The Moldau: Composer & Themes

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

The Moldau is a symphonic poem from the larger work ~'Ma vlast~' by Bedrich Smetana. In this lesson we will learn about the composer and the musical themes.

A Wonderful Time to be Czech

It's 1874 and you are attending a concert of new symphonic music. After hearing pieces by the famous German composers, Brahms and Wagner, your curiosity is piqued by the next work on the program. It has a Czech title. The composer has a Czech name. As a Czech yourself, you're excited to hear music that is written by your people to celebrate your land. As the orchestra begins the opening bars of Má vlast, you are immensely proud of this new work. But what exactly is this new creation, and where did it come from?

Má vlast

Má vlast (My Country) was written by Bohemian composer Bedrich Smetana in 1874. It is a multi-movement symphonic poem, or music that tells a story or paints a picture. The Moldou is a movement found within the piece.

Bedrich Smetana
Portrait of Bedrich Smetana

In Má vlast, Smetana wanted to celebrate his Czech homeland by composing music that depicted the legends, stories, and landscapes of Bohemia. The Moldau (Vltava in Czech) is the second movement of Má vlast. The other movements are: Vyšehrad, a medieval castle overlooking the Moldau, Šárka, a legend about a warrior maiden, Z ceských luh a háj, about the fields and meadows of Bohemia, Tábor, a story of Hussite warriors, and Blanik, the mountain where the warriors sleep.

The Moldau (the German name, which is universally used) is the most popular of the movements and is frequently performed. It depicts the river Moldau, which begins as a two small springs in the Bohemian woods. These springs join and become a mighty river, flowing through the Czech countryside and into Prague. Each stage of the journey is depicted by Smetana with a musical motive that paints a vivid picture of the scene.

The Musical Themes

The opening of The Moldau is played on the flute and clarinet, representing the two different springs. They play rapid, rippling notes that are tossed back and forth, eventually landing in the lower string instruments. Thus the springs have combined and broadened into a stream. The violins then begin to play the main melody of The Moldau that represents the river itself.

Hunting horn
picture of hunting horn

The first scene the river flows past is a group of hunters. Smetana described it as, 'the merry sounds of a hunt and the notes of the hunter's horn.' To portray this musically, he uses the French horns and trumpets of the orchestra in a fanfare-type motive. Underneath the brass instruments the strings continue to play the rapid water-motive. The brass fanfare gradually subsides as the river passes by the hunting party.

The second scene is a peasant dance which Smetana calls a 'wedding feast.' Woodwinds and strings play a rustic staccato, or a folk-like melody. Staccato is an Italian word meaning 'detached.' The staccato melody has polka rhythms and a playful feel, appropriate for a wedding day.

Czech folk dancers
Photo of traditional Czech folk dancers

Next, the river passes a fairytale. It is night, and Smetana writes, 'wood and water nymphs revel in its sparkling waves.' This section of the piece is depicted beautifully with shimmering notes in the flutes, muted strings, and a harp. According to legend, in a particular gorge of the Moldau, nymphs would bathe under a full moon.

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