters and the dances at the wedding. Night falls, and the river plunges into a gorge where, legend tells us, river nymphs bathe in moonlight amongst the waterfalls and mists. Dawn brings a return of the stately river theme—which soon dissolves into dissonance meant to symbolize St. John's Rapids. But the white water gives way to views of Prague and, with a stately hymn, the castle Vyšehrad, home of the Bohemian kings. From the castle walls, trumpets sound a glorious finish.
Here is a link to the inimitable Leopold Stokowski conducting the RCA Radio Symphony in a 2012 rerelease of The Moldau and other wondrous Stokowski recordings (this is the recording you want to hear! Stokowski grants the music dignity and glory [I should plan entire Stowkowsky weeks in which we listen to nothing but his astounding recordings]):
Hearing The Moldau today moved me to tears, which I don't think it has ever done before. I keep having this powerful reaction to hearing music again after such a long separation from it. It is almost as if I am in love with someone I have quarreled with, but I am desperate to put things right. When he comes out seeking the same thing, all I can do is cry in relief.
Something like that. I just wish we could stop quarreling, music and me, and get on with being happy and in love.
I created "And Again I Hear These Waters," the image above in 2006. It is based on Mandelbrot fractals. The title is from Wordsworth's poem Tintern Abbey (1798):
and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.