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Chicago Daily News, November 19, 1931

Chicago audiences were first introduced to music from Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast by the Chicago Orchestra’s founder and first music director Theodore Thomas: Vltava in January 1894, Šárka in October 1895, and Vyšehrad in April 1896. Thomas and his successor Frederick Stock regularly included these three symphonic poems on their concerts, but it wasn’t until the Orchestra’s forty-first season that Stock programmed the complete cycle, for a special concert on November 18, 1931, honoring Chicago’s rich Czech heritage.

On November 15, Edward Moore, writing for the Chicago Tribune, happily reported that he was able to hear the work a few days before the performance. The headline read, “Records give preview of new musical event: Critic hears Smetana’s music, Má vlast, on phonographic disks.” Moore wrote that courtesy of Dr. J.E.S. Vojan, president of the Bohemian Arts Club of Chicago (which would sponsor the concert), “through the medium of disk and needle, I have been enabled to hear it in advance of the concert audience.”

Title page of the score to Šárka used by Thomas and Stock

Title page of the score to Vyšehrad used by Thomas and Stock

(The recording most likely was the one made by the Czech Philharmonic in 1929, under the baton of its chief conductor Václav Talich, who later taught Karel Ančerl and Charles Mackerras. This not only was the ensemble’s first commercial recording but also the first complete recording of Smetana’s cycle of tone poems. It was released on ten, twelve-inch 78 rpm discs—just under eighty minutes of music—by His Master’s Voice.)

“Through a course of years, Mr. Stock [along with Thomas before him] and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have made Vltava or the Moldau popular with Chicago audiences,” Moore continued. “They have played Vyšehrad a number of times, and Šárka less frequently. The other three are to come as a first performance next Wednesday.”

Following the November 18 concert, Eugene Stinson in the Daily News wrote, “Through these six works there sweeps the refreshing fragrance of a national spirit. Smetana was not merely the father of a national Bohemian music and the teacher of Dvořák. He was one of the first composers in any land to see the possibilities of such a music, founded on characteristic themes and breathing out the soul of a race.”

Title page of the score to Blaník used by Stock

Title page of the score to Tábor used by Stock

“History, legend, national songs, tonal description of nature, and a poetic imagination to transfigure them all, are in it,” added Moore in his review for the Tribune. “When one considers that Smetana wrote it under the most tragic infliction that may visit a musician, total deafness, it becomes not only one of the masterpieces of the world but the act of one of the world’s great heroes.”

“There is nothing to write but gratitude to the Chicago Bohemians and to Mr. Stock, whose combined efforts acquainted us with this lovely work,” concluded Herman Devries in the American. “What a lesson to the modern school of would-be musical alchemists with their abracadabra of gibberish and geometry, of dissonance and self-conscious abstruseness. Here is pure inspiration. Here is music that wells, untrammeled, from a source of inexhaustible creative talent. Here is melody, melody so simple, so tender, so touching; melody so poetic, so passionate, so spontaneous that one listens happily, without the need of indulgence, excuse, or partiality. But beneath all this simplicity, one hears and senses the mastermind of the great orchestral technician.”

Otto, Edward, and Henri Hyna

Devries also noted that several musicians in the Orchestra that evening were of Bohemian descent, including John Weicher (a member of the violin section from 1923 until 1969; he became concertmaster in 1937), Vaclav Jiskra (principal bass, 1908–1949), Rudolph Fiala (viola, 1922–1952), Joseph Houdek (bass, 1914–1944), and the Hyna brothers: Otto, Edward, and Henri, pictured at right. Natives of Bohemia, the Hyna brothers all served as members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s string section. Otto (1886–1951) was in the bass section from 1930 until 1950, Edward (1897–1958) served as a violinist from 1929 until 1943, and Henri (1901–1955) also was a violinist from 1928 until 1932.

The Orchestra next performed the complete cycle twenty years later on October 23 and 24, 1952, under the baton of fifth music director—and Czech native—Rafael Kubelík. On December 4 and 5 of that year, the work was recorded in Orchestra Hall by Mercury Records. Returning as a guest conductor, Kubelík led performances of the six symphonic poems on January 23 and 24, 1969, and again on October 27, 28, and 29, 1983.

At the Ravinia Festival, James Levine most recently led the work on June 27, 1987. Jakub Hrůša’s upcoming performances will mark the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s sixth traversal of Smetana’s cycle of symphonic poems.

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Boston Symphony Orchestra program from April 24 and 25, 1896

A footnote: Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Orchestra almost were able to claim the U.S. premiere performance of Vyšehrad, the first symphonic poem of Smetana’s Má vlast. However, Emil Paur and the Boston Symphony Orchestra literally were minutes ahead. Both orchestras had 2:30 p.m. matinees on Friday, April 24, 1896, but Boston’s concert was one hour earlier (railway time zones had been standardized in 1883). Also, Vyšehrad was the first work on Paur’s program, while Thomas had programmed the work to follow Tchaikovsky’s Marche slave and Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture and selections from The Damnation of Faust.

Boston also claimed the U.S. premiere of Šárka, performing it on January 25, 1895. Thomas led the first Chicago performance exactly nine months later on October 25.

Portions of this article accompany the program notes for the May 18, 19, and 20, 2017, performances. Special thanks to Bridget Carr, archivist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Program page image courtesy of HENRY, the Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives’s online performance history search engine.

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