Bedřich Smetana, who would become one of his land’s most famous composers, was born in Litomyšl on March 2, 1824. At that time, the areas of Bohemia and Moravia were firmly under the control of the Habsburg Empire. This meant that the entire family spoke German rather than Czech, and Smetana would only learn proper Czech as an adult.
Smetana’s father, František was a brewer. His mother, Barbora, was František’s third wife. František already had eight children (of whom five survived to adulthood) by his previous marriages, and he and Barbora would have a total of eleven children, with Bedřich being František’s first son.
Six of Bedřich’s siblings would survive childhood. František arrived in Litomyšl the year prior to Bedřich’s birth, working for Count Valdštejn as a brewer. (Valdštejn, by the way, was the descendant of Albrecht Valdštejn, about whom more can be read on this site.)
Young Bedřich was exposed to music at an early age, as his father had a natural aptitude for it. In 1830, the six-year-old gave a public concert on piano to an enthusiastic audience. The following year, the family moved to Jindřichův Hradec, where Smetana studied the piano and violin, as well as composing short pieces of music.
In 1835, he was sent to study first in Jihlava, then in Německý Brod. In 1839, at the ripe old age of 15, he went to Prague to study under Josef Jungmann, one of the key figures in the Czech National Revival of the 19th century.
Although the school was a good one, Smetana encountered prejudice from his classmates, many of whom looked down upon him for his rural background. He began skipping class in favor of attending concerts and playing in a string quartet. Having encountered the works of Liszt when the famed composer visited Prague, Smetana set his heart on a career in music.
Unfortunately for him, František heard of his son’s truancy and took him out of the school and Prague itself. For a time, Smetana lived with an uncle in Nové Město; in 1840, he was sent to finish his schooling with his cousin Josef, who lived in Plzeň. He would spend the next three years there. He composed several pieces, mostly for a young woman named Kateřina Kolářová, in addition to playing the piano at a number of social events.
In 1843, with his schooling finished, Smetana needed a source of income. He could not depend on his father for support, as František was low on funds. František, originally opposed to the idea of his son pursuing a career in music, now agreed with Smetana’s goal. In August of that year, Smetana returned to Prague with no job prospects and little money.
His girlfriend Kateřina’s mother gave Smetana an introduction to Josef Proksch, head of the Prague Music Institute. In January of 1844, Proksch agreed to take on Smetana as a pupil; to make the situation even better, Kateřina was also studying at the Institute. Smetana also gained employment teaching piano to the children of Count Thun.
For more on Smetana, go to Part II of this series