Prague, Czech Republic – Flying from France to the Czech Republic a few years ago, I will always remember the striking custom of playing the famous Vltava (or “Moldau”) symphonic poem in the ear of passengers when landing at the airport Vaclav Havel from Prague.
Its sweet notes will remain intimately linked to the beautiful view of the famous bridges of Prague (Legii, Chech, Jirasek, Karluv…) marvelously delineated by the setting sun.
The second and most iconic part of Bedrich Smetana’s “Ma Vlast” (“My Homeland”) cycle of symphonic poems, “Vltava” has also spread and drawn its magic all over the world.
If “Ma Vlast” and especially “Vltava” were intended by Smetana to strengthen the patriotic feeling of the Czech nation and indeed became a cornerstone of the Czech cultural revival movement at the end of the 19th century, it may come as a surprise that the iconic Czech melody could come from the Italian Renaissance song “La Mantovana”.
According to some music historians, Smetana’s “Vltava” melody could have spread from “La Mantovana” to all parts of Europe, as evidenced by its striking resemblance to various other popular melodies: from the Swedish folk song “Ack Varmeland, du skona” to its Scottish counterpart “My Mistress is prettie”, from the Polish song “Pod Krakowem” to Flemish “Ik zag Cecilia komen”, from the Ukrainian “Katerina Koutchéryava” to the Slovenian children’s song “Čuk se je oženil”.
A “wandering tune” in the words of 20th-century musicologist Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, the exact origins of Smetana’s world-famous melody remain a matter of debate among scholars.
Somewhere between Romania and Moldavia, the melody was adopted by Jewish communities and served as the key inspiration for the Zionist movement’s anthem at its 1933 Congress, held in Prague, and later for “Hatikvah”. , the national anthem of the State of Israel. after its founding in 1948 – complete with the words of the poem “Tikvatenu” (“Our Hope”) by Naftali Herz Imber, a Ukrainian Jewish poet who lived in Romania.
The Moldovan’s extraordinary journey did not end here, and we can still feel her influence meandering through different parts of Europe to this day.
To take just one example, the melody was used in France by the Reverend Hector Arnéra for his 1970s hymn “O Take My Soul” sung among French Catholics and Reformed communities. This song was, among others, interpreted in 2020 by the famous French singer Kenji Girac. And in 2013, the French singer Luc Arbogast adapted “La Moldau” in a folk-medieval style.
This journey through time and space, and its universal appeal and enduring popularity, seem even more awe-inspiring given its original nation-building purpose against the backdrop of late 19th-century Bohemia. Intimately Czech, resolutely European, the “Vltava” of Smetana will undoubtedly continue its wonderful journey for generations to come.
By Jacques Bellezit